Insights: Old-School Stars Forced Online Will Help Change Hollywood Long After Pandemic

By 04/16/2020
Insights: Old-School Stars Forced Online Will Help Change Hollywood Long After Pandemic

This pandemic is forcing dramatic changes on the entertainment business, with production halts, emptied movie theaters, and desktop concerts by superstars. Along the way, it’s beginning to mint a lot of new online talent, including people who were plenty famous before but never spent much time on the interwebz.

In fact, who/what counts as online entertainment these days is rapidly expanding.

Lots of Hollywood stars and other old-school celebrities who never bothered with online social-media platforms are now seeking to connect with existing fans and possibly win new ones.

Once they settle into the opportunities of digital, I’m guessing they’ll never completely go back to an old way of doing things. Thank goodness.

They’re all trying to grab audience attention at a time when there’s more of that than ever, with the hope that the connections will long outlast the constrictions of the pandemic. It’s what’s still possible to do, but also what’s going to help shift the future of entertainment in a million different ways.

Old Music Stars Find New Online Opportunities

In music alone, without live festivals and concerts, merchandise sales and similar revenue boosters, there’s been an explosion of live digital content.

Fans have jumped on everything from Elton John’s Living Room Concert for America on YouTube, to the World Health Organization‘s #TogetherAtHome initiative with Instagram performances by John Legend and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, to DJ D-Nice’s hugely popular Instagram Live sets, to Sofar Soundsshift to online for all its dozens of intimate monthly concerts around the planet.

And creative talent better known for their work in traditional media, such as Kevin Hart, are turning online in droves. Hart’s Laugh Out Loud Network was already big, with 4.8 million YouTube subscribers and a hefty output deal with Comcast‘s just-launched Peacock video service. But with the pandemic crimping much of what Hollywood does, he’s taken to the couch and his smartphone, speaking “straight from the Hart.”

And John Krasinski–riding high on endless streams of The Office and season two of his Amazon Prime show, Jack Ryanis using YouTube for his heart-warming Some Good News

The show mostly rehashes feel-good stories from around the web in a hard-to-resist way despite its modest production values. It quickly grabbed lots of attention, and love, for both those feel-good stories and the stunt he pulled with the cast of Hamilton to surprise one ardent young fan. And Hart and Krasinski are hardly alone in the trek to the couch and the cameraphone.

Brent Weinstein, the chief innovation officer at UTA–one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies–told me his operation is spending significant time supporting creators from traditional media who are now trying to build an online presence as fast as they can. He put those efforts in four buckets:

  • Celebrities wanting to get online to do something while productions, performances, and much else are on hold. Some just need advice on how to create an online presence more effectively.
  • Celebs wanting to build something online that could evolve into a more permanent platform. “‘Let’s engage and entertain and be there for fans in this moment,” Weinstein said of this group. “But let’s also do it in a way that helps build an audience that they can engage with for months and years thereafter.”
  • Artists wanting to embark on bigger or more ambitious project, which in turn need a bigger investment or partnership. “They need capital, they need technology resources, something more comprehensive than simply publishing through YouTube or Instagram or Facebook or TikTok,” Weinstein said.
  • Connecting the agency’s clients with those social media platforms that are organizing big charity or other online events, like Twitch‘s 12-hour livestreamed concert that ultimately featured many UTA clients.

And it’s not just the agencies seeing their talent shift to digital.

Facebook Creators Want To Play Games

Phil Ranta, Facebook’s head of gaming creators, told me his company is seeing a flood of inquiries from traditional celebrities who already use Facebook and Instagram and are casting around for new ways to create content. Because many of them also play games, they want to tap game-related content like Facebook’s just-launched Tournaments function to expand their online presence.

“We’ve spent a lot of time evangelizing this idea of having a more digital career, and for many reasons: you get a younger audience that will grow with you, deeper learning about your fandom that converts really well, and valuable inventory,” Ranta said.

“Now, all of a sudden, these musicians, actors, athletes are being forced to finally look at digital as one of their only options,” he continued. “If you’re, say, Big Musician X, and you had all of your scheduled stops…cancelled, and you say, ‘Oh my god, my lifestyle dictates that I need to find a million dollars now,’ it’s actually a really interesting time to start looking at places like Facebook and how to monetize, or TikTok or YouTube or Twitch, or any of those other places where you can turn your talent into money.”

The reason to go online is pretty much a digital version of Willie Sutton‘s response when asked why he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Audiences too, now more than ever.

Watch time on YouTube’s livestreams jumped 19% in the two weeks around the initial lockdown in many U.S. states (March 12 to March 25) compared to the previous two weeks, according to a Tubular Labs analysis. It already had been trending upward significantly since the start of the year, from around 2 billion minutes watched per week to well over 3 billion.

Facebook livestreaming views also went crazy in that two-week period, up 37%–part of a shift that had seen views there more than triple since the start of the year, according to Tubular.

The changes have forced significant adjustments even for online video veterans such as Complex, known for shows such as Hot Ones and Pigeons & Planes, said Justin Killion, general manager of Complex Networks and EVP of operations and content services.

One upside: lower audience expectations on production values have made it less expensive to try out new show ideas, he told me. Complex has adapted some of its existing programs, and developed a dozen new formats that it’s testing out.

“We are taking this opportunity to capitalize on the ability to pilot new shows,” Killion said. “We can create and put them out at a time where the audience is more forgiving. The quality of the content needs to still be high, but the quality of video can be less.”

For the same reasons, traditional stars pushed onto the web for the first time can do on-the-job training while figuring out how they can entertain, inform, comfort, and connect with fans.

In that regard, they’re going through a compressed version of the same experience just about every long-term online influencer underwent while building their audience over the past dozen pre-plague years.

The difference, I think, is that now the old-school stars have been forced to get online, many of them won’t ever completely go back to an old way of doing things. They too will understand the power of having an audience who cares about you, specifically, and wants more of you. Hollywood will never be the same.