Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE.
With the September 23, 2017 debut of Dirty 30 and the September 26 premiere of Laid in America, Hollywood has presented us with two studio-backed low-budget films featuring many prominent social-media influencers. Traditional Hollywood has finally joined, to borrow influencer Michelle Glavan’s phrase, “the YouTube movie circuit.”
That means traditional studios are finally trying a newish model for making and marketing films that are the polar opposite of their usual blockbuster behemoths. The model emerged about three years ago, when indie producers and multichannel networks like AwesomenessTV tapped squadrons of influencers for roles in films such as Expelled and Camp Takota. This model has resulted in small films that typically are profitable, relatively low risk, and can connect with young audiences who otherwise ignore traditional studios.
Previously, the big media companies focused more on buying up multichannel networks (e.g. Maker Studios, Machinima, Collective Digital Studios) and tapping influencers to promote their products. Now comes the next step: Making films starring and substantially marketed by influencers.
The result is projects that aren’t all that different from lightweight teen comedies (of wildly varying levels of raunch), from Beach Blanket Bingo in the 1960s to Porky’s in the 1980s, and American Pie at the turn of the century. Given the somewhat older-skewing Dirty 30, maybe we can throw in vintage 20-something rom-coms such as 1986’s About Last Night… too.
Regardless, all of these were films of modest ambition, featuring up-and-coming stars and targeting a specific young demographic, just as Dirty 30 and Laid in America do.
Lionsgate released Dirty 30 theatrically in a dozen markets in September, alongside five digital global platforms, the movie’s own website, and 17 other regional distributors in eight foreign markets. Four days after the theatrical debut, the movie’s DVD became available exclusively in Target. Though it’s too soon for results from most of those platforms, Lionsgate representatives said the studio is pleased with the initial response.
And coming up later in October, we’ll have a different take on this new model, as the subscription video-on-demand service YouTube Red releases The Thinning, from the digital side of Legendary Entertainment, Thomas Tull’s ambitious would-be-major-now-part-of-the-acquisitive-Chinese-entertainment-conglomerate Wanda Group.
Google acquired The Thinning, a dystopian thriller whose stars include influencer Logan Paul, through what in Hollywood is known as a “negative pickup,” acquiring the finished product for distribution. Google execs told me the film won’t get a theatrical run as the company chooses instead to devote that cash to more digital outreach to push its still-emerging SVOD service. Google debuted a trailer for the film during last Tuesday night’s Streamy Awards vidcast, too.
Laid in America won’t have a theatrical run. Producer Max Gottlieb says you need to either “go big or go home” if you’re going the theatrical route. But Laid had splashy premieres in London, where its stars are based, and in Los Angeles, at distributor Universal’s CityWalk tourist attraction. Laid in America cost less than $1 million to make, Gottlieb said. Universal is handling distribution in the United States, Latin America, the U.K. and Ireland, while Gottlieb has retained other international rights.
“My plan is to work with these digital stars and to take them to the next level, to $10 million movies, and to make movie stars out of YouTube stars,” Gottlieb said. “They’re really entertainers.They’re not movie stars yet.”
The difference with these movies from their antecedents is that their stars, and even many of their bit players, come with a hefty social-media fan base. That changes how these films are marketed and released, and reduces the risk of a bomb, because influencers by definition know how to appeal to audiences they’ve already built.
Take Laid stars KSI and Casper Lee, who between them have more than 21 million YouTube subscribers. Dirty 30 features Grace Helbig, Mamrie Hart, and Hannah Hart, who previously starred together in Camp Takota, among other joint projects.
The Harts (no relation) and Helbig are OG, building big online audiences and then branching into TV talk shows, best-selling books, live events, and scripted programs of varying lengths. They’re still far too young to be called grand dames, but are close as it gets to that in a medium still in its infancy. And now, studios are joining in.
“Now it’s Lionsgate and Universal,” says Gottlieb of Hollywood’s interest. “Previously, it was Maker and Fullscreen and Awesomeness. So I’m feeling a lot more pressure.”
Dirty 30 and Takota producer Michael Goldfine insists he casted people who could bring a strong story to life. Their influencer status was an added benefit, but not the sole reason people got their gigs.
“It started with who would be great in those great roles that Mamrie had written,” Goldfine said. “I can honestly say that the roles that those people took, we cast because they fit it damned well. I was lucky enough to find people who were influencers. And they fit those roles. They weren’t shimmied into it. Mikie Murphy is that kid” featured in a significant subplot of the film.
Dirty 30 executive producer Ken Treusch, who is Helbig and Mamrie Hart’s manager, said Takota was made for about $500,000, while the Dirty 30 budget was “seven figures” for a 21-day shoot. That’s not much by Hollywood standards, but considerably more than creators have available for their everyday projects. Regardless, Treusch said, his clients see the film projects as just another kind of content, among all the other material they create daily with far less time and money.
“The ultimate end is we find financing for the next piece of content my clients want to make,” Treusch said. Like relentlessly productive indie darlings such as the Duplass Brothers, “The ability to make the things they want to make” is the goal.
“It’s a science of niche artists,” Treusch said. “We’re not worried about making a blockbuster. You try to do what your audience wants. In the traditional entertainment world, they’re just beginning. I’m really excited to see where they go next.”
Unlike her two co-stars, Hannah Hart didn’t come to the film projects with an acting background. But now she has the bug, and told me she hopes to do more such projects, especially featuring characters who happen to also be LGBT. That work would continue alongside her digital content, launching her second book (Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded), developing a still-mum Food Network show, and much more.
But Hannah Hart said the best part of Dirty 30 was that it represents a growing Hollywood respect for the work ethic and talent of successful influencers.
“It’s really nice to be at this point in the game, where you’re not (dealing with) working your butt off and people are rolling their eyes at you” because they don’t take digital content seriously, she said. “It just means, as you bust your balls, everyone’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you guys work all the time.’”
Lionsgate definitely provided that respect, evidenced in part by, as Hannah Hart put it, “one hell of a party” after the premiere. The studio took over a sprawling speakeasy tucked away just off Hollywood Boulevard, and filled it movie merchandise, plenty of food and booze, and even a circus act. The Laid afterparty was more restrained, but the CityWalk red carpet featured an hour of on-stage interviews hosted by influencer/actress Teala Dunn and carried live on Time Inc.’s new Instant celebrity site.
Indeed, both films’ premieres had most of the trappings of a standard Hollywood film, even though they’re each a hybrid, handled by the studio home-entertainment divisions instead of its theatrical units. In Hollywood terms, that’s a strange beast, because straight-to-video projects never get a splashy premiere and party.
But here, the hoopla makes for smart strategy. All those influencers and, in another departure from typical Hollywood, their influencer pals taking part to show their support turn into a powerful event-marketing squad of remarkable reach.
The red carpet premiere was invented decades ago to draw easy media coverage, photos, and videos in the days just before a film hits theaters. The red carpet still provides a flurry of glamorous pre-release images and stories, but in this case, it’s as likely to come from the influencers themselves. Just as importantly, they’re doing it in more personal and direct ways than any media outlet could manage.
It’s one key reason why marketing these films is so different. A big Hollywood film’s “prints & advertising” budget frequently sails north of $100 million. Not so here.
When I talked this summer with AwesomenessTV CEO Brian Robbins, a veteran producer who has championed this movie model, he said even a tiny Hollywood film typically spends $20 million on marketing. By contrast, he said AwesomenessTV films have all been profitable, with marketing costs “less than half” that $20 million mark, thanks in part to all the work the influencers do “from Day One.”
And of course, influencer involvement means they’re talking about the project throughout its creation. That continues even through the release. The stars of both the new films discussed above have multiple videos posted right now that further tout their projects.
“Our two main guys are committed,” Gottlieb said. “They’re super pros. The kids doing YouTube eat and breathe content. They’re always thinking about their fans. You can’t reach 5 million to 10 million subscribers without always being on it. What they have is a native ability to connect with the camera.”
During the 16-day shoot for Laid, the stars typically posted behind-the-scenes video material daily across several platforms. Gottlieb also hired a second crew and director to shoot behind-the-scenes footage that is packaged into a separate hour-long piece that will be bundled on iTunes with the movie.
There can be a second edge when it comes to using that sword of influencers, however, said Marc Karzen, whose RelishMix firm advises networks and studios on social media and influencer strategies.
“If you con someone into coming to your movie and it’s bad, the backlash is really bad,” Karzen said. “When you promise and people are shocked and surprised that you exceed expectations, that’s where you get a hit.”
Another difference from traditional Hollywood is that all the influencers I talked with, including Hannah Hart, KSI and Casper Lee, seemed to regard movie stardom not as an end goal or career peak, but as part of a much broader game. They want to continue creating the content they like for the audiences they’ve built.
“I like this phrase, ‘Dance with the one that brought you,’” said Hannah Hart. “These are the people who made my career possible. It’s not really hard to keep up (producing content online for them). I enjoy making content. I enjoy sharing my life, being a role model. Blessedly, it’s not something I have to wedge in.”
When I asked Goldfine about the prospects for these kinds of films as the YouTube generation continues to grow and evolve, he said he hoped they are becoming a Hollywood fixture.
“I’ve been able to make a bunch of these movies and want to continue to make them,” Goldfine said. “These stories don’t take a lot of money to make them. So far, we’ve been lucky. We’ve made films and audiences have shown up. I hope they continue to enjoy these. I think there’s a place for these films.”
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE, the premier app building company that houses all of your content in one place for any device, and monetizes it automatically with their built in programmatic video advertising platform.