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The joke-stealing fallout following Instagram star Fat Jew’s CAA signing raises a significant question for agencies looking to take part in today’s digital talent land grab: How do you avoid potential landmines?
By way of background: Fat Jew – né Josh Ostrovsky – has become one of the Internet’s biggest stars, attracting 5.7 million followers to the jokes he posts on his Instagram account. That viral infamy allowed him to extend his stunts offline, including signing with One Management modeling agency last month and launching wine line White Girl Rosé.
He’ll also publish his first book, Money Pizza Respect, via Grand Central Publishing later this year, guest star on Nicole Richie’s VH1 reality show Candidly Nicole and present a menswear collection for Dad Bods at New York Fashion Week next month. Along the way, he’s always been dogged with complaints over reposting other people’s jokes without attribution, but The Hollywood Reporter’s Aug. 13 announcement that he had signed with CAA appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In the wake of the backlash, it was revealed that Fat Jew has lost deals with both Comedy Central and Seamless, although both the network and the food delivery service said their contract terminations preceded the recent events. Fat Jew has since been consistently tagging his posts with the original source, and changed his Instagram profile to “United States Creative Director of Internet Curatorial Affairs.”
CAA did not respond to a request for comment, but the ordeal raises the question about how much vetting agencies do in the rush to land the biggest new media names – and, in general, how much baggage is worth taking on as a calculated risk. Rival agents understand CAA‘s decision.
“Part of today’s Internet culture is about curation and commentary of other people’s work,” one top digital agent tells THR. “So whereas Carlos Mencia, for example, was literally standing on a stage and ripping off jokes, Fat Jew is in some cases pulling from other sources and layering commentary that is very specific and unique. As a talent agency we take plagiarism seriously, but I think the Fat Jew thing is a gray area.”
A partner at a rival agency agrees. “The rules of engagement [online] are different. In some classic worlds you would call passing along a joke an ‘homage’ – a fancy way of saying you stole it,” the source tells THR. “The rules will evolve as this world becomes more mainstream and people get more comfortable with how it all works. Everybody’s going to make mistakes, and I’m not going to pile on CAA for this.”
The potential pitfalls surrounding digital talent range from plagiarism claims (beauty vlogger Zoe Sugg, repped by U.K. digital talent agency Gleam Futures, came under fire for allegedly employing a ghostwriter for her 2014 best-selling debut novel, Girl Online) to political incorrectness (Nash Grier, repped by WME, has been criticized for sexist, racist and homophobic jokes in his Vine videos) to more serious charges (one major Hollywood agency quietly dropped a digital client after repeated accusations of sexual misconduct).
“With [digital] influencers it’s a little bit like the Wild West, because they’re coming out of nowhere with a couple million followers on YouTube or Instagram,” the partner says. “That’s why we need [our digital department head] to help us evaluate these things, because he knows that space so well.”
Controversial potential clients are subject to rigorous vetting. “We take red flags very seriously, and there are certain artists we’ve chosen not to be in business with because according to the law or to public opinion, they’re just not great people,” the digital agent says. “We do our research – the digital talent space in particular is very close-knit, so it’s easy to ask client A about potential client B. We aren’t just going to make a decision based on hearsay.”
The partner, whose agency is no stranger to taking risks on potentially radioactive clients (including in traditional media), agrees that it all comes down to trusting one’s own judgment. “It’s a healthy debate we have internally,” the source says. “We’ve passed on people where we felt like it was too controversial or it wasn’t worth it, and sometimes we’ve signed them because we felt like there was an underlying talent and morality that we could align with, and we felt like they were wrongly maligned.”
Problematic talent isn’t restricted to the digital realm, of course (ahem, Lindsay Lohan) and the digital agent argues that the majority of new media stars are just as savvy and professional as their traditional media counterparts. “In order for them to make the living that many of them are making, they have to be smart and sophisticated about their business,” this person says. “It doesn’t mean that some of them don’t run around and do wacky things, because many of them are teenagers and young adults. But most of them understand their craft really well and take it very seriously.”
And this source’s agency isn’t swayed by virality “at all,” the agent adds. “Popularity is an indicator, but not necessarily the most important. There have been top-shelf brand names we’ve passed on because we just didn’t really feel passionate about them.”
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