Variety on the New Breed of Online Stars
The 26-year-old is best known to 12 million-plus subscribers across three different YouTube channels, but he’s about to make a name for himself in film and TV, too. Dawson is directing a movie commissioned by Starz for upcoming docuseries “The Chair,” which follows two filmmakers who are given the same script to shoot. And NBC ordered a script for “Losin’ It,” a sitcom based on Dawson’s life working at a Jenny Craig weight-loss center, which he is developing with Sony Pictures Television.
“YouTube opened up a lot of doors,” said Dawson, who is repped by UTA. “It’s the best place to be discovered, because it’s something that you personally have done, rather than (you) reading someone else’s words.”
But Chris Moore, (“American Reunion,” “Project Greenlight 3”) executive producer of “The Chair,” confesses to being nervous about enlisting a YouTuber with zero experience to fashion a feature-length film. “It’s really difficult to make the transition Shane’s trying to make,” Moore said. “Bringing digital talent into this space can be very risky.”
Photo by Chris McPherson for Variety
There is no doubt a new generation of talent who create their own content on YouTube, Vine, Instagram and other platforms are becoming household names among young consumers online. Parents may be oblivious to names like Cameron Dallas or Jennxpenn because those talents aren’t on Disney Channel or the radio, but they inspire screaming throngs reminiscent of Beatlemania when they make appearances in the flesh.
Yet as the careers of people like Dawson mature, this species of stardom is subject to interpretation. There the question of whether this new breed has the staying power to cross over into traditional media, but that may not even be necessary, given the increasingly meaningless distinction between Internet culture and the so-called mainstream.
It wasn’t so long ago that establishing unknown talents required aggressively marketing them in film and TV in hopes of pumping up box office or ratings. But digital platforms have flipped the conventional formula on its head. Online personalities amass an audience first, and make money after. And what’s more, building that audience can be done without Hollywood’s help.
“The viewer is the new studio boss,” said Will Keenan, president of Endemol Beyond USA, the TV production giant’s domestic digital arm. “We can’t force content on people anymore.”
Traditional media companies know this all too well. That’s why there’s been a rash of deals like Disney buying Maker Studios, a large YouTube multichannel network, in a deal worth upwards of $950 million; and DreamWorks Animation snapping up AwesomenessTV last year for up to $117 million. Now Fullscreen, another big MCN, is in talks with AT&T and Chernin Group to sell a controlling stake to the two companies’ Otter Media online-video joint venture.
These acquisitions are being made because young adults watch significantly more online video than do their elders, according to Nielsen. In the first quarter of 2014, consumers aged 18-24 viewed 2 hours and 28 minutes of online vids per week — nearly an hour more than the average for all adults. TV isn’t dying, exactly, but consumption patterns are changing.