Awesomeness Films gets serious about movies

Bella Thorne stars as Kate in "Shovel Buddies."
Source: Awesomeness Films
Bella Thorne stars as Kate in "Shovel Buddies."

Awesomeness Films is known for making movies starring today's digital influencers, like comedy "Smosh: The Movie" and the Tyler Oakley documentary "Snervous." Its latest film may be its most ambitious yet.

"Shovel Buddies" is a dramedy that revolves around four teenagers who, over the course of 24 hours, help fulfill the dying wish of their best friend to bury him with his favorite football jersey. It debuted Monday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

"It's really a wonderful film, and darker than most of our movies," Awesomeness Films president Matt Kaplan said. "We do teen movies, but that doesn't mean we're getting away from serious subject matter."

It's not just the serious tone of the film. "Shovel Buddies" seems to have a bit more weight to it than previous releases. Its script was on the 2013 Black List, the annual compilation selected by film executives of top sceenplays that haven't been made into movies. Other scripts on the list that year included the ones for the films including "American Sniper," "Spotlight" and "Cake."

"I think we really focus on two types of films: One that is specialized, and one that elevated for the young adult demo that isn't being served by the (traditional) young adult studios," said Kaplan, who previously was the senior vice president of development and production at Lionsgate.

Awesomeness Films is a division of AwesomenessTV, a joint venture between DreamWorks Animation and the Hearst Corp. It started out as a digital production company that made mostly YouTube content, but has since branched out into meatier projects like movies, both online and in theaters.

Kaplan said there is a void right now in films for teens. While studios are focused on making blockbusters that will pull in millions, there isn't a space for more independent-style movies for the young adult demographic. Classics like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" would never be made today, he said. He's hoping Awesomeness Films can deliver those kind of films that will speak to today's youth and generations to come. And, he feels "Shovel Buddies" could be a mainstream teen hit.

"It could be a movie that could premiere on Netflix, or it could be a theatrical wide release on 3,000 screens," Kaplan said. Ultimately, we want it to be seen as wide as possible."

Kian Lawley (left) in "Shovel Buddies." Photo courtesy of Awesomeness Films.

"Shovel Buddies" stars Bella Thorne, the former Disney star who is transitioning her way into movies.

"This girl is really broken. … Everything about the character is different (from what I've previously done)," she said. "Besides the fact that she is moody, I would say that the character is made out to be a slut in the film. But she's not slutty, she is really hurting and upset and confused. Sometimes that happens to girls, so they use their bodies."

Thorne said working with Awesomeness was a unique experience because they valued her opinions. She pointed out that they had sit down meetings with her to talk about the script and what she liked about it. Other places she has worked at haven't been so flexible.

"A lot of teenagers are misconstrued in films because you have a bunch of 50-year-olds writing about a teenager falling in love," she said. "That's a big gap of time (from when they were a teen). It's not the same as before. Awesomeness is great, because they know I am a teenager, and I know what my fans will respond to."

The movie will also tap into Awesomeness' staple of teen influencers, including Kian Lawley, who has more than 6 million followers on YouTube and Instagram. He took the role because though he does mostly comedic work on YouTube, he wanted to branch out into drama.

"As someone who started in the digital background, it's an easier, better, faster platform to bounce off of," Lawley said. "You already have so much momentum, and you already have the experience. You're already comfortable being in front of the camera."

He pointed out that his huge following helped him secure a leading role despite being a newer actor.

"Social media stars are kind of taking the traditional route, like movies," he said. "I just saw someone got announced as a series regular on Disney. I think it's becoming blurred (whether you're a digital or traditional actor)."