What MasterClass Online Courses Pay to Lure Hollywood Stars as Teachers

Masterclass_Comp - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Masterclass; iStock

A hundred grand is entry-level pay for masters including Shonda Rhimes, Aaron Sorkin, Steve Martin and Kevin Spacey dabbling as online instructors: "I would love a class from Elon Musk," says MasterClass CEO David Rogier.

When San Francisco-based MasterClass got underway in 2014, it had a hard time finding big names to teach its $90 online education courses. But the days of co-founder/CEO David Rogier cold-calling author James Patterson to convince him to sign on as an instructor are over. A-listers such as Hans Zimmer, Aaron Sorkin and now Shonda Rhimes are signing lucrative deals to teach, as MasterClass plans to expand into new subjects.

MasterClass aims to bring the quality of Netflix to the $100 billion e-learning industry. That means getting "the best in the world to teach and share and make it a price point that is affordable," says Rogier. Each course offers several hours of instruction directed by the likes of Jay Roach and Davis Guggenheim, workbooks full of additional material and virtual "office hours." But its true cachet comes from its instructors. Rather than have any old PE teacher offer tennis lessons, MasterClass has Serena Williams; Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is the one instructing students on how to recite a captivating monologue.

Sources familiar with the company's deals say instructors make about $100,000 up front when they begin working with MasterClass and receive 30 percent of the revenue their classes generate. But money isn't the sole draw for instructors, says Rogier, who declines to comment on the contracts. "They see this as a way to give back," he says, explaining that it was Sorkin's idea to re-create a West Wing writers room to show his students how to plot an alternate premiere for the series' fifth season (he had left after season four). "If it was for the money, there are tons of other options."

In the intro video for her new seven-week course on television writing, uber-producer Rhimes explains that she has never been this open about her process. "It's the stuff that I wish someone had told me a long time ago," she tells students, who, during their free time, can study an early draft of the Scandal pilot.

MasterClass sold courses to more than 30,000 people in its first four months, with only a handful of instructors, including Dustin Hoffman. Nearly two years later, it has more than a dozen courses and is adding new programs from Steve Martin, Annie Leibovitz and Frank Gehry. A new $35 million round of funding led by Silicon Valley's IVP (the same firm that has invested in Snap and The Honest Co.) will help it expand into new categories, including business and education. "I would love a class from Elon Musk," says Rogier.

That's quite a shift from the early days when a personal connection helped Rogier land Hoffman as MasterClass' first instructor. "The biggest challenge for them was finding talent as a prelaunch education company," says Molly Schmidt, who led WME's investment in the firm before its launch and has helped it connect with agency clients. "Now we have a ton of inbound ideas from agents. Those conversations are becoming much easier for them."

This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.