Troy Had A Company

by Arthur B

The creators of Marble Hornets have gone their separate ways. Here's how it happened.
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This is the third of an inadvertent series of articles. The first one described how Marble Hornets had formed the nucleus of an intriguing YouTube microgenre. The second discussed how, as their various imitators ran the whole Slender Man thing into the ground, the brains behind Marble Hornets - Troy Wagner, Joseph DeLage and Tim Sutton - had stepped up the professionalism stakes by running a Kickstarter for a home media compilation of Marble Hornets, as well as a Patreon for supporting future endeavours by their new production company, THAC (the name being an acronym for Troy Has A Camera, the YouTube account where the trio posted their more light-hearted non-Marble Hornets work).

The decline and fall of THAC is a somewhat convoluted story, and to a certain extent this article is going to boil down to a summary of egregious Internet drama. This isn't the sort of thing we usually put up here, but in this case I think it's justified. First off, having told the beginning and middle of the story, I think it's genuinely worth telling the end of it, particularly since it's a classic example of how going into business with your friends and trying to monetise your hobbies can backfire catastrophically.

Secondly, Troy is still soliciting money for THAC projects via Patreon, and since some of the story involves a certain amount of unethical behaviour surrounding money - genuinely unethical behaviour, not "ethics" in the GamerGate sense of "Succeeding Whilst Female" or "Aiding And Abetting a Woman" - I think it is important for potential backers to be able to read a summary of what has gone down here so they can make an informed decision as to whether or not to back Troy's activities. This is particularly the case because a lot of the information here is spread amongst a bunch of forum posts, and also needs a certain amount of context to properly understand, so I think there is genuine value in collating all of this information into a single article.

This article will consist partly of summarising information provided by the main players in this drama via posts on THAC's official forum, and partly on notes on how the audience for their work had reacted to recent developments and changes in THAC and its work. Inevitably, the incidents detailed here had a knock-on effect on THAC's output, and much of the fanbase seemed to notice that something was up long before we got any insight into what was going on - and at the same time, the negative critical reaction to some of THAC's new work seems to have fed into some of the decisions made by Troy and the others.

This is, in short, a "fan's eye view" of what all this looked like from the outside, coupled with new insights into what was going on that THAC's various members have provided since then. If you've got questions about any of this stuff, be aware that I may well not have any answers, and you may be better off asking Troy or the others via the THAC forums or their public-facing social media presence. In the event that any of the people involved in this story have objections to this article or want to seek corrections or provide a counterpoint, I would be happy to discuss that with them - e-mail me at editor at ferretbrain dot com - although I should say in advance that I will be trying to reach out to the others to fact-check any correction or clarification offered because I'm not up for turning this article into a mouthpiece for one side or another.

When we left off last time, THAC was riding high. They'd just wrapped up a very successful Kickstarter, which had not only funded the release of products which could provide them with a long tail of income from post-Kickstarter sales but also gave them a leg up on funding their next major series. Their Patreon also gave them a source of monthly income, and the popularity of Marble Hornets not only helped get them YouTube advertising revenue from that channel but also helped nudge people in the direction of the main THAC channel. Things seemed to be looking up all round.

As Troy would explain later, THAC LLC had originally been set up as a business as part of the process of producing an earlier round of Marble Hornets DVDs. Now the trio were looking to turn it into full-time jobs for all of them. When the company was originally formed Troy had been the sole owner. The intent was that ownership would later be split more equally between Troy, Joseph, and Tim, but they never got around to doing that - nonetheless, Troy himself has admitted that the intention was that Joseph and Tim would be equal partners with him and decisions would be made on a majority basis. This would become a point of contention later on.

Once Marble Hornets finished in June 2014, THAC's visible activities consisted of attending conventions, providing the Kickstarter rewards and putting out lighter material on the THAC channel; presumably, they were also laying out plans for their next horror series, which was billed as being not so much a direct sequel to Marble Hornets but set in the same universe and dropping the Slender Man imagery in favour of doing something new. This was all more or less in keeping with fan expectations. (Some would have preferred it if Slender Man - or "The Operator", as his particular equivalent in Marble Hornets was referred to - had been a major feature of the new series, but I'm one of those who thought that the whole Slender business was played out by this point and that doing something novel would help keep them distinguished from the crowd of people turfing out Marble Hornets-inspired video series of varying levels of quality.)

The first visible sign of changes within THAC was the addition of Noah to the team towards the end of 2014. As Troy explains it, Noah was originally hired on the strength of his background in animation, but soon ended up in an expanded role, appearing prominently alongside the other team members in videos and podcasts. His presence proved to be divisive as far as the audience was concerned. Some people warmed to him and liked his contributions; others resented his inclusion. A recurring complaint was that the onscreen chemistry which had previously existed between Troy, Tim and Joseph was thrown off-balance by the sudden inclusion of Noah, to the overall detriment of the material produced. Even more moderate voices, and a few of those who actually liked Noah, seemed to think that his arrival was badly handled; to have him suddenly pop up and be presented like a fully equal member of the gang from out of nowhere was jarring, and in retrospect it may have been better if he had been introduced to the audience more gradually and became more prominent if and when he won them over rather than being thrown out there abruptly.

If a segment of the fanbase had decided that Noah was the Poochie to the core trio's Itchy & Scratchy, behind closed doors his arrival actually caused more trouble. A serious personality clash grew within THAC's ranks, as Joseph and Tim did not get on with Noah and told Troy several times that they did not think he was a good fit in the group. This became a major point of resentment when, after getting to know Noah better as THAC attended a particular convention, Troy decided that Noah needed to be given more of a chance and said he didn't want to fire him - unfortunate timing, considering that after the selfsame convention Joseph and Tim came to Troy and told him that enough was enough and it was high time to drop Noah altogether. In the ensuing argument, Troy overruled the others by playing the "I'm the sole owner" card, shattering the existing understanding that decisions would be made by Joseph, Tim and Troy on a majority basis.

Predictably, the presence of Noah exacerbated one of the other fault lines at work - namely, the money. With an extra person onboard, the income from Patreon, merchandise sales and YouTube advertising had to be spread more thinly - and of course, since Marble Hornets had wrapped up about half a year before Noah even came on the scene, the monthly viewing figures inevitably took a bit of a dip, contracting the YouTube money further.

It got worse when Troy was looking to move home with his wife and newborn child; money is usually tight in such a situation, but here things got particularly tricky because, since he was sole owner of THAC and it was his day job, Troy was effectively self-employed, and was consequently assessed on that basis when it came to potential landlords looking at his income and setting deposit requirements. Becoming increasingly desperate, Troy eventually committed a cardinal sin of business - he used the company account to cover personal bills.

Specifically, he used THAC money to cover his deposit, rationalising it to himself as a loan he would pay back over time. This backfired when later on the gang were discussing reapportioning duties within the company, and Troy realised that for Joseph to take on the jobs he had volunteered for he'd need access to the accounts - and would then see what had happened. Troy confessed what he had done and the others forgave him - which is more generous than I would have been, seeing how on the basis of his own account he only confessed when it became clear he would get caught - but it must have been another knock to the trust that had existed between all parties.

With such tensions behind the scenes, you might expect the on-camera product to suffer, and you would be right. The main THAC account hosted less and less original short films and more in the way of Let's Play videos and recorded Dungeons & Dragons sessions - the sort of content that gets shovelled onto YouTube or Twitch in astonishing quantities because it's easy to just record everything and toss it out there with minimal editing. In short, the channel veered away from producing material which its creators genuinely believed in and had affection for, but slipped into churning out the dreaded #content - the grist of clickbait mills and cheap and easy pageviews compulsively spewed forth onto web 2.0 by those trapped in its coils. Providing a regular supply of content for your audience is good, but subjecting them to #content rather than something genuinely nourishing to their appetites and fulfilling for your creative impulses doesn't exactly help you stand up from the crowd - you end up losing your identity for the sake of building up your #brand.

To an extent, this was a trap that THAC had walked into themselves. As part of the terms of their Patreon, they had committed to producing at least one video per week - so quick and easy #content may have been the only way to accomplish that. They could, of course, have simply revised their Patreon and state that going forward they would not be following the one-per-week schedule - but whilst this is possible, it obviously comes with a risk of people cancelling their pledges because they decide it isn't worth it any more, and with cashflow already a point of great sensitivity I can see why they would be reluctant to do anything that could disrupt that.

More ominously, the sequel series to Marble Hornets also seemed to suffer. Clear Lakes 44 is difficult to summarise, not least because the series didn't seem to have a strong idea of what it was or which direction it wanted to go in. As it turned out, there were extensive behind-the-scenes creative differences about what the series should be and how it should unfold, a revelation I found utterly unsurprising given how incoherent Clear Lakes 44 actually was.

Episodes tended to be released very irregularly, and were extremely light on content and context compared to Marble Hornets. Given that the episodes were called "broadcasts" and the occasional use in early episodes of motifs reminiscent of a public access television station, and given that the cameras seemed to have some diegetic existence within the story, the idea seemed to be that we were watching some sort of pirate transmission of surveillance footage obtained from cameras which the characters would sometimes seem to be aware of and sometimes not - including cameras which, contextually, appeared to be implanted inside people or are only sometimes visible or something.

What exactly these cameras were catching… well, that's harder to explain. There's a person referred to in the video titles as Walker who's all messed up, face made of television static, on the run, eating stolen canned food to survive, displaying some of the teleportation powers that some characters in Marble Hornets displayed, and apparently aware of the cameras. There's also a guy referred to in the video titles as Birdwatcher (played by Noah) who seems to be undertaking some sort of investigation which involves him sat at home staring out of his window, and is regularly tormented by strange attacks from mysterious forces which don't seem to have much of a long-lasting effect, but he's writing those off as a psychiatric phenomenon.

And... well... that's about all we got over 13 episodes, spread out over the space of 6 months and running to around 27 minutes in total. Regardless of whatever metric you use - running time, number of episodes, or total material released in the first 6 months of the series' lifespan, Marble Hornets had delivered far, far more than this even in its rudimentary first season. If you go by the metric of real time elapsed between the start of Clear Lakes 44 and the latest episode released, then most of the first season of Marble Hornets came out in that space of time. If you go by number of videos or running time you end up more or less in the middle of season 1 of Marble Hornets - after totheark shows up, but before the interview with Tim. Either way, you end up with a massive amount of additional information, characterisation, and plot development in a similar span of time.

Now, a sparse, avant-garde horror story can work, even in a very minimalist style, but even if we don't have a single thing explicitly explained to us, there needs to be something we can intuitively grasp onto to get a handle on what is going on. And it's not like they were presenting Clear Lakes 44 to an audience with no attention span whatsoever - if anything, those who had watched Marble Hornets unfold were used to a slow burn, episodes which didn't seem to be especially important when they first came out, long gaps between episodes, and a story high on mystery and low on thorough explanations. For Clear Lakes 44 to turn off the audience to the extent that it did - and the viewing figures say it all on that front - suggests that the problem with it wasn't that it was too slow or too minimalistic, but that it was slow or minimalistic in all the wrong ways and few of the right ways.

Any one of these problems could have been solved by itself easily in the absence of the others. Personal differences can be set aside for the good of the company of the money is good and everyone believes in what the team is producing. Creative differences can be overcome if everyone stays friends and the objectors are willing to knuckle down and go with the present idea - particularly if that idea is popular enough with the audience to sustain the cashflow. Money problems may be the most difficult of these issues to solve, but if you have a team of good friends who passionately support the project you're going to have the best chance you could have of overcoming them.

As it stood, THAC had all three problems at once, and each issue fed into the other two. Worst of all, the trust between Joseph and Tim on one side and Troy on the other had been badly damaged. A breaking point was inevitable, and once again Troy acting autocratically was the catalyst.

As Troy explains it, due to the money problems the company was having and the difficulties he was having paying back the company account, he decided that a new structure for reimbursing group members was needed. The idea was that rather than splitting the money evenly, people would be paid for the work that they actually did - so you show up to a filming and you get this amount of money, you edit a podcast and you get that amount of money, and so on. This would be a contentious enough proposal by itself, because by proposing it you would implicitly be suggesting that you think some people are freeloading whilst other people are more valuable to the company. By Troy's own admission, he felt that he was putting the most work in editing videos, and felt that he deserved more for doing that.

Troy therefore sat down and worked out what he considered to be a suitable rate for all the different work that members of THAC were doing. It may well be that here he made the classic mistake of assuming that the jobs that are exclusively yours are difficult and onerous, whilst other people's tasks are much easier than they actually are. For instance, Joseph was handling a lot of behind-the-scenes matters like managing the merchandise store and making arrangements with the various conventions THAC attended, and Troy says that he didn't really think that involved much work until he had to do it himself. By the time Troy was done working out what different people should get under the new scheme, he was paying himself the most by about 15%, with the intention of using the extra money to pay back the loan. (This isn't really how wage garnishment works, but I'm sure it's how those whose wages are being garnished would like it to work.)

Troy, however, didn't want the others to know he was paying himself the most, because as clumsy as he was being at the whole diplomacy thing he did at least realise that giving himself the most money would go down poorly. As a result, whilst the others were free to disclose their own wage structure to each other, Troy adamantly refused to disclose how much he was paying himself.

It was at this point that Tim quit. Troy paniced and changed all the passwords on THAC's stuff, because he was worried that Joseph would also leave and do some sort of "scorched earth" vandalism in going. Joseph soon noticed what happened because he couldn't log into the store to handle his work there. Troy explained what he had done and why he had done it; Joseph left too.

This unfolded in October to November 2015. For the past few months, THAC has been just Troy and Noah; the departure of Joseph and Tim was announced, but aside from Joseph mentioning that the split was not amicable nobody outside the group knew why. All the fanbase knew was that two of the three creatives behind Marble Hornets were no longer in the picture, and way more videos were happening which consisted of Noah and Troy doing Let's Plays or otherwise turning out projects which Noah and Troy could do themselves. Many were unhappy with this. Audience members who weren't happy with Noah being present to begin with were even less happy now that he had become 50% of the team, and even those who liked Noah found Tim and Joseph leaving upsetting. A very common sentiment was that people had been sold on THAC on the strength of the three main personalities involved and the chemistry between them, and now that this was shattered they weren't interested any more.

The other shoe finally dropped this month (April 2016), when Troy posted to the official THAC forums an extensive account of what happened, after discussing it with Tim and Joseph who broadly backed up Troy's account. Sadly, things would eventually take an ugly turn when Alyssa, Troy's wife, came onto the forums and started getting into arguments with critical fans in a series of posts which I won't link or summarise here because they have been deleted, but if there were any doubt that there's still bad feelings between the trio, you don't have to look far. Tim's post on the situation, whilst he did misspeak when he claimed that Troy was illegally requiring people to keep their reimbursement secret from each other (Alyssa' intervention was prompted by that, and Joseph eventually smoothed things over and posted to Twitter that Tim was mistaken there), also makes it very clear that he considers Troy's apologies to be "too little too late" and adroitly sums up how the business disagreements between the trio impacted him directly. Joseph, as of the time of writing, has said that he isn't quite ready to call Troy a friend again, but they are at least talking again for the first time since November.

If Joseph and Tim are a bit chilly towards Troy, they are openly and unapologetically hostile towards Noah. The actual nature of the rift between Noah on the one hand and Joseph and Tim on the other is perhaps the largest gap in Troy's account of events, and neither Tim nor Joseph have really gone into detail about it either. (At this stage they don't seem likely to - but then again I never expected to get the story of why Joseph and Tim left, so who knows what will come out down the line?)

Joseph and Tim have, however, made it clear that their personality clash with Noah wasn't about some petty disagreement, but involved serious, substantive misgivings about Noah's involvement. Moreover, their reactions to him in the wake of Troy's post have been unflinchingly negative. After Troy posted his explanation, Noah made his own post to the thread which involved lots of gushing friendly-sounding compliments directed towards all concerned and talking about how much he loved the audience and how excited he was about his future projects with THAC.

Tonally, the post seems to me to be a little off, and I know I'm not the only one who reacted to it that way. To my eyes, the post shows a total lack of awareness of the mood of the audience and the general direction of the thread. Keep in mind that before all this came out, the fanbase had been getting increasingly restless. Clear Lakes 44 seemed to have ground to a halt; many outright disliked it, and some of those who did still enjoy it were frustrated by the long delays between episodes. People had also picked up on the increasing number of Let's Plays and other cheap and easy #content on the channel, and weren't too keen on it. Viewing figures were down, and Patreon funding had been slashed - once upon a time it was delivering over $2000 per month, now it was under $750 per month. And a loud faction of the audience disliked Noah and blamed many of THAC's troubles on him.

So, take that context, and take into consideration the way Troy's story highlights that not only did personality clashes with Noah contribute to Joseph and Tim's disgruntlement (prompting Troy to play the "sole owner" card), but also him being on the payroll exacerbated everyone's money problems. You have a fanbase where there are people who are not only willing to pin the blame on Noah, but have received direct and unambiguous confirmation that his presence was indeed a major factor in the group's troubles (and, in fact, that two of the three core members actually agreed with the "No Noah thanks" faction in the audience).

Then you have Noah trundling in, all smiles and sunshine and positivity and oozing with gratitude for everyone, rolling out a post where he spends a lot of time promoting himself and hyping up his upcoming projects and doesn't seem to acknowledge any of the problems Troy outlined whatsoever.

It's not a good look, to put it mildly. It would be one thing if Noah had acknowledged the problems and admitted to and apologised for any part he had in them. It'd be another thing if he had acknowledged the problems but tried to argue that they weren't his fault - that would be contentious for sure, but it'd at least be a supportable position because nothing Troy had said so far actually laid any of the blame at Noah's feet - yes, his presence did cause issues, but it wasn't him who overruled Joseph and Tim and played the sole owner card, and it wasn't him who took money from the account, and it wasn't him who tried to restructure everyone's pay in a way which drove Joseph and Tim to finally resign. "I'm sorry that these issues happened, but I hope everyone understands from Troy's account that they weren't my doing" wouldn't necessarily be a message people wanted to hear, but it would at least be a supportable position, if true.

But Noah didn't say that. What he did do was dump a post which came across as insincerely sunny and somewhat egocentric into the thread without ever once in his wall of text ever substantively acknowledging and addressing that there was a problem at all. It's the sort of statement which you'd put out in response to an amicable split, not a confession of serious problems at the heart of the organisation.

In response to Noah's post, Joseph told him to eat shit and strongly implied that there was more he could tell about Noah's role in all this, but he had decided not to disclose it. Tim's own post (as linked earlier) supported Joseph's stance. It became very evident to everyone that, at least from Joseph and Tim's perspective, there were issues with Noah which had not been publicly aired yet.

However, Noah would soon cease to be a factor. After locking the original thread, which had been hopelessly derailed after Joseph told Noah to "eat shit", Troy made another post talking about the future of THAC, in which he stated that he had asked Noah to leave THAC and that Noah had agreed, and that all the THAC projects involving Noah would therefore cease production. That absolutely contradicts what Noah had said in his post about how he'd be doing future THAC projects and he was really excited to see them come to fruition and so on. It is, of course, possible that Troy didn't make the decision to ask Noah to leave until Noah made that post, but the post forced Troy's hand in some way. Perhaps Troy had already decided that Noah should go but hadn't got around to telling him before making the post about why Joseph and Tim left - kind of a huge oversight, since Troy must have known he'd need to make the "future of THAC" post hot on the heels of that one, but it's kind of clear now that HR isn't Troy's strong point. Or maybe Noah knew full well he'd be leaving when he made his post, but made out like he wasn't anyway (perhaps hoping that if he could inspire some sort of outpouring of fan support he could convince Troy to keep him on after all), which would be a rather strong point of evidence in favour of Tim's characterisation of the post as being "disingenuous, if not downright manipulative".

Either way, Noah was out, and Troy wasn't done making changes. Clear Lakes 44 was cancelled, at least in its current form - since Noah was playing a central character this was rather inevitable, and it also seems that Troy had ultimately agreed with the critics that the series just wasn't working. Supposedly, Troy intends to produce a new version of Clear Lakes 44 getting back to the original concept for the series and building it in a different direction, though given the various demands on his time and resources it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to pull that off.

Speaking of time and money, for the sake of scaling back his commitments to the point that they were manageable Troy decided to switch the THAC Patreon from a "per month" to a "per video" basis, step away from the 1-video-per-week format and generally revise the Patreon tiers accordingly. This all seems sensible - it allows Troy to produce content at his own pace and release it when he is satisfied with it, and means that if he ends up not releasing anything in a month his Patreon backers won't be charged for it. (They can also put a cap on how much they are willing to pay in a month, so if Troy puts out a glut of videos they won't suddenly get a surprisingly large charge for it.)

At the same time, though, this gear change represents precisely what you would expect to see if Troy had given up on the idea of running THAC as his full-time day job - and indeed he has taken on a non-THAC job - and was pivoting to instead run it on a hobbyist basis. It's hard to see how Troy on his own and with occasional hired help obtained on a tight budget could produce anywhere near the same volume of quality material THAC had been able to when Troy, Joseph and Tim were all working together on good terms, and if the dream of turning it into a career isn't dead, it's certainly deep in hibernation.

Troy mixed business with friendship, and ended up doing serious - possibly fatal - damage to both. On top of that, Troy is still soliciting money from the general project via Patreon. I think it is important that anyone looking to buy into that should know the history of what's happened there, particularly since it involves a history of financial impropriety on Troy's part. In fact, I have gone back and changed my assessment on the Kickstopper article as to whether I will back future crowdfunding projects from THAC.

Troy has demonstrated a sufficient lack of integrity in money matters and employee relations that I would be cautious about trusting him with more money unless and until he could demonstrate through future successfully-managed projects that he has truly turned over a new leaf. And even then, the chemistry which made Marble Hornets a successful collaboration and added the charm to THAC's early comedy material is well and truly destroyed.

Troy Has A Camera, but Troy presently does not have collaborators. Talented guys with cameras aren't rare these days; friendships with a distinctive chemistry are near-impossible to replicate once lost. The fatal irony is that Marble Hornets is the story of a film project that becomes doomed when the director gets caught in a spiral of paranoia, power tripping, and lashing out at friends, to his ultimate ruin. THAC may well have enacted that story in real life.
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