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Smosh's 'Ghostmates' is dead serious about storytelling

In a new movie, YouTube megastars Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla tackle the real-life issue of living with roommates. In this case, though, one of them isn't exactly alive.

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When Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox tackled their second movie, the Smosh co-founders decided to write what they know. Sorta.

Paranormal buddy-comedy "Ghostmates" follows Padilla's character as he moves into an apartment already inhabited by the restless spirit of Hecox's character -- a ghost roommate. But the digital comedy duo, who have been friends since sixth grade and the leaders of Smosh for 11 years, used to be roommates too. (Important note: In real life, Hecox is not quite dead yet.)

Smosh, with nearly 22.5 million subscribers to its YouTube channel, is among the upper ranks of so-called "YouTube stars," digital-first entertainers who build up mass audiences starting with videos shared online. The rise of the online star has redefined Hollywood preconceptions, from what constitutes "professional" content to who to consider "real" celebrities.

Google's YouTube produced "Ghostmates" for its $10-a-month Red subscription service, but it isn't Smosh's first foray into a full-length feature. Their first film, aptly titled "Smosh: The Movie," followed Hecox and Padilla as they dove into the figurative recesses of YouTube to remove an embarrassing video.

CNET spoke to Padilla and Hecox about the film, shooting with rapper T-Pain, and the evolution of Smosh and digital video. The following is an edited Q&A.

Q: How does "Ghostmates" fit into the arc of Smosh?
Hecox: We wanted to tell a story first and foremost. Once we had the story and the drama all figured out, then we went and tried to turn it into a comedy.

ghostmates-keyart-smosh.jpg

Smosh's second full-length movie, "Ghostmates," is available on YouTube for subscribers of its Red service.

Defy

Padilla: Which is totally different for us. Usually we're writing with comedy first and foremost. When we're writing sketches, usually we're like, "Here are jokes, here are jokes."

Hecox: With the first [movie], we wanted to tell jokes. And I think we did that. This one we wanted to tell a story.

Why was this the story you really loved?
Hecox: The funny part is it wasn't originally the story that we had first thought of. We wanted to make a movie that made fun of paranormal investigators. But weren't that happy with it, so we went back to the drawing board.

Padilla: We wanted to change it to something that had a lot of heart.

What kinds of paths do you hope this movie opens for Smosh?
Hecox: We're really excited to work with YouTube, because they gave us pretty much complete creative control. When we sent them the first draft, they literally had two notes, which, for a studio, is unheard of.

What were the notes?
Padilla: They wanted a happier ending. I don't want to spoil it, but there's an extended little ending after some credits.

What was it like working with T-Pain, who plays himself in the movie?
Hecox: Probably a year before we started working on the movie, his manager ... reached out to us and said, "Hey, if you guys ever want T-Pain in a video, let us know. He's willing to get weird."

Padilla: We're like, "Who would be the best most perfect fit for this role? T-Pain." He brought so much more than we ever could have imagined. We had him up on a harness. He was a total champ.

You've brought other talent into the Smosh fold permanently. What has it been like finding people to be part of Smosh? For a long time, Smosh was so closely identified with just the two of you.
Hecox: For many years we wanted to expand Smosh beyond just Anthony and I so that we could focus on producing or writing. That's only possible with the help of other people, so we wanted to expand the cast, kind of like "Saturday Night Live."

Padilla: It was an opportunity for us to make more and more content without having to break our backs doing more and more stuff. We reached our capacity of the amount of things that we could be in and write, and have it actually still be good.

How have you seen digital-first entertainment, like Smosh, change in status over the years?
Padilla: When we first got started there was no money at all. In fact, we didn't make a single dime for well over a year. And no one respected anything that we did, from the professional's standpoint. Now it's a really interesting time, because people are starting to really respect it. People are starting to do web shows that are just as highly produced as TV. It's not like, "Here's where the real stars are, and here's some other stuff for kids."