In generations past, the most notable facet of Felicia Day’s developing Hollywood résumé might have been her role as Vi in the popular television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or perhaps her supporting lead as Penelope in the 2004 movie “Bring It On Again.”
But Day, 34, came of age alongside personal computers. One of her earliest memories is of the heavy “luggable” Compaq Portable PC, which hit the market in 1983 and which Day, while delivering the keynote at the recent Wharton Web Conference, generously called a laptop. She visibly lit up when she spoke of first encountering CompuServe and Prodigy, two of the Internet’s earliest service providers.
[Editor's note: Following her keynote talk at the Wharton Web Conference, Day sat down with Knowledge@Wharton for an exclusive interview.]
Among Day’s youthful obsessions was the fantasy role-playing game “Ultima.” She joined a Prodigy-based fan club, the Ultima Dragons, and wrote fan fiction — including sonnets and haikus — about the world of the video game.
Day, whose father’s training as a doctor in the military made home-schooling the best option for her and her brother, graduated from high school at 16 and accepted a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin for violin performance. (She also had been accepted to the Juilliard School of Music. Throughout college, she played in the Austin Symphony.) The girl who used to try to impress her nuclear-physicist grandfather by learning new math problems went on to double-major in mathematics and music performance.
“['The Guild'] was a phenomenon that beat every gatekeeper in traditional television … and, I hope, helped pave the way for a lot of other web series creators — or creators of anything — to ignore the middleman.”
Having begun acting at eight, when she played Scout in a local production of To Kill a Mockingbird, Day decided upon her graduation to move to Los Angeles. It took her two years to get an agent, but with a steady stream of roles in commercials, on television shows and in independent films, Day was making a good living. Yet, as she told the Wharton audience, she felt unfulfilled creatively.
In her free time, however, she had returned to video games, and to one in particular: “World of Warcraft,” which for nearly two years she would play for eight hours a day.
And so perhaps it’s fitting that Day can attach much of her fame — which, as it happens, she can measure as including more than two million followers on Twitter and nearly one million on Facebook — to having written, starred in and produced a web series, “The Guild,” that was loosely inspired by her life as a gamer.
In the summer of 2007, she uploaded to YouTube the first episode, a self-funded effort made with a few hundred dollars. By the third episode, “The Guild” was featured on the burgeoning site’s front page. Thanks to Day’s tireless self-promotion — she emailed as many gaming fans as she could find online, and she has always been vigilant about engaging with her own fans, both directly and through social media — the series, the rights to which she has retained, ran for six seasons. It has attracted more than 300 million hits across platforms including Xbox (which for a time funded the production), Hulu, Netflix (“The Guild” was its first web series), iTunes, Amazon and, internationally, on DVD. It’s been translated into nine languages. The fan base has filled a 3,000-seat room at San Diego Comic-Con. Lines to meet cast members required three-hour waits. The show even inspired its own popular comic book series with Dark Horse Comics.
“It was a phenomenon that beat every gatekeeper in traditional television,” Day said, “and, I hope, helped pave the way for a lot of other web series creators — or creators of anything — to ignore the middleman.”
Leaving Hollywood Behind
As “The Guild” expanded in popularity, Day, who played love interest Penny in Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking web miniseries, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” continued to audition for roles and to make appearances as a guest star. “A couple of years into it,” Day said, “things started to turn really good for me. Because I decided to leave Hollywood behind, Hollywood kind of came to me.”
Her work on “The Guild” was well received by colleagues, and she credits it with having led to roles written for her on the Syfy series “Eureka” and The CW series “Supernatural.”
“The Guild” so deftly appealed to its fan base, in fact, that it reached merchandising deals with companies on items including costumes, maquettes and board games. And when Day came to a point at which her creation seemed to have run its course, she found another way to keep those fans engaged: She spawned her own network.
“Hollywood is a business. When they see money, they will be there, and they will take over. In a way, they will move their infrastructure onto digital.”
“Geek & Sundry” was one of YouTube’s first 100 premium channels. Since its April 2012 launch, it has posted more than 750 videos. More than 600,000 people have subscribed. Day launched the network, which has an evolving array of programming and recently added a vlog (video blog) channel, to be “an umbrella” for fans of “The Guild,” she said, “so that there would be an evergreen place where they could create communities around videos. That’s what I see that video really does online that it does not do on TV and movies — it creates communities.”
A member of the audience at the Wharton Web Conference asked her to estimate when the web will be “a full-fledged medium.”
“I think that the tipping point,” Day replied, “is right now.” She cited the success of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” whose first season garnered nine Emmy nominations. “And the cool thing is that all these other avenues are already open,” she said. “[Hollywood] can’t close the door on YouTube. They can’t corral people making video and uploading it to the Internet. So it really is a struggle for how they can maintain their sense of what TV is and not have to dilute it in order to get ratings.”
Earlier this year, Jenna Marbles (her real surname is Mourey), a 26-year-old blogger and YouTube star whose channel has more than 10 million subscribers, was interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Her weekly posts consistently attract about two million views; her breakout video, “How to trick people into thinking you’re good looking,” has been seen more than 53 million times.
Day noted the online backlash that followed Marbles’ TV appearance. She marveled at how the GMA interviewers “could be so condescending to literally a superstar who’s beating network TV and still is not being given credence in the traditional media. It’s a disconnect that is slowly starting to close because money is being made, and that’s where [Hollywood is] going to move in.
“Hollywood is a business,” Day added. “When they see money, they will be there, and they will take over. In a way, they will move their infrastructure onto digital.”
And though she takes pride in having found success by following her passion, Day doesn’t mind Hollywood’s encroachment. The influx of even relatively modest funding, she noted, can sustain most people’s standards of living. “In this world where your audience is one click away,” Day said, “there’s no excuse for not [following your passion], whether it’s your full-time job or just a hobby.”