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As Hollywood models of theatrical films and linear television undergo rapid change, TikTok, Twitch streams and sponsored posts may be morphing from side businesses to the lucrative main event in some cases.
Established stars like, say, Will Smith are seeking to grow their personal brands on a widening array of digital platforms. At the same time, these platforms are creating new stars like Addison Rae who are expanding into film, TV and branded content. And agencies are aiming to be the middlemen to monetize the creator economy.
“There is so much connectivity because our actors and athletes want to be in music and fashion and tech and NFTs and esports, and our esports people want to be involved with brands and on television,” said UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer, speaking at an Advertising Week New York event Oct. 21.
Consider LeBron James. The Los Angeles Lakers star and Space Jam: A New Legacy lead is also a social media personality with 101 million Instagram and 50 million Twitter followers, while his company, SpringHill, is active in the podcast and branded content space and in October raised a round of financing that values the firm at $725 million. Smith’s Westbrook Inc. — which has backed films like King Richard and shows like Red Table Talk and Cobra Kai — has made similar strides, supporting him and his family’s social media presence while producing content for streaming platforms and TV.
Meanwhile, digital native creators like the D’Amelio family are getting a half-hour show on Hulu, and esports organization FaZe Clan, which established its brand on building competitive gaming and streaming on Twitch and YouTube, is planning to go public at a $1 billion valuation as it seeks bigger content deals. (The group, led by CEO Lee Trink, received an influx of $291 million in an October merger with a special purpose acquisition company to fuel its content growth plans.)
Then there’s Rae, the TikTok star who has channeled her viral success into film and TV projects like Netflix’s He’s All That. “I think that the nature of celebrity and talent has shifted somewhat, where it is not necessarily, ‘Can this person be a movie star?’ ” says Ben Davis, a partner at WME Digital. “It is an important element … but we also look at, say, digital businesses and how they stand on their own. It doesn’t need to be in service of crossing over anymore.” Davis adds that for someone like Rae, film and TV projects work “as a marketing driver into her core channels, which she owns and controls. So how traditional media opportunities interplay with more deep-dive creator economy businesses is really exciting and what we are driving toward with many of our clients.”
The opportunity isn’t niche. Per research released Oct. 6 by YouTube and Oxford Economics, YouTube’s creator ecosystem alone contributed $20.5 billion to the U.S. GDP in 2020, while a UTA study released the same month says the market for consumers who may be interested in spending directly on creator content may grow to $18 billion.
“There is the potential that if it wasn’t just YouTube paying out the way it [does], and if all of the other companies who are in the creator economy space … contributed in similar fashion, the creator economy could easily rival Hollywood in terms of economic impact and job creation, just as it does today in terms of cultural influence,” YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl told reporters at a press conference for the research report.
Increasingly, major brands are turning to creators — both established talent and up-and-coming names — to try and differentiate themselves in the eyes of Gen Z consumers, who want to “have those direct relationships with the talent and creators whom you admire or are fans of or whom you respect or reflect your values,” says Joe Kessler, head of UTA IQ, the agency’s in-house research and data division. Noted Deborah Wahl, global chief marketing officer for General Motors, speaking at October’s Advertising Week New York: “I think we are at an inflection point not only in the world and in communities but in the advertising business as well. Some of the people who we are working with, like LeBron James, have a larger channel than the traditional media we buy.”
“Our job is to figure out how to use the platform of UTA to connect brands to creators,” says Julian Jacobs, co-head of UTA Marketing. “Talent agencies have always played the role of guiding artists and creatives while at the same time connecting dots and finding them opportunities.”
And it’s early days for these types of partnerships. While today you can follow a creator on YouTube and TikTok, buy a brand they helped create (like Rae’s Item Beauty products), and watch them in a movie or TV show, there are more opportunities on the horizon. Wahl cites the potential for GM to add a “LeBron” or “Regina King” mode to upcoming electric car models — the NBA star is a pitchman for the GMC Hummer EV — by changing the lighting, the performance and what appears on the infotainment screens. (King signed on to be an ambassador for the Cadillac brand in September 2020.)
“The market is so nascent at this point that I don’t think most brands have had a chance to thoughtfully and authentically integrate their brand messaging into an environment where a creator is communicating and relating directly to their fans,” UTA’s Kessler says. But to hear those who follow the space closely say it, the creator-spurred changes to the business of entertainment and marketing have been inevitable for years.
“COVID accelerated change that otherwise would have taken five or 10 years, but it was always going in this direction,” says WME’s Davis, noting how talent that had never been active on creator platforms began to use them during lockdowns, while at the same time online shopping use grew on platforms like TikTok and YouTube.
Or, as Nicole Quinn, a general partner at Lightspeed Ventures, said at The Information’s Creator Economy Summit on Oct. 28, “In the same way we used to talk about technology eating the world, well, now it’s creators eating the world.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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