Disclosure: Though I have no relationship or connection with this story, I am a long-time fan of James Rolfe and his work.
James Rolfe is one of the most famous YouTubers working today. Best known for his character the Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN) Rolfe has enjoyed over 17 years of success on YouTube spread across multiple shows.
One of those series, Monster Madness, has been a long-running October tradition in our house. Though the series has taken different formats over the years, it has typically featured a series of horror movie reviews over the course of the month. Sometimes once per day, though more recently on a slower schedule.
However, this year was supposed to be a return to old form. According to a video announcement, Rolfe was planning going back to one review every day for 31 days, with the theme of “Around the World” in horror movies.
Unfortunately, the new Monster Madness got off to a rocky start. Shortly after the first video, a review of the UK film 28 Days Later, was published, users began to notice similarities between it and a 2003 article by Dr. Cecilia Sayad for the magazine Film Comment.
Almost immediately, the video was taken down and replaced with a statement from Justin Silverman, the producer for Rolfe’s Cinemassacre.
Shortly after that, Silverman released a second statement with additional details and a promise to rewrite and re-edit the video in question.
Yesterday, Rolfe himse3lf took to YouTube to explain the situation and offer an apology for the issue.
But all this raises some interesting questions: How is that a successful YouTuber, with more than 17 years of history, suddenly face allegations of plagiarism?
The answer actually delves into other controversies the channel has faced in recent years and growing fan discontent about changes behind the scenes.
According to both Silverman and Rolfe, what happened is fairly straightforward. The author of that particular script, made a mistake.
According to Silverman, the script itself had been in the works for nearly a decade and, whoever was tasked with finishing it up, either committed plagiarism themselves when writing it or incorporated old notes that were in it. (Note: This is a good reminder to always write in a cleanroom environment) Though Rolfe read the script in the video, he was completely unaware that significant portions of it were plagiarized.
When they found out that the video was plagiarized, they took it down immediately with plans to rewrite and reupload it at a later date. Neither Boyle nor Film Comment magazine have said anything on the issue.
To that end, it’s a pretty simple story. A video was uploaded, discovered to be plagiarized and was quickly removed by the creator, who issued an apology and explanation.
However, that isn’t all there is to the story. The reason is that the case actually stokes ongoing qualms many fans have had about the direction of Rolfe’s work in recent years. To understand why, we have to take you back to the past.
Humble Beginnings, Modern Controversies.
When Rolfe launched the AVGN character, it was very much a solo operation. He would write, shoot, edit and publish the videos himself. Though he would sometimes have the aid of friends, some of whom would go on to be familiar faces on the channel, it was still mostly just him.
That was true for most of Rolfe’s YouTube career. Though he had partnerships with third parties, such as GameTrailers and ScrewAttack, those were more distribution deals. Rolfe was still largely in charge of making the videos themselves.
However, according to many fans that began to change in 2015 when Cinemassacre joined with Screenwave Media, a multichannel network (MCN).
Different MCNs provide different services but, in general, they help YouTubers, in particular large ones, manage their presence on the site. This includes dealing with ContentID issues, finding sponsors, assisting in reaching new audiences and even help with production and writing.
With Screenwave, their presence has been felt on Rolfe’s work both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Rolfe, who has repeatedly expressed frustration with trying to balance his family life and his video career, says that Screenwave has provided a great deal of help to make his videos possible.
But, as happy as Rolfe has been with Screenwave’s presence, the fans have not as enamored. Even the AVGN Wiki says that Screenwave has turned Cinemassacre into “an unfunny and cold state.”
That bitterness against Screenwave is a major factor in the fan’s response to the plagiarism story. Many, in particular older fans, see it as just another example of how the MCN has “ruined” Cinemassacre.
While it’s easy to write that off as fans resisting change, it’s much more difficult to argue with the very clear plagiarism. If Screenwave was responsible for it, then it will need to answer for it.
The Big Problem
Rolfe’s position is more than understandable. His channel has grown from an early 2000s hobby into his livelihood today. He’s also gotten married and had children. His channel and his work were going to change, and it is only natural some of that change would be to seek outside help to better balance his life.
However, when Rolfe publishes a video and reads a script, the viewers aren’t seeing a team of writers, editors and producers. They see and hear Rolfe. Some of that is because of his humble beginnings but much of it is human nature.
When people read a novel “by” a celebrity most don’t see the ghostwriter, the editors or others that were involved. This is true across all media, when your name is in lights, the people behind the scenes are often forgotten about, regardless of how much work they did.
While this is often unfair to those that put in so much work for so little credit, it can also bite the celebrity. When someone working under their name does something ethical or the quality of the content drops, it’s the celebrity who takes the blame.
To that end, everything that Rolfe did physically in response to the plagiarism is pretty good. He took the video down quickly, issued multiple statements and is promising to address the issue.
However, this doesn’t resolve the bigger problem: Rolfe needs to understand that it is he and he alone that will bear the brunt of any ethical missteps by his team. This means that he needs to get in front of plagiarism, fabrication and other issues by checking the work the best he can.
To be clear, this doesn’t have to be done by him personally, but someone should have the job of plagiarism and fact-checking the videos. Even a cursory plagiarism check would have likely caught this issue.
For Rolfe, the question shouldn’t be “What are we doing to fix this issue?” but “What are we doing to prevent this issue in the future?”
One thing that would go a long way to helping this is providing credits on all films. Currently, the Monster Madness videos, for example, have no credits at all. This leaves the viewer to assume that Rolfe did all the work himself as he’s the only one associated with the video.
Addressing that might prevent him from carrying the weight of plagiarism fully on his shoulders.
This is the first such misstep in Rolfe’s career that I’m aware of. Between that fact and the tactful way he’s handling it, it’s not likely to be a major mark on his career moving forward.
However, the question has to be raised: How do we prevent this from happening in the future?
Some good initial steps would be adding plagiarism and fact checks to the writing/editing process and adding proper credits to all videos. But if these issues continue, it may require a reevaluation of the relationship between Rolfe and Screenwave.
Though Screenwave has been a favorite target of fans for some time, there’s a big difference between not liking a new direction in the content and plagiarism. This is a serious issue and Rolfe really can’t afford for it to be a recurring one.
Here’s hoping that, whatever approach they take, this is the last of Rolfe’s videos to have this issue.