Lucas Cruikshank, better known as Fred Figglehorn to millions of YouTube viewers, is making “Fred: The Movie.”
CHATSWORTH, Calif. — It was a chilly day in this Los Angeles suburb, not the greatest weather for digging a hole, but Lucas Cruikshank had a movie to make. So he gamely picked up a shovel, stepped in front of the camera and broke into the caterwaul that has become catnip to millions of YouTube viewers.
YouTube Channel: Fred
Mr. Cruikshank, a 16-year-old from rural Nebraska, created the character — a tantrum-throwing 6-year-old named Fred Figglehorn whose voice is sped up to “chipmunk” levels— about four years ago. Since then, Fred has become a Web phenomenon, with some of Mr. Cruikshank’s YouTube videos generating more than 10 million hits. Over all his channel, youtube.com/user/Fred, has logged nearly 70 million views since 2005.
But can Fred carry a feature film?
Hollywood in recent years has raced to mine the Internet for raw talent capable of crossing over to traditional platforms like movies and television, the places where the real money is still made. Those efforts have largely failed. Another pair of YouTube sensations, Ryan Higa and Sean Fujiyoshi, tried with “Ryan and Sean’s Not So Excellent Adventure” last year, for instance, but it never took off. What works on the Web — rough-edged intimacy, quick bites — just doesn’t seem to translate onto bigger screens.
But the director-producer Brian Robbins (“Norbit,” “Varsity Blues”), United Talent Agency and a management company called the Collective are giving it a go with Mr. Cruikshank. “Fred: The Movie,” written by David A. Goodman, an executive producer of “Family Guy,” started filming in November for a 2010 release. Pixie Lott, a budding British singer and actress, is the co-star.
Mr. Robbins, whose television production credits include “Smallville,” and the Collective are financing the project with a budget in the low seven figures. Distribution plans are still unclear, but Jeremy Zimmer, a United Talent founding partner, said the agency would pursue a theatrical release or possibly a pay-per-view option.
The team has high expectations. “Given Fred’s audience on YouTube, could this be bigger than a heavyweight fight on pay-per-view? I think so,” Mr. Robbins said. Mr. Zimmer added, “It’s a kids’ comedy with a ton of presold value. Plus, Lucas will be able to pump the audience through YouTube.”
Most amateur entertainers on the Web, even very successful ones, are one-trick ponies: here I am showing how to apply eye shadow; here is my impersonation of Grandpa without his dentures.
But Mr. Cruikshank has developed an entire world. In his videos Fred talks about his crush, Judy, and a bully named Kevin. The character has an alcoholic mother and a father in prison.
“It felt like there was enough story there to make a movie,” Mr. Goodman said. “There’s a point of view.”
Taking a break from filming, Mr. Cruikshank said he did not model the character on anyone in particular and doesn’t give a whole lot of thought to the process. He said it took him and his siblings about 30 minutes to make one of the two-minute videos, which he watches once and forgets.
“I just took how kids act in that age group and exaggerated it by 100 percent,” he said.
Fred’s high-pitched voice and his higher-pitched antics strike a lot of adults as fingernails on a chalkboard, but children fall on the floor laughing. Mr. Robbins said that his young sons and their friends helped convince him there was film potential in the character, which also scored high with potential audiences in research testing.
“If you’re an adult, you’re a little put off at first — what is this?” said Gary Binkow, the chief executive of the Collective’s Salient Media division. “But once you start watching, you realize it’s hilarious.”
Mr. Cruikshank shrugged. “He’s an acquired taste, I guess,” he said. “Like sushi.”
Giving the project more credibility than similar attempts to translate Web characters to the big screen is Mr. Cruikshank’s growing celebrity. “It’s Hackin’ Christmas With Fred,” a new collection of Christmas songs, has been a strong seller on iTunes, and specialty retailers have been quick to stock a line of Fred merchandise: T-shirts, backpacks, stickers.
Mr. Cruikshank has also appeared on the hit Nickelodeon series “iCarly” and last year signed a deal with Walden Media to promote the movie “City of Ember.” He got media exposure for the agreement, which involved discussing the movie in a video. Still, it didn’t do much to help the film, which despite featuring Tim Robbins and Bill Murray accrued just $7.9 million in ticket sales.)
“Fred: The Movie” follows the character as he tries to track down Judy. Along the way he digs a hole from his backyard to hers, fantasizes about an invisibility suit, gets lost in some woods, becomes buried in sand and, when he finally does find Judy, vomits on her.
Standing back inside the hole and covered in dirt, Mr. Cruikshank was interrupted by Clay Weiner, the director. “Why don’t you try crying a little harder?” he suggested.
With the cameras rolling, Mr. Cruikshank started to sob as he dug and shrieked his line: “It’s just getting too hard! But I’ve got to do it — for Judy.”
Mr. Weiner nodded his head approvingly, and the crew, watching on monitors, erupted with laughter.