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After a year of no film premieres or in-person awards shows, Hollywood is turning to a new venue to have the kind of spontaneous conversations with strangers that they once had in line at the bar. Clubhouse, an app for audio-only conversations, has over the past few months become a popular hangout spot for a number of top filmmakers, actors and influencers.
On a recent December evening, director Barry Jenkins was on Clubhouse talking about his work on 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk. At the same time, in another virtual room, Ava DuVernay was listening to a live performance of the Lion King musical, while Tiffany Haddish was part of a conversation titled “I Love Black Unicorns,” an allusion to the title of her memoir.
“Clubhouse is this perfectly timed outlet for creativity, and it’s new enough that it feels like there’s this opportunity,” says writer, comedian and podcaster Baratunde Thurston, who regularly hosts conversations on Clubhouse.
Less than a year old, Clubhouse was founded by a pair of Silicon Valley veterans, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, and recently raised a reported $100 million in backing led by VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Though it’s still in a testing, invite-only phase, Clubhouse has attracted around 2 million weekly active users — and a waitlist of people desperate to gain entry. “There’s a high level of FOMO on the app, so it’s driving people to want to be a part of it,” says Boye Fajinmi, co-founder of digital brand and online community TheFutureParty.
Early Clubhouse users say the free app — which adds audio to the early-internet concept of the chat room — is appealing in how it mimics an IRL conversation. Any user can start a room and determine who is allowed to speak. Others can listen in and tap the “raise your hand” icon to request speaking capabilities. Clubhouse doesn’t record the conversations, which encourages off-the-cuff interactions.
Hollywood and members of the music community, always eager to jump onto a buzzy new app, have clamored for invites, and Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Hart, Terry Crews, Questlove, 21 Savage and Gayle King have been spotted in the app.
Creatives on Clubhouse have been quick to embrace the app as a place to express themselves. Rooms regularly pop up where people share tips about how to grow their followings and discuss how to monetize their audiences. The company is currently piloting a creator program to determine how best to grow that community on its platform. In a Jan. 24 blog post, the founders said Clubhouse’s latest cash infusion would help it begin testing ways to pay creators through tips, tickets, subscriptions and grants.
It hasn’t taken long for Clubhouse users to branch out of the standard audio conversation format. Music marketing executive Noelle Chesnut Whitmore says it was her experience dancing alone in her living room during live jazz music sessions hosted on the app by The Cotton Club last fall that first indicated to her that Clubhouse could be more than a place for conversation. On Dec. 26, she staged her live reenactment of The Lion King featuring more than 40 actors and narrators and a full choir. “I wanted us to bring joy to people in the middle of a pandemic,” she says. “This was the first time I was going to be spending the holiday by myself, so we were very intentional about wanting to do it the day after Christmas.” DuVernay praised the performance on Twitter, calling it “gorgeous.” Broadway actor Leroy Church is currently casting a performance of Dreamgirls on Clubhouse scheduled to premiere in February.
Much of the early innovation on Clubhouse is being spearheaded by Black creatives. Thurston says he’s not surprised, given that the Black community has long driven cultural trends. He adds that Clubhouse, in its early days, has given a lot of power to its users to build an audience and control the conversation: “Black people have been exploited a lot in various venues, so the possibility of staking a claim, of carving out some space, is attractive.”
Industry observers note that Clubhouse is a young app that will need to grow in strategic ways before it can become the next Twitter or Snapchat, particularly when it comes to fostering a creator community and protecting its users from harassment. After a number of early users criticized Clubhouse for its lack of moderation tools, the company released a blog post condemning racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech on its platform and promising to take action against users who violate community guidelines. It also laid out plans to strengthen its process for reporting violations while acknowledging that user safety “is a critical area of investment for us as a company.”
It’s for this reason that not everyone in Hollywood is knocking on Clubhouse’s door. “The exclusiveness and the notoriety of Clubhouse has certainly given them that buzzy start, but it’ll be interesting to see if the issues in moderation get worked out and people find value in the product and not just in the status of being associated with the platform,” says Kendall Ostrow, head of client strategy at UTA IQ, the agency’s data and analytics group.
Clubhouse’s big challenges will be to improve its product and build a loyal community before a more established platform beats it at its own game. Already Twitter has begun testing a new voice-only chat-room feature. Still, a lot of early members are optimistic about Clubhouse’s chances at success. Says Fajinmi, “If I am right, this app is going to mint thousands of new thought leaders.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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