Issa Rae leads charge of YouTube stars into Hollywood
Since its early days in the mid-2000s, YouTube has showcased the talents of entertainers seeking fame and fortune, with Hollywood executives increasingly sitting up and taking notice.
A growing number of stars — or “influencers” in social media parlance — with huge fan bases and clicks numbering in the millions are breaking into TV and the movies, turning the traditional talent-development process on its head.
One of the most successful examples is Californian comedy writer and actress Issa Rae, 32, who is preparing to release a second season of the acclaimed HBO series “Insecure,” which has its roots in her viral YouTube series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
“It’s a bit more rare to be discovered but it’s happening. I constantly look at web-series and find writing talent,” she told reporters at a press day in Beverly Hills ahead of the show’s return on July 23.
“Having conversations with some reps, they’ll be like, ‘We won’t represent somebody if they don’t have work online’.”
“Insecure” follows the lives and loves of best friends Issa Dee, played by Rae, and Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji) as they negotiate young adulthood in the writer’s native South Los Angeles.
The long-gestating show went into development in 2013 after HBO programming president Casey Bloys watched Rae’s web-series, which has racked up 25 million views since it launched in 2011.
Mentored by actor and writer Larry Wilmore, Rae has won acclaim for her crisp writing, authentic depiction of social issues and honest portrayal of black female friendship, winning a Golden Globe nomination for the first season.
The show is riding the crest of a wave of digital streaming originating on YouTube, Snapchat and other social media sites that has changed the business of broadcasting, where networks are no longer the sole creators and distributors of shows.
“Insecure” is one of three high-profile web-series pickups by HBO along with Samantha Bailey’s “Brown Girls,” which debuted on Elle magazine’s website, and Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s “High Maintenance,” which started life on Vimeo.
“It’s a resume, if anything. It showcases what you are able to do, and people are still looking. There are a lot of web-series out there just like there are a lot of scripts,” Rae said.
The star, who still uploads content to YouTube, has had to come to terms with the slower pace of cable TV production and said she misses the “immediacy” of online content creation.
“I get anxious, I want people to see the show. So to be able to have an idea and then just put it out there,” she said. “And for it to be raw and received either positively or negatively — I think there is something special and humbling about that.”
YouTube stars to movie stars
YouTube’s influence as a source of TV talent has been growing steadily over a decade, but more recently entertainment industry watchers have begun to notice the same effect taking hold in the movie business.
In what may come to be seen as a watershed moment, Hollywood’s iconic TCL Chinese Theater hosted its first big screen red carpet premiere last year for an online video, 28-year-old Canadian-Indian YouTube personality Lilly Singh’s documentary “A Trip To Unicorn Island.”
Singh, who boasts two billion views for her videos and is estimated to have earned $7.5 million in 2016, has plied the late night chat show circuit and even appeared in two Hollywood movies, “Ice Age: Collision Course” and “Bad Moms” last year.
YouTube revealed in 2015 it had signed a deal with the teen-focused AwesomenessTV network to release several feature films premiering on the site before moving elsewhere.
One of the stars of its 2016 coming-of-age movie “Shovel Buddies” — which premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival — was 21-year-old Californian YouTube comedian Kian Lawley, 21, who has amassed millions of fans on the video-sharing site.
“We think the platform is really ready for long form, so now we will make movies that will star YouTubers and premiere on YouTube,” AwesomenessTV CEO Brian Robbins said.
“We will turn YouTube stars into movie stars.”