This post was originally written for The Jungle, a weekly newsletter about the business of YouTube. Subscribe here.
By Sarah Ullman
Casting in feature films has always had a commercial component: which actor can open a movie to box-office success? Who is valuable in the most international territories for foreign sales? An actor’s popularity has always mattered for box-office sales.
A recent article from The Wrap lamented How Hollywood Actors’ Twitter Followings Have Become as Important as Talent; the subtext was an almost audible moaning and groaning about preferencing marketing over creative. However, because the way we sell content (using social media) has evolved, and the way we measure popularity has changed, the way we create that content (including casting) must also follow suit. Social media is simply a more public sales tool and metric for popularity than the private analysis that is integral to the casting process at traditional studios.
The crucial problem with a casting strategy that focuses on social media metrics: when the people who are most popular on social media are not native to the type of content being produced, it does not necessarily mean that they will be successful in the new format. The natural inclination is to simply insert a YouTube creator into a feature film, but it must be a carefully considered match rather than a blind grab at audience reach. However, the package that includes the right IP, filmmaker, and talent is the package that has the potential to be quite lucrative.
The most obvious pro: marketing. If producers make sure to build marketing and promotion into the contract of the creator, the movie has the ability to build a brand and a story from the beginning of the production process, when talent will share their activities on social.
Creators that are involved from the very beginning are the most invested in the process and will take “ownership” of a project (a la “Camp Takota”). The marketing feels more organic, the audience is more engaged, and that excitement drives purchases.
The creative of a film that is developed with digital-native talent is far more likely to appeal to digital-native audiences.
Franchises or world-building properties would do well to take notice of talent’s ability to sell products and generate incremental income through ancillary revenue streams like consumer goods, product lines, books, etc. If you’re making more than just a movie, consider digital-native talent.
Scripted content struggles on the YouTube platform, so it’s quite rare to find talent that has the audience volume of a vlogger but a talent for acting.
A YouTube creator’s success is usually derived from authenticity, access, and personality. They are great at being themselves — and making that person someone you want to be friends with. When given a character to play, this authenticity is difficult to replicate. If a character is close to the creator’s personality, the transition is a bit easier, but scripted material often feels stilted.
Access can be a tough pill to swallow for more traditional producers. Should you let a creator tweet photos from set? (Yes.) Should you allow them to explain the filmmaking process and what it’s like to work on a movie to their audience? (Yes.) Should you require approvals on tweet language or Instagram photos? (No.)
Popularity on the YouTube platform or social media at large doesn’t necessarily translate to to ability to sell. “Driving power” or the power to drive audience transactions in some way (click on this link, buy this ticket, etc.) is an entirely different metric that should be carefully considered.
There’s a huge opportunity here, both for traditional media feature producers and for digital native talent. What are other pros and cons to casting YouTubers in feature films? The considerations are legion and this list is certainly not exhaustive. Comment below or, you know…tweet at me.
Sarah Ullman (@thesillysully) is a writer and creative consultant focusing on the YouTube ecosystem. She writes a weekly newsletter about the business of YouTube called “The Jungle” (subscribe here) and specializes in helping “traditional media” clients transition to the digital landscape.