Millenial Media Moguls: Doing the convention circuit like a pro with Barabara Dunkelman
I love Cons.
Awesome Con, like all the rests, sparks fervor among it’s attendees like any other, to the point where it seemed as if most of the neighborhood had been taken over by costumed characters of every description.
Having been to so many I can say authoritatively, these types of cons are usually about 90% similar to each, which is something I enjoy, but awesome con turned up the awesome in a myriad of ways. Near the front of the convention center there two huge areas for gaming, one for table top and one with video games of all types set up for fans to enjoy. The show floor was as replete with comics and other memorabilia as any I’ve seen with some extra guests as well. Booths set up by NASA, National geographic and the CIA rubbed up against those giving out 5-hour energy bottles and trying to sign up guests to a Dungeon and Dragons themed bed and breakfast.
However a special highlight for me was that as part of my Awesome Con coverage I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with the ever effervescent Barbara Dunkelman of Rooster teeth productions. Rooster teeth is a web video and community website which boasts the longest running web series of all time: Red vs Blue. Started back in 2003 in founder Burnie Burns’s living room, over the last decade and a half Rooster teeth has grown into a behemoth of web video production with hundreds of employees working on tons of different projects across tons of genres.
An Ottawa native, Dunkelman moved to sunny Austin Texas back in 2011 to work as Rooster Teeth’s community manager and has since risen to be their Director of Social and Community marketing as well as on camera talent and voice actress a role which she’ll admit keeps her plenty busy “…but in a good way”. As one of the stars of one Rooster teeth’s biggest shows, an anime called RWBY, she travels across the country going to fan conventions such as Awesome Con as well as being involved in the planning for Rooster teeth’s own annual Con, RTX, which she believes is an integral part of building an online community, a topic which we discussed over the phone prior to the convention.
Nathaniel Finestone: Where do you see the role of conventions as part of your wider strategy of building an online fan base?
Barbara Dunkelman: I think doing the in person stuff and having our convention (RTX) is critical to growing an online fan base just because it’s those in person interactions that make our community so strong and the people making the show interacting with the people watching the show is what makes it so special. Meeting people and going to conventions is something we’re going to be doing for a very long time
NF: How many conventions do you personally go to per year?
BD: It varies but usually 1-2 per month so it’ll come out to between 12 and 30 a year depending.
NF: What do you find are the major differences between how certain conventions are run and how does that translate into what you are looking for when attending?
BD: Well obviously some are more specialized and will focus more on anime, or video games, others like Comicon are broader and for the ‘every fan’ if you will. Some are on the smaller side with only 2-5 thousand attendees which have a certain feel since those people go every year and know the people organizing it and those create very tight nit groups which we love participating in.
NF: So when Rooster teeth started it’s own convention back in 2011, was there a specific convention vibe or feeling they were looking to emulate?
BD: RTX started because of all the fan events that had been happening all over the world, I was involved in one up in Canada that’s been running since 2005. So they wanted to just have their own big fan meet up, the first one was only 600 people and has grown to be more inclusive of people who aren’t just Rooster teeth fans but people who are into video games and other Youtubers and people from across the industry and other community members but at its core it is still about fans of Rooster Teeth and people who love Rooster Teeth even if it’s more than just that.
NF: So if someone is just starting out with their production, whether it be video or something else do you think they should try and reach a critical mass first before branching out into the real world like Rooster Teeth did?
BD: There really is no mass you need before doing a meet up if you can get just a few fans together in a city, because those in person connections make people feel tied into your content and what you’re doing. It makes it that you aren’t just some person on the internet on a screen you’re an actual person with feelings and emotions and they connect to you much better that way.
NF: What was it that made you want to run that fan event back in 2005?
BD: There were a few different things, I had been a part of the community since 2004 and right away I felt like these people were better friends to me than my actual friends in real life. I spent more time interacting with them online than I did with my real friends in real life, bonding over this one shared interest: Rooster Teeth. That made it so when we did meet in real life for the first time it felt like I had known them my whole life already and that was a feeling I felt so passionate about and wanted to emulate at every other fan event I did going forward.
NF: When you started that fan event back in 2005 did you ever think this would turn into your career?
BD: Not once. I never thought of making it a career or any kind of job and that I’d have a normal job back in Canada and have this as a sort of passion project.
NF: How gradual was it between not thinking about it at all to Rooster teeth offering you a job and having it be your career? What steps came in between?
B: I can’t really point to one thing. I think because I was acting in a way which wasn’t with the intentions of getting a job I was just doing things out of my passion for Rooster and the community and when you’re doing something like that and not thinking; what can I get out of this? It shows real passion real love for something. Rooster teeth, particularly Matt and Burnie met with me and say that it was especially because I was always offering to help with anything they were working on and volunteer at conventions with them. I volunteered at Pax East in 2010 just to help sell merchandise at their booth, they didn’t pay me, I just wanted to help.
NF: Well that was very nice of you
BD: (laughs) Well it was because they trusted me because they knew me, they wouldn’t have just let anyone who offered do it. But doing stuff like that and being involved in the community, them knowing me and liking me were all things that helped them wanting to bring me down here fulltime.
NF: When was it you met Burnie Burns for the first time?
BD: I met Burnie and Gus for the first time in July of 2005 in Toronto, it was our first fan event they were nice enough to come to Toronto from Austin for this event.
NF: That’s quite a trip for then to make considering it was so early days?
BD: Very early, the company had been around for less than two years at that point. They (Burnie Burns and Gus Sarola) are just really nice guys, and we had been in touch over the site since the previous year.
NF: So as you were putting on these fan events and contributing to the community what else were you doing?
BD: Well I went to Concordia University and studied marketing with the intention of working in advertising or something of that sort.
NF: Do you feel like what you studied helped give you the skills you needed when you first started at Rooster Teeth?
BD: I think it was definitely helpful, social media and marketing are definitely very alike, it would be the same as with any other major company. I think I learned a lot over the course of those four years especially in regard to things like how to talk to audiences.
NF: Given that Rooster Teeth is a much larger organization now with around 300 employees, how does Rooster teeth go about maintaining the same company culture it’s always had?
BD: It’s definitely more challenging now since the company is so much bigger and has so many departments. Our audience has grown so much over the last 15 years it’s been harder to maintain that personal relationship but we always try to maintain social events where we can hang out with each other and be having fun together, maintaining that idea has helped maintain the authenticity around making what we want to make.
NF: Rooster Started as just one show, Red vs Blue, how many productions do they do now at any given time?
BD: A Ton. There are around 50-60 different shows we produce between the animation studios and live action stuff on sets. Our animators are always working on multiple shows and there’s always at least one broadcast show running, and there’s always writing and other producing happening. There’s always at least 2 things shooting at a time.