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Online Celebrities or Mainstream Celebrities: Who Should You Cast?

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Mindy Kaling or Michael Buckley? Jessica Alba or Jessica Rose? Of course it helps to have well-known faces attached to your web series, but from what world should you draw them: the mainstream media, or the online video community? (Because the 6th thing we learned at NewTeeVee Live is that there’s definitely still a divide.)

If you’re not looking to be a flash in the pan viral hit, but rather a long-term success, you might reconsider the involvement of the truly famous. While having a known name like Amy Poehler behind your show is of course a huge benefit at launch time, for any sort of longevity you still have to build an audience for that actor within the online video community. And that actor has to be invested enough to stick around.

Felicia Williams of Next New Networks said on a recent panel at OMMA that “when a traditional celebrity embraces online video, such as when Jessica Alba challenged the Internet to a staring contest, it does huge numbers, but if that’s not the case it’s anyone’s guess.” Co-panelist Jake Zim of Safran Digital Group (whose projects include PG Porn), on the other hand, believes that it depends on your company’s business model. Safran focuses on the possibility of selling its projects “upstream” (ie: to TV networks and other opportunities), which is easier with mainstream personalities known offline. “But Gary Vaynerchuk,” whose phenomenally successful Wine Library TV made him one of our breakout video stars, “will work his ass off,” Safran said.

As mainstream celebrity’s increasing expansion into online video is a pretty new phenomenon, the success of shows like Poehler’s Smart Girls At the Party is hard to measure. But because mainstream celebrities are often busy doing, you know, whatever made them celebrities in the first place, hinging a project’s success on their availability is a dangerous game.

Take, for example, the case of Strike.TV, which had an impressive launch at the end of October thanks to the large presence of mainstream celebrities — but because a number of its series only shot pilots, three weeks later, new episodes of Mindy Kaling’s House Poor and Global Warming starring Kristin Wiig and Aasif Mandiv have yet to appear. House Poor producer Lester Lewis said via email that “Mindy and I had a blast doing House Poor. There is a second episode already shot that we are discussing showing if we think it is funny enough. (The joy of this is WE get to decide, not a network!).” It’s fantastic that Lewis and Kaling have this sort of devotion to quality programming, but any sense of urgency is clearly lacking. I really enjoyed House Poor, but without more episodes it’ll never build up the sort of following that will help anchor Strike.TV over the long term.

Personally, I feel that while people might enjoy the novelty of watching well-known actors like, say, David Spade and Tim Meadows goof around for an episode or two, online celebrities with established fans might be a better (and cheaper) long-term investment. Not only do they typically understand the space better, but so does their audience, which by default is making good use of the Web 2.0 tools at their disposal. Natalie Tran of CommunityChannel and comedian Jon LaJoie have nurtured loyal audiences that result in huge viewcounts by virtue of their clever videos — paired with larger budgets and bigger promotion, it’s easy to imagine their talents anchoring a new web sensation.

Of course, it depends on how you implement the talent once it’s attached. The series Hooking Up enlists a variety of actors who were previously Internet Famous, such as sxephil, Jessica Rose and Michael Buckley, and while its first episode has close to 750,000 views, the following episodes show a big drop-off to 300,000 to 250,000 views. The fact that the show hasn’t been able to capitalize on those previously existing fan bases isn’t too surprising, though, as the dorm room comedy is a pretty far departure from the vlogging format that made most of the cast popular — and only the truly devoted will follow every guest appearance made by their favorite actors.

But what do you think, and what examples am I missing?

12 Responses to “Online Celebrities or Mainstream Celebrities: Who Should You Cast?”

  1. I want to make another post here, because I’ve offended a colleague. I am sorry for that.

    With regards to the web-stars I mentioned in my other post above, I was merely trying to contrast their organic brands versus what I am guessing will be an onslaught of marketing dollars and an influx of Hollywood talent, new distribution and “complimentary content” strategies.

    Of course, I wish I had either Kevjumba’s, Happyslip’s, or sxephil’s subscribership and committed audience. I don’t. :)

    I would like to note, however, I did say that I thought they could retain these valuable fanbases, but my ultimate point is that I think the competition from corporate media in the future will be fierce.

    Putting foot in mouth now… :)

  2. I think what’s missing from this discussion is the idea that the novelty of “web stars” might just be a fading fad, perhaps destined to disappear in 2009 and 2010. While it’s possible that Kevjumba, sxephil and Happyslip and some others hold onto an engaged fanbase, I think they merely found a window and got lucky — honestly, none of them are what would be considered Hollywood talent. However, at least Phil could do stand up with his material.

    I think there will be a drastic market shift in 2009. Revver, along with many other online video sites, will fold. Placement and power will go to the content creators who have something that any aspiring Kevjumba doesn’t have: Marketing dollars. YouTube is obviously planning for this shift with its “Adsense-like” Sponsored Videos feature now. Add to this the YouTube API that will allow content creators with Application Development budgets the ability to create their own niche branded communities around YouTube content and you can see the shift from service to “You” shifting quite plainly to service of the “Tube”.

    And they have to do it. The creators with the most money will win. Hmmm… could that be the studios? I hear they’re good at making and promoting content. This Hulu thing just might catch on ;)

    Then again, why not a new “Google Studio” (Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoons anyone?)

  3. Jenni Powell

    I think we can’t discount the power of the “unknown” or “average Joe or Jane” in web content. Most of the “web celebrities” listed as examples started out as vloggers and/or playing vloggers (ala Jessica Rose). I think there is that intimacy of connection that is important in grooming a web celebrity. I think the dropping off of numbers on Hooking Up had a lot to do with the expectation that it was going to have a similar feeling when in fact the majority of the episodes are shown in 3rd person instead of the more intimate 1st person of the characters vlogging directly to camera.

  4. Great question, Liz. If I produced a show, I’d go with the talent that could work “his [or her] ass off” approach, as long as he or she was intimately familiar with how to market the show online.

    Otherwise, I’ll take the Jessica Alba-level mega star or a niche star with an established online following. Best case scenario, I’d get Joss Whedon on board. He’s a bit of each.

  5. Good story Liz. I guess the distinction should be made that online video shouldn’t expect to compete with TV or Film. If I really want polished content, I will turn on my TV or Hulu or a DVD… not necessarily the Web.

    KevJumba resonates with online audiences and he drives tons of traffic on a zero budget. Kev’s business model is what works in today’s Internet climate. Also consider Jessica Alba’s quote $$ for a film is what most start-ups wish to raise to run their companies. She’s in no hurry to give up her film career for the Web :)