Hollywood is Betting Big on a Digital Future

Online stars and mainstream media collided at VidCon last week. What does that mean for the future of movies and TV?

Image via VidCon Twitter.

VidCon, the annual three-day digital video conference, wrapped in Anaheim, California last week and if there is one thing to be learned from its seventh outing it’s that Hollywood and the online world are slowly but surely converging. Major studios and networks such as Warner Brothers and Netflix brought activations and sponsorships to attract the event’s 30,000 attendees. Universal even held an advanced screening of The Secret Life of Pets. Through an increased presence at VidCon, Hollywood is making a significant push to reach out to the younger, mobile-first generation, many of whom grew up watching online videos.

Via Warner Brothers Twitter.

VidCon was started in 2010 by Hank and John Green of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel which boasts over 2.9M subscribers. (John is also the writer of the books-turned-movies The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns.) As VidCon expanded, so did the popularity of the digital stars that attended it. Last month, the internet savvy Ellen DeGeneres signed YouTube star Tyler Oakley to a content development pact under her Ellen Digital Network, an umbrella brand for her online content in partnership with Warner Brothers Television. DeGeneres and Oakley are set to collaborate on a range of original digital projects with an aim toward developing projects for television as well. Oakley is one of the most popular YouTube vloggers and his digital footprint includes 8.14M YouTube subscribers, 2.9M Facebook followers, 5.3M Twitter followers, and 6.4M Instagram followers.

Tyler Oakley and Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen Show.

Last week, Lionsgate announced the release date for Dirty 30, a comedy feature starring YouTubers Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart, and Grace Helbig in a film about an epic 30th birthday party that goes off the rails. As with other movies featuring digital stars, Lionsgate is banking on the social reach of the talent to encourage fans to buy movie tickets, digital downloads, or DVDs. Helbig, Hart, and Hart (no relation) have a combined following of 6.5M YouTube subscribers and appeared on a VidCon panel to preview the trailer. Lionsgate will release Dirty 30 on September 23 in a limited number of theaters as well as on digital services including Apple’s iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, FandangoNow, CinemaNow, and Vudu. It will also be available on DVD in Target on September 27.

Dirty 30 isn’t the first digital movie to be released by a major studio. The film reunites the stars and production team behind Camp Takota, one of the first movies to feature major YouTube talent. Last year, SMOSH: The Movie was released in July, starring the SMOSH comedy duo Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox (22M YouTube subscribers). The film was co-produced and financed by Defy Media and Awesomeness TV, which is owned by DreamWorks Animation and Hearst. It premiered at VidCon on July 23, and was released digitally the next day, peaking on the iTunes comedy film chart at #1 and on the service’s overall movie chart at #2. Unlike box-office results, revenue figures for movies released digitally are not public. But so far movies starring digital talent have had budgets under $1 million and have proved profitable.

The release plan employed by these digital projects closely resembles the release strategy used by Netflix’s awards season release of Beasts of No Nation, which debuted the film on the streaming service worldwide and in 31 theaters in 30 U.S. cities. It is also similar to Amazon’s limited theatrical release of their films followed by early-window distribution on Amazon Prime Instant Video. While Amazon and Netflix projects enjoy more attention within film industry circles and during awards season, are they as profitable as the more budget-friendly projects starring digital talent? Will we see more mainstream films and television shows starring digital talent in the future?

Though Hollywood studios may not be attaching digital stars to big budget tentpoles anytime soon, they will continue to use these digital projects as a testing ground for future possibilities. They have also cast influencers to star in traditional TV and movie roles. YouTuber and comedian Anna Akana had parts in Ant-Man and Hello, My Name is Doris. HBO just dropped the teaser trailer to Awkward Black Girl web series creator Issa Rae’s upcoming television series Insecure. Netflix has several shows in the pipeline featuring digital stars including Haters Back Off with Colleen Ballinger-Evans’ goofy YouTube character Miranda Sings; an unscripted reality series featuring social media star Cameron Dallas (The Outfield, Expelled); and Girlboss, a comedy series starring Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland) and created by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect, 30 Rock), based on the New York Times best-selling memoir #Girlboss by online fashion entrepreneur and personality Sophia Amoruso.

Britt Robertson on the set of Girlboss via Sophia Amoruso Instagram.

The increased attention on VidCon – which is set to expand internationally next year – and investment in projects with digital stars is a sign that Hollywood is finally taking notice of the online world’s younger audience reach. These audiences grew up on YouTube videos and mobile platforms, and relate to online video stars over mainstream celebrities because of their intimate and seemingly authentic connection with fans via their YouTube videos and vlogs. Similar to comic book fans, online audiences have proven they are dedicated superfans. Whether or not online fandom translates into IRL (In Real Life) profits is the billion-dollar question that Hollywood is hoping to get the answer to.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.