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After a Digital Star Is Born

  |  September 23, 2008   |  Comments

A startup aims to become an online entertainment studio representing emerging talent. Just don't call it a talent agency.

Have you ever found yourself watching a rising star on YouTube and wondering, "How can we get this person to work with us and our brand?"

A year ago, it wasn't easy to do. After all, most YouTube talent thought brands were the kiss of death. And with audience bases built on trust, most rising stars weren't willing to risk that trust -- or their popularity.

But that's quickly changing. For one, this emerging talent wants to keep performing. They love what they do and they love their audiences -- but unfortunately popularity doesn't pay the bills. For another, over the past year a small, somewhat unknown company, Hitviews, has slowly started to recruit the best of this online talent, becoming a new kind of online entertainment studio.

Last week I got the chance to talk with Phillip Underhill, chief strategy officer of Hitviews, which is based in New York and Los Angeles. While he said he couldn't disclose the names of any brands he's working with, he gave me a peak into the company's philosophy and operations.

Christine Beardsell: What distinguishes Hitviews from other digital studios and talent agencies?

Phillip Underhill: Hitviews is an online entertainment company that exclusively retains many of the Internet's most popular video stars. Unlike other digital studios, our stars aren't scripted actors performing for directors, producers, and studio executives. Our stars are unscripted entertainers who have attracted large crowds with their natural wit, humor, charm, and other unique qualities.

Also, Hitviews isn't a talent agency. We aren't looking to cast our stars in shows, films, movies, etcetera. Our stars already have successful shows online. Accordingly, we aren't looking to change performers who clearly have a proven knack for attracting crowds.

On the other hand, we do want to provide our stars with a nurturing environment where they can grow their talent and improve their business skills. That means providing them with financial and marketing resources that allow them to extend their audience reach without worrying about paying the light bill.

As a studio, we also want to create brand relationships that are right for our talent and their audiences. And because Hitview stars have tremendous credibility and influence with audiences, brands integrated and/or mentioned in a video receive many additional benefits beyond a basic impression.

CB: Explain how this new talent differs from traditional talent and why they require a new type of agency, like Hitviews.

PU: Each medium creates its own stars -- rare individuals who ignite a response and catalyze the medium. Television produced Lucille Ball. Broadway gave us Nathan Lane. Radio unearthed Howard Stern. We don't say to ourselves, "Howard Stern makes perfect sense." We say, "I love Howard Stern," or "Howard Stern is disgusting." And as long as audiences have emotions, stars will be potent.

There is a simple reason why this medium has produced stars with a unique DNA. The relationship we have with this medium -- a computer -- was different the moment we took it out of the box. There's a keyboard that begs to be used! As such, the individuals who perform online are entirely different from traditional actors.

Hitviews stars have a transparent relationship with this medium and its users. They work with us because they value our insights and trust our judgment. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: our entire staff is made up of individuals from the online entertainment and creative industries. Our stars relate to us as creatives, not as suits.

CB: Yes, you do have a number of interesting employees on staff. Tell me about a couple of the people you've hired and what their roles are.

PU: It was important that we brought people on who could helps brands connect with audiences, not by churning out old-media commercials and promos but by creating videos that have transparency in an era when consumers can smell fake a mile away. We really want to offer product integration and content solutions that balance the needs of the talent and the brand without alienating audiences.

No one embodies this approach better than Caitlin Hill, Hitviews' 19-year-old chief creative officer and native Australian. We convinced her to ditch the Outback, move to New York City, and launch the online studio.

Caitlin is a very talented and successful online celebrity in her own right (to date, her videos have a total view count of over 20 million) that other stars respect and admire. And much of the success we are having is due to Caitlin's ability to communicate with our talent in a language and manner they feel comfortable with. Almost all communication to talent happens through Caitlin.

We also hired Jake Fogelnest as a member of our talent team. In the early '90s, Jake Fogelnest created a successful television show from his New York City bedroom when he was 14 years old. The one-man show, called SQUiRT TV, quickly became a cult success in Manhattan.

There are a lot of similarities between creating a solo act in your bedroom for a local cable show and producing video for YouTube. Jake helps our talent avoid the mistakes he made. He helps them resist the pressures to sell out (creatively) to studio executives and advertisers. His unique experiences and insights are greatly valued.

CB: What motivates the talent you work with? Are they just struggling actors who can't find roles in television and film?

PU: Like performers in other media, online stars are motivated to express an idea, emotion, or conviction with passion and purity.

Often our stars are contacted by Hollywood agents and are told that fame and fortune can only be achieved through a television series or movie. Traditionally, of course, fame and fortune were synonymous with a hit television show or movie. However, the world has changed and so has this point of view. Many of our stars have larger audiences than many primetime TV shows.

What really distinguishes Hitviews' stars is that they are self-cast entertainers. No paid media or other forms of promotion were used to generate their online celebrity; they are simply the product of audience choice.

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Christine Beardsell

As vice president, group creative director of Digitas's brand content group, The Third Act, Christine works across all brand teams to lead the creative innovation of motion media content. She has a unique and varied set of skills that weaves media, tech, and channel smarts to inform deep interactive experiences for clients such as American Express, Samsung, and IHG. At the advent of the digital revolution, she established Digitas' Final Cut Pro media lab and has since scaled it across offices.

Christine has a BFA from The Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, where she focused her studies on motion media, interactive design, and photography. Her work in the industry has contributed to top honors including silver and bronze Cyber Lions, a Caples Award, an OMMA Award, New York Festivals Awards, ECHO Awards, and The One Show Awards.

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