As web video merges with film and TV, meet the breakouts — from Lilly Singh to Adam Conover — leveraging fame on YouTube and Instagram into careers on platforms their parents actually watch.
With billions of hours of video streaming online, it's hard enough to get discovered, let alone break out. But the 15 digital stars on THR's new Disrupters list all have managed to catch Hollywood's eye. Take Lilly Singh, one of YouTube's biggest comedic draws, with 12 million followers, who'll soon be stretching for a dramatic role in HBO's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Or Adam Conover, who parlayed his snarky CollegeHumor series, Adam Ruins Everything, into a show for truTV. Or Liza Koshy, who after only two years of posting YouTube videos has a gig hosting the reboot of Total Request Live.
For Hollywood, this digital-first talent just might be the answer to the next-generation audience that is more likely to "Netflix and chill" than tune in for primetime or race to a theater — one reason summer box-office revenue is down more than 12 percent from last year. It's why CNN paid $25 million for vlogger Casey Neistat's video app, Beme. And why Food Network courted drunk cooking queen Hannah Hart for a new travel show.
Altogether, the stars on this list — 10 of whom gathered for an L.A. photo shoot in early August — easily have racked up more than 1 billion views, 100 million followers and thousands of web videos. All those zeros are hard to ignore. You may not know all their names just yet — or even any of them — but there's a good chance you're looking at Hollywood's future.
Profiles written by Mia Galuppo, Natalie Jarvey, Brian Porreca and Bryn Elise Sandberg.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
This sci-fi enthusiast's YouTube videos, in which she brings her blunt humor to everything from depression to dick pics, have caught the attention of 1.9 million subscribers — as well as casting directors, landing her a recurring role on Freeform crime drama Stitchers and a part on Comedy Central's upcoming Corporate. She has also appeared in films Hello, My Name Is Doris and Ant-Man. "YouTube has given me the freedom to turn things down that don't speak to me," says the 28-year-old former military brat, who is in production on YouTube Red series Youth & Consequences, which she is also executive producing. Her show for Verizon's go90, Miss 2059, also recently wrapped production on its second season. If she has her way, she'll continue to specialize in the futuristic: "I grew up loving sci-fi and fantasy shows. It's a great way to mirror problems in today's society."
FIRST APP I CHECK IN THE MORNING "Twitter. If anything horrible has happened with our administration, Twitter's going to be talking about it."
ACTOR I ADMIRE "Jennifer Lawrence. She's done so many cool sci-fi and indie projects."
LAST SHOW I BINGE-WATCHED "Planet Earth season two. I love nature shows."
FUTURE TECH THAT FREAKS ME OUT "If AI rises up and takes over, good for them. Maybe they'll take care of us like pets."
Once the most followed person on Vine (16 million followers), Toronto-born King Bach abdicated his throne when the app folded in January. But the 29-year-old has parlayed his experience into an acting career, landing a role alongside Mike Epps in the movie Meet the Blacks and opposite Bella Thorne and Robbie Amell in Netflix film The Babysitter, along with stints on TV shows Black Jesus and The Mindy Project. Says Bachelor, "Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be Jim Carrey. I want to be the biggest move star in the world." But Bachelor says he has no plans to stop posting to YouTube, where he has more than 3 million subscribers across multiple channels. "That's what got me here," he says. "I would never abandon them."
FIRST APP I CHECK IN THE MORNING "My text messages to see who tried to booty call me late at night."
ACTOR I ADMIRE Will Smith
LAST EMOJI I USED "The angry face to my ex. No, the laughing one."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND ME … "Before 11 I'm at the house playing piano. After 11 I'm in the club."
Brunson might be one of the few digital stars with a true 9-to-5 job — producing and starring in videos for BuzzFeed, where she has a new project called Green Screen for short-form projects. Through the digital publisher, she has produced, written and starred in Broke for YouTube Red and Up for Adoption for go90. The Philly-born comedian, 27, who found viral fame with the video "The Girl Who's Never Been on a Nice Date," is also pursuing independent projects, including appearing at Montreal's Just for Laughs and voicing a character on Adult Swim's Lazor Wulf, for which she also worked in the writers room. "I'm used to making it up as I go," she says. "It was nice to learn the traditional system." And she's currently working on a book about important moments in her life.
HOW I GET MY NEWS "It's a mix of Twitter and, honestly, BuzzFeed News — shameless plug."
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "Honest Trailers are my jam."
ACTOR I ADMIRE "Chris Rock is a round-the-clock actor, who's also a producer and has done documentaries."
FUTURE TECH THAT FREAKS ME OUT "I have an Amazon Alexa, but it scares me. I love it. I talk to it and ask it to tell me the weather. But I can only imagine that something even wilder is already in the works. Kids are truly going to have side-by-side robots like that movie I, Robot. That's what I'm afraid of."
Conover made web videos with his Bard College sketch group before YouTube even launched. But it was through comedy site CollegeHumor that the Long Island-raised 34-year-old found his big break. Adam Ruins Everything, in which he debunks popularly held ideas (like why owning a home is better than renting one), has generated 30 million views and caught the attention of TruTV, which picked up the series in 2015. "They had the chutzpah to take a risk," says Conover who has also voiced characters on Bojack Horseman.
HOW I GET MY NEWS "New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times apps. I'm taking a Twitter hiatus."
LAST EMOJI I USED "There's a dying rose with a single petal falling over. It's very beautiful and sad."
IF I COULD SWAP JOBS WITH ANYONE IN HOLLYWOOD, I'D PICK ... "A late-night host. When you see James Corden, you think, 'This guy is having a blast.'"
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND ME ... "At home streaming on Twitch. I'm way too tired to go out on Friday nights."
Bronx-raised Daniel Baker (aka Desus Nice) and Joel Martinez (aka The Kid Mero) gained internet fame in 2013 with a podcast and web series, then parlayed that into roles on MTV's Guy Code. Vice poached them in 2016 for a late-night talk show on Viceland, where they've solidified their reputations as news pundits with an edge (Pharrell and Whoopi Goldberg are fans). But Desus, 35, and Mero, 33, are still trying to catch one person's attention. Says Mero, a married father of four, "We're waiting for the day when Donald Trump tweets at us. [He'll say,] ''It's a failing show. It's not that good. Why do they have a bear in the back?'"
SHOW WE WANT TO REBOOT
Desus: "Mister Rogers' [Neighborhood], but in the Bronx. When they go to the Land of Make Believe, they just go to the bodega."
LAST EMOJI WE USED
Mero: "The Dominican flag."
IF WE COULD SWAP JOBS WITH ANYONE IN HOLLYWOOD, WE'D PICK ...
Desus: "Somebody like Jerry Seinfeld who is still getting those residual checks."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND US …
Mero: "After I put my kids [to bed], I go to my man chamber and smoke ridiculous amounts of weed and play music on Instagram Live."
Hart was working at a New York translating firm when she made her first YouTube video, titled "My Drunk Kitchen," as a joke. The clip of her cooking while intoxicated went viral, and she left her job to turn the concept into a web series. Since then, the 30-year-old has amassed 2.5 million YouTube subscribers, published two books and acted in a handful of digital films. Now the San Francisco native has a Food Network show, I Hart Food, that debuted Aug. 14. Says Hart, "It's a natural evolution of what I've built online."
LAST SHOW I BINGE-WATCHED "Kimmy Schmidt season four was fantastic."
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "Recently, I really like watching edible water, which is water in plastic bubbles that replace water bottles. I really like bite-sized, science-y videos and slow-motion stuff."
SHOW I WANT TO REBOOT Roswell
FUTURE TECH THAT FREAKS ME OUT "Bioengineering is where I'm going to draw the line. I don't know if I want that chip implanted in my eye."
Mamrie Hart (no relation to Hannah) studied sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York before taking her comedy to YouTube in 2009 with the channel You Deserve a Drink. “YouTube was connecting with the stuff I have always wanted to do,” explains Hart, who has amassed over 1.2 million subscribers. The 33-year-old North Carolina native co-wrote and stars in digital feature Dirty 30 for Lionsgate, where she currently has a first-look deal for microbudget features. Hart is prepping for the release of her second book and has sold a comedy feature to Sony Pictures. Hart, who looks to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as career models, next wants to add director to her title, explaining with her signature deadpan, "I only have a few more years on this face."
HOW I GET MY NEWS "I watch Rachel Maddow every night. I knew I was an adult when I was like, 'Has Maddow been DVRed?' "
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "I get really sucked into the short-form cooking stuff."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND ME ... "At dinner and bars with friends."
FUTURE TECH THAT FREAKS ME OUT "It's virtual reality. Kids don't want to be off their phones now. If they could immerse themselves in VR, why wouldn't they?"
While in school at Biola University, King and a buddy pulled an all-nighter to make a video featuring kittens with lightsabers, and by dinnertime the next day, he had made the news. Now, Portland-born King, 27, has an Orange County-based production outfit with 15 employees that help make his VFX-heavy videos, which he describes as "digital sleight of hand," for YouTube and clients like Justin Bieber. Next up, Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment is adapting his novel My Magical Life (out Sept. 26), about a boy who learns he has magical powers, into a feature.
LAST SHOW I BINGE-WATCHED The Man in the High Castle
LAST EMOJI I USED "The peace sign."
ACTOR I ADMIRE "I love Matthew McConaughey."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND ME … "At home. My wife and I have a foster kid, so we'd be sitting on the couch with spit-up on our shirts trying to get him to sleep."
Known for her goofy characters, Houston-native Koshy, 21, got a Hollywood break when Tyler Perry caught a glimpse of her YouTube channel and offered her a small role in Boo! A Madea Halloween. She also stars in Hulu horror series Freakish, which just wrapped filming its second season, and YouTube Red special Jingle Ballin'. Lately, she's inked a development deal with MTV, signing on to host its TRL reboot. "I grew up watching TRL," says Koshy, whose YouTube channel attracts more than 11 million followers. "I had older sisters who got me into it!"
HOW I GET MY NEWS "I'm going to sound like the most millennial person but, honestly, Twitter."
LAST EMOJI I USED "Probably the poop emoji. I feel like that's mostly aligned with my brand."
IF I COULD SWAP JOBS WITH ANYONE IN HOLLYWOOD, I'D PICK ... "Robert Downey Jr. I would love to be a really good-looking dad who plays awesome Iron Man."
ACTOR I ADMIRE "Melissa McCarthy. She's so funny and she keeps bringing it."
Collectively known as BriTANick, they started making YouTube sketches together at NYU in the mid-2000s. “It was before anyone was doing it to get an agent or a job," said McElhaney, 31, adding they realized it was a viable career path when they saw some of their friends get representation off of their digital content. He added of their choice to pursue a comedy career online: "It confused our parents." But the Atlanta-born childhood friends caught Hollywood's attention, and director Joss Whedon put them in his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. A Comedy Central pilot and writing stints on shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia followed. Then came Saturday Night Live, where they landed writing gigs last year. They will soon head back to New York for their second season on the late-night show, but Kocher, 31, admits that otherwise "we'd probably be making a lot more sketches."
HOW WE GET OUR NEWS
McElhaney: "At SNL, everyone is on their phones all the time, yelling the news at us."
LAST SHOW WE BINGE-WATCHED
McElhaney: "The new season of Wet Hot American Summer."
Kocher: The Leftovers
IF WE COULD SWAP JOBS WITH ANYONE IN HOLLYWOOD, WE'D PICK ...
McElhaney: "Together? Trey Parker and Matt Stone."
Kocher: "Or Phil Lord and Chris Miller."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND US …
Kocher: "If I'm in L.A. and it's 11 p.m., I'm about to go to sleep. If I'm in N.Y. and it's 11 p.m., I'm about to drink for six more hours."
His ultra-GIF-able alter ego, Joanne the Scammer, whom he portrays in a fur coat and blond wig, has earned the 26-year-old a following of 2 million Instagram loyalists, a deal with the Turner-owned digital platform Super Deluxe to turn Joanne into a web series and a merchandise business that includes everything from emojis to welcome mats. He has racked up famous fans including Chelsea Peretti and Joe Mande, with whom he is shopping a TV series based on the character. Would he ever consider embodying a character other than Joanne? "Not really," says Miller. "I like her too much."
ACTOR I ADMIRE Oprah
LAST SHOW I BINGE-WATCHED What Not to Wear
LAST EMOJI I USED Joanne the Scammer SCAMOJI
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "Old Oprah episodes."
Since selling his startup, Beme, an app for unfiltered video, to CNN in November last year for around $25 million, Neistat has been working on building a media company with the backing of network president Jeff Zucker. That includes hosting short segments for YouTube channel BemeNews. The company is also incubating several technology ideas, including an app for viewing news worldwide called Panels. But don't mistake Neistat, 36, for another pundit. "My involvement with CNN the company is next to zero," says the dad of two, who these days is posting less frequently to his main YouTube channel, where his vlog has nearly 8 million subscribers. Neistat, who was once the subject of short-lived HBO series The Neistat Brothers, currently stars in a national Samsung ad campaign and says he plans to increase his public speaking engagements.
HOW I GET MY NEWS "I read an equal amount of what I would describe as more left-leaning and right-leaning news. It's the only way I can get some understanding of what's actually taking place."
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "Pet videos. Dogs for days."
SHOW I WANT TO REBOOT The Wonder Years
FUTURE TECH THAT FREAKS ME OUT "The cellphone camera is probably the single scariest thing when I think of being a teen in this day and age. It makes bad decisions permanent."
Paul hit 10 million-plus YouTube subscribers in less than one year with antics that often involve breaking plates before the Ohio native made the move to L.A. "to become an entertainer outside of the digital space." It seems to have paid off with a starring turn in Legendary Digital's postapocalyptic drama The Thinning, a role in MGM's Valley Girl (his first studio movie) and the second season of Paul's Watchable series, Logan Paul Vs., returning on September 11th. Paul, 22, wants to model his career after Dwayne Johnson, whom he sees as a kindred spirit, "He transitioned from what seemed like such a far-fetched world in wrestling to becoming an actor." In spite of his increasingly packed schedule, Paul says he will not stop making content for his fans (the Logang Paulers): “I will never ditch my audience. They are my family.”
LAST SHOW I BINGE-WATCHED "Breaking Bad. I got bored after season three. I'm a product of the digital age."
LAST EMOJI I USED The fire emoji
ACTOR I ADMIRE "Dwayne Johnson. He is the hardest-working man in Hollywood."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND ME ... Vlogging
When Rogers was in high school, he told the members of his sketch comedy troupe that someday Conan O'Brien would appear in one of their YouTube videos. More than a decade later, he has nearly 1 million fans, and has found a better way to work with the late-night host: O'Brien is executive producing and voicing a character in Rogers' Final Space. The animated TBS series will premiere in 2018 with a cast that also includes David Tennant and Fred Armisen. Rogers also has a digital pilot that was released through studio New Form, is co-writing a book, and has a couple of feature ideas in the works. Meanwhile, the recently married 30-year-old runs a soda parlor in his hometown of Nashville that he calls a space to "hang out with the people who watch our videos."
LAST EMOJI I USED "The OK. I always use that."
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "I like wrestling and MMA — not the fighting but before the fight where they badmouth each other relentlessly."
SHOW I WANT TO REBOOT "The original X-Men cartoon."
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT YOU'LL FIND ME ... "At the movies."
Singh was on tour in Australia when her agent suggested she audition for HBO's Fahrenheit 451. "My first reaction was, absolutely not. I'm so tired," recalls the 28-year-old Toronto native, who has 12 million YouTube subscribers. But she taped an audition outside a Melbourne laundromat in the early hours of the morning and got the part ("a good little lesson for me" to never pass up an opportunity, she says). She'll star alongside Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon as a tabloid vlogger who didn't appear in the novel. Singh also landed small roles in Ice Age: Collision Course and Bad Moms and was the first digital star named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She's also staying busy with a book, How to Be a Bawse, and hosting a gala at the Just for Laughs festival. Now, she's set her sights on expanding her credits behind the camera: "I definitely want to expand into longer-format, higher [production value] content where I'm not only in front of the camera but behind it as a writer and director."
LAST SHOW I BINGE-WATCHED Jane the Virgin
MY YOUTUBE GUILTY PLEASURE "I love Zach King's videos. He's a wizard, and I'm just trying to figure out how."
IF I COULD SWAP JOBS WITH ANYONE IN HOLLYWOOD, I'D PICK ... "It would definitely be Dwayne Johnson. I'm so amazed by how much he gets done. I'd be really curious to see how the team around him functions."
SHOW I WANT TO REBOOT "I'd love a Fresh Prince reboot and play the Fresh Princess."