(Bloomberg) -- Recently on a hot day in Los Angeles, a 75-person camera crew was prepping magic tricks and setting up toys at a family home-turned-movie set. The star of the action was Ryan Kaji, the reigning champion of toy reviews, who found fame and fortune on YouTube at the ripe old age of 3.

Now 12, Ryan was filming a scene for his first major motion picture, Ryan’s World The Movie: Titan Universe Adventure, along with his younger sisters, Emma and Kate. On this week’s episode of The Circuit with Emily Chang, we take a look behind the scenes of this new movie and the wider world of “kidfluencers.”

The entire Kaji family was in town from Honolulu for the filming. Back home in Hawaii, they try to live a private life and send Ryan to a normal school, hoping he will do as much regular kid stuff as possible. But Ryan’s life has been anything but normal. He was first spotted on YouTube in 2015 choosing a Lego set at Target, with his mom Loann asking for his “pick of the week” from behind the camera. Loann and Ryan’s father, Shion, insist it was never part of some grand plan, but that the videos simply took off and that Ryan was always the one who begged to keep shooting.

Loann, then a high school chemistry teacher, and Shion, a structural engineer, quit their jobs to manage Ryan’s meteoric rise to influencer stardom.

Today, Ryan is one of YouTube’s biggest earners, racking up 82 billion lifetime views across his 11 channels. His face adorns 5,000 products, from train sets to toothbrushes at Walmart and Target. Ryan’s toy picks have generated more than $500 million for retailers since 2018, according to Chris Williams, chief executive of PocketWatch Inc., a digital media studio that turns kid YouTube stars into megafranchises.

Kaji is the poster child for the “kidfluencer” economy, where enough money can be made hawking consumer products on sites from YouTube to TikTok to send a child to college. But it also presents a dilemma for parents who are trying to balance screentime and playtime, not to mention school work and family life. And it’s not always fun and games. Some people have criticized the perceived exploitation of kids’ online lives, as they allegedly succumb to pressure to produce from either their parents or the ever-present algorithm. 

Williams founded PocketWatch in 2017 as a sort of next-generation Mickey Mouse Club. There are now more than 50 stars on the PocketWatch roster, including Diana the Princess of Play and the Onyx Family.

“They’ve won the Hunger Games of YouTube,” Williams said of successful online child stars. “It’s not because they’re lucky. It’s not because they gamed the algorithm. It’s because they’ve worked really hard, they found the right things to do for their audience and then millions of people now love to watch their content.”

Movie star Ryan is no longer the round-cheeked unboxing toddler many might remember from his early days online. This Ryan is tall and mature. When asked what it’s like being the star of a movie, he says simply: “It’s cool.”

A theatrical release for a YouTube creator could be the pinnacle of truly “making it.” But the jump to the big screen is not without risks. Ryan’s new movie, which is set to debut Aug. 16, won’t have the help of a major studio, so the PocketWatch team is planning to leverage the marketing power of Ryan’s YouTube audience to drive families to the theaters. If it works, it could be a strong signal that social media stars deserve Hollywood’s attention and can attract old and new fans. 

Ryan has told his parents he wants to keep making videos until he’s 25. “Even if he wants to do it, we still have to think about, is it going to affect his normal life?” Loann Kaji said. “But we do present those opportunities to him and say, ‘hey, do you want to do this or not?’ And then we’ll have the ultimate say. Usually he always wants to do everything, but we always have to say, ‘just wait, think about this.’”

(Updates with full video.)

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