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‘Hunger Games’ and iJustine: How Lionsgate Courted YouTube Talent to Connect With Fans

”This wasn’t a commercial, this was an awesome piece of content that I was able to create and share with my audience,“ a YouTube star tells TheWrap

As YouTube faces like Justine Ezarik, also known as iJustine, become superstars among millennials, studios such as Lionsgate are courting Internet tastemakers in increasingly sophisticated online marketing campaigns on films — like this weekend’s “The Hunger Games Mockingjay – Part 1.”

While studios have traditionally sought social-media relevance with official trailers and short film features, now they are hiring YouTube influencers to help create fan-films of their films, tapping into young followers more familiar with YouTube faces than upcoming Hollywood titles, far less expensive than exorbitant promotional material.

Justine Ezarik, a creator at StyleHaul Network, a site dedicated to fashion, beauty and lifestyle content with a community of more than 3,500 original creators on YouTube, was one of five YouTubers selected to participate in “District Voices,” a video campaign for “Mockingjay.” Ezarik’s lifestyle channel iJustine has over 2 million followers who are avid fans of the franchise.

“Essentially people thought we were in the movie because the videos they shot looked so good,” Ezarik told TheWrap. “This wasn’t a commercial, this was an awesome piece of content that I was able to create and share with my audience.”

“District Voices” is a five-episode series that gave life to Panem, the fictional world of “The Hunger Games.” Each episode featured a different YouTube personality whose channel content aligned with a specific industry from Panem. The series was presented as programming from Capitol TV, the government-sanctioned television network seen in the film. The creators who participated in “District Voices” had a combined base of over 4.9 million subscribers and more than 550 million video views.

“It’s interesting to see people realizing how amazing these audiences are and how you can capture their attention and speak to them so much differently than a normal commercial,” Ezarik said.

Ezarik’s video was shot in the desert about an hour outside of Los Angeles to recreate Panem’s transportation district. The shoot was much bigger than Ezarik’s typical production, requiring a sizable crew that included stunt drivers and armored vehicles.

Ezarik was even invited to the Los Angeles film premiere, although she wasn’t allowed to film the festivities for iJustine.

“They wouldn’t let us take our phones in,” she said.

Justine Ezarik at the "Hunger Games" premiere

Justine Ezarik at the “Hunger Games” premiere

“It’s such a big movie and that they recognize the importance of the influencers, what they can bring and how they can actually put butts in seats,” Vanessa Del Muro, head of global talent at StyleHaul, told TheWrap. StyleHaul, which is the largest original video content network on YouTube for fashion and beauty, has seen an uptick in the number of studios looking to use their talent to promote projects.

“It’s a stark difference between what we saw during the last [“Hunger Games”] movie when they weren’t necessarily letting many of the influencers even cover the project on YouTube,” Del Muro said. “Now that they recognize the power and they’re hiring them to promote the film, it really speaks volumes to how far YouTube has come.”

In addition to “Hunger Games,” talent on StyleHaul was used in campaigns for Universal’s “The Purge,” Lifetime’s “Project Runway” and CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”

“We’re now a part of the process,” Del Muro said. “We’re a resource to promote a film or TV show property.”

Estimates have YouTube stars getting paid in the thousands to tens of thousands for this kind of advertising. The number can go into the hundreds of thousands for a recognizable celebrity, but those deals are rare.

“What’s exciting about these new platforms is that they’re not necessarily household names among somebody who is [age] 45 to 60,” said Rich Raddon, co-founder and CEO at ZEFR, a tech company that helps brands discover and target important influencers. “Because of that, it opens up opportunities for brands to be associated with content creators who have a tremendous amount of influence that aren’t also fielding multi-million dollar requests from broadcast or traditional media outlets.

“What’s fantastic about these creators is that they can upload a video, include the brand’s messaging within that video and that revenue gets paid directly to the content creator,” Raddon said. “The creator doesn’t have to split that revenue with anybody else.”