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With millions of followers, likes, and engaged audiences, top YouTube stars have become celebrities in their own right. In fact, several recent surveys show that these top YouTube stars actually surpass traditional celebrities in popularity, especially among younger audiences. In contrast to most mainstream celebrities, YouTubers retain an appeal, especially to teens and millennial consumers because their content is relatable, fresh, and approachable.
In an ongoing annual survey series, entertainment publication Variety polled 1,500 U.S. teens to see how 20 mainstream celebrities (i.e. movie stars, athletes, models, etc.) and top YouTubers ranked in terms of approachability and authenticity. Variety found that, compared with traditional celebrities, the connection teens formed with YouTubers is 7x greater than the connection formed with celebs. Participating teens also claimed that YouTube stars were 17x more engaging than mainstream celebrities.
Out of the top 10 most-relatable public figures, YouTubers grabbed eight of the top spots. (To illustrate the rise of YouTube stars, only six YouTubers made Variety’s Top 10 list the previous year.)
To capitalize on this trend and capture the attention of U.S. teen and millennial audiences, many traditional Hollywood agencies have started managing YouTube stars, including iJustine, Joey Graceffa, and the Smosh Bros. (all with United Talent Agency, UTA). Other mainstream entertainment and production entities have even purchased bought multi-channel networks, or YouTube MCNs, to pioneer and/or expand their YouTube offerings.
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Because YouTubers built their fame on social media (and not on the big screen, as traditional celebrities have), it remains to be seen if bringing YouTubers into Tinseltown—or, conversely, integrating Hollywood stars into YouTube content—will prove to be a successful strategy.
YouTube influencers are perceived to be genuine and unaffected by public relations firms and big media agencies of Hollywood. With more and more time spent on social media, teens feel an incredibly close relationship with the YouTubers who often talk directly into the camera and shoot videos from their own homes. This video style is intimate, like speaking with a close friend.
Based on Variety’s aforementioned survey (and score associated with their relatability), YouTubers handily outperformed celebrities. The top three social media influencers are KSI, PewDiePie, and VanossGaming who received scores of 93, 92, and 85, respectively, while the top three traditional celebrities—Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and Morgan Freeman—garnered scores of 71, 65, and 46.
Image courtesy of Variety
YouTube has touted itself as a social publishing medium for content creators to express themselves freely without an intermediary; YouTubers, therefore, need not worry about additional guidelines, restrictions, or contract stipulations that often come with working for a traditional agency.
With the emergence of influential social media stars, however, Hollywood is rushing to staying on top of the entertainment industry by aligning with, signing, and managing top YouTubers. Production studios are utilizing each YouTuber star’s “built-in” fan base to hedge their bets against the movie’s revenue. “Smosh: The Movie,” which stars Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla of the YouTube channel Smosh, is a perfect example of this new trend.
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Determining whether Smosh’s Hollywood film will resonate with the YouTubers’ audience is hard to know, but transitioning from watching YouTube videos on mobile phones to seeing their favorite social media star on the silver screen may create a disconnect with social media followers and culminate in a loss of credibility for YouTube stars.
As Chief Strategy Officer of Disney’s Maker Studios Courtney Holt told Variety: “You can’t just take someone who’s big on YouTube and stretch that out to a feature film. You need to have something to say.”
The digital age has caused a dynamic shift in how entertainment is consumed. With the viewer increasingly in control of where and how they watch video content, big Hollywood media agencies must adapt to stay at the forefront of the industry. Time will tell if social media stars or traditional celebrities will prevail with audiences, but one thing is certain: Hollywood must tread lightly or risk losing the appeal and credibility of top YouTube stars.