“If they need a bit of money that day, they just make themselves available. It’s like being an Uber driver,” Peter Csathy, chairman of CREATV Media, tells TheWrap
“Tiger King” antihero Carole Baskin is gaining further notoriety — and making hundreds of thousands of dollars — by sending short, personalized video shout-outs to paying fans through a mobile app called Cameo.
In less than a week on the platform, Baskin raked in over $100,000, Cameo Chief Operating Officer Arthur Leopold told TheWrap, noting that some celebrities can earn much more.
Cameo videos typically range from 10 seconds to two minutes — it’s up to the celebrity — but the company recently began offering brief virtual meet-and-greets with talent for up to five times more than the average rate. Cameo also offers a paid direct message feature where fans can text directly with celebrities for a limited time. The platform has proven to be a lucrative way for entertainers to supplement their income during quarantine while in-person events remain canceled.
“All those revenues are gone indefinitely, and could be for a long time, and artists are looking for new ways to make money out of necessity,” said Peter Csathy, founder and chairman of the communications firm CREATV Media. “One of the areas (in tech) where I see a real significant future opportunity, and Cameo is part of it, is the ability for artists to scale themselves and monetize it. The pandemic and our collective lockdown has only accelerated that trend.”
Leopold said the talent sets the pricing and that Cameo takes a 25% cut of every booking, regardless of the price or how famous the person is.
The prices for Zoom calls with celebrities range from expensive to absurd. For $15,000, “Entourage” fans can book Jeremy Piven for a 10-minute conversation on Zoom, while comedian Gilbert Gottfried charges $500 per call. Comedian Andrew Dice Clay‘s price tag is $1,400. “The Office” actor Leslie David Baker asks for a cool $2,500 per booking, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre charges $2,000 per session. Rapper Snoop Dogg, an investor in the company (like Favre), has charged as much as $750 for messages to fans.
Some entertainers can make $20,000 in “15 to 20 minutes,” Leopold said.
As long as a fan has the cash, they can book a Zoom call with the celebrity and receive dial-in instructions. If customers don’t hear back from the star within one week, Cameo provides a full refund. “It’s really a brand positive for celebrities in that people are paying them to make them more famous,” Leopold said.
Csathy said that Cameo represents a gig economy for celebrities and entertainers, who have produced more than 1 million videos on the platform to date. “All these people are just sitting around the house, and if they need a bit of money that day, they just make themselves available,” Csathy said. “It’s like being an Uber driver.”
Cameo wouldn’t disclose its finances, but Leopold projects that this year’s revenues will exceed $100 million. The company has raised roughly $65 million since its 2017 launch by founder and CEO Steven Galanis and chief technology officer Devon Townsend. Cameo is headquartered in Chicago, but operates offices in London and Venice, Calif.
The app is backed by a bevy of heavy-hitting technology investors, including Kleiner Perkins, Peter Chernin’s Playa Vista-based venture capital firm The Chernin Group, and Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to funding database PitchBook Data Inc.
Each of these firms has an array of tech exits under its belt — Kleiner Perkins has funded hundreds of startups since its 1972 launch, including Slack, Uber Technologies, and Beyond Meat. The Chernin Group invested in radio app Pandora and camera doorbell maker Ring, which Amazon bought for $1.5 billion in 2018. Lightspeed Venture Partners contributed funds to Snap Inc., and Giphy.
Some Cameo celebrities use the money for charitable initiatives — especially since star-studded fundraising galas have been suspended during the pandemic. In March, comedian Busy Phillipps donated her Cameo proceeds to World Central Kitchen and No Kid Hungry, while Mandy Moore and her “This is Us” co-star Chris Sullivan raised money for No Kid Hungry the same month. “Pose” actor Billy Porter recently joined Cameo to raise money for the AIDS/HIV-focused charity (RED), Leopold said.
A Cameo-organized fundraiser for the NAACP raised $225,000, while the company’s Cameo Cares event to benefit various COVID-19 relief causes raised $725,000. “We’ve got a lot of celebrities raising money for causes specific to Black Lives Matter, like the NAACP Empowerment Fund or ACLU,” Leopold said.
Even Baskin devotes a portion of her earnings to her Tampa-based nonprofit Big Cat Rescue, Leopold said. In her videos to fans, Baskin often shows off her tigers and their enclosures. “We don’t know if we will ever resume doing general public tours again,” Baskin recently wrote on the Big Cat Rescue website. “Even after the virus concerns subside, the betrayal by the liars who produced ‘Tiger King,’ and the lies viewers were told in the series, creates a concern about having visitors we do not know.” (Baskin did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Stars can also decline requests — allowing Baskin to sidestep uncomfortable questions raised in the “Tiger King” series (including those about the mysterious disappearance of ex-husband Jack “Don” Lewis). Leopold said Cameo screens for hate speech and known racist or defamatory acronyms, with help from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
While the pandemic has been good for Cameo’s business, Csathy said he expects the platform and practice of livestreaming will endure. “Cameo has absolutely profited from the pandemic,” Csathy said. “Everybody — celebrities and fans — is more comfortable communicating virtually because they were forced to do it in this pandemic.”
Cameo offers a more direct and personalized approach to meet-and-greets, but other tech companies are using similar tech to bring virtual artist experiences to fans.
Culver City-based Wave VR raised $30 million in June to further its virtual event technology, and has hosted over 50 virtual concerts with avatars of musicians. Twitch, launched as a platform for gamers, is increasingly hosting live music and social events. Some artists looking to cater to a younger, game-obsessed crowd have hosted virtual concerts and movie screenings inside video games — in May, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” premiered within Epic Games’ “Fortnite” multiplayer game while rapper Travis Scott hosted over 12 million viewers at a virtual “Fortnite” concert in April.
Cameo could turn out to be “the poster child of virtual engagement between artists and fans,” Csathy said. The practice of paying for exclusive access for limited celebrity appearances isn’t new, but Cameo has found an efficient way to evolve the process. “Cameo’s nothing really new, it’s just taken it to a whole other level,” he said. “Fans have always paid for access, and now there’s a more personal way to engage and get special attention and that’s powerful.”