Dwayne Johnson launched his new YouTube channel Monday with a video featuring a bevy of big-name digital stars — marking The Rock’s official entry into the growing club of Hollywood celebrities looking to cash in on their fame with digital content and apps.
The muscular 6-foot-5 film and TV star sees the new Seven Bucks Digital channel, a partnership between Johnson and Dany Garcia’s Seven Bucks Productions and Studio71, as the logical next step in his career: as a way to connect with audiences accustomed to consuming entertainment first on digital screens.
To Johnson, unlike film or television, with digital channels “the feedback and response from our audience is in real time, which makes it a very cool space to play in,” he wrote via email to Variety. “In addition, it also allows us to build a platform of opportunity for unknown talent to express their creativity and shine.”
He’s the latest traditional celeb putting his shoulder into building digital businesses. Others include Kevin Hart, whose Laugh Out Loud online comedy channel with Lionsgate is slated to debut in early 2017, and Mario Lopez, co-host of “Extra,” who has joined AwesomenessTV’s Awestruck digital entertainment and lifestyle network aimed at millennial moms. Lopez’s content, to launch in late July, will be geared around “family, food, fitness and faith” and will feature his wife, Courtney Lopez, and their two young kids.
They’re following in the footsteps of Ellen DeGeneres, who has turned her daytime TV talk show, “Ellen,” into a digital empire with Ellen Digital Ventures in partnership with Warner Bros. Television. Then there’s Kim Kardashian West — who has made millions from games and other apps tied to her TV-famous persona.
What’s behind the trend: Movie, TV, modeling and sports celebs, by eliminating studios or networks, remain in control of their creative output and can move faster and potentially reap more money by serving up the digital goods directly to their followers.
“Celebrities are understanding that kids growing up as fans are just as likely to watch things on Snapchat or Instagram as they are on television or the movies,” said Studio71 president Dan Weinstein.
For YouTube, the latest spate of celeb-anchored channels comes after it tried several years ago to jump-start the creation of original programming — funding several channels with Hollywood names attached — but the effort didn’t take root the way it had hoped. The Google-owned service back in 2011 unveiled its first “original channels” initiative, in which it had invested upwards of $200 million, with partners including Pharrell Williams, Madonna, Jay Z and Ashton Kutcher.
The launch video for the Seven Bucks Digital Studios YouTube channel, titled “YouTube Factory,” features top YouTube comedian Lilly Singh, aka ||Superwoman||, (pictured above with Johnson) and a variety of other talent, after the companies released a movie-style teaser video at VidCon last month. Singh, who is affiliated with Studio71, will support the channel with her own video featuring Johnson titled, “How to be a YouTube Star (Ft. The Rock).” Other notable digital stars appearing in the video include Markiplier, Grace Helbig, Flula Borg, King Bach, Roman Atwood and Gigi Gorgeous.
Johnson is already massive on the Internet with more than 127 million followers across social channels. The Rock’s YouTube channel, renamed Seven Bucks Digital Studios, will encompass the ex-wrestler’s own videos, a scripted action series (which is still in the works) and collaborations with YouTube creators, along with highlighting projects from his production company. The YouTube channel has launched a contest, “Rock the Promo,” inviting fans to submit a wrestling-style video promo; 32 competitors will then be featured in an 11-epsiode series to vie for the grand prize and flown in to meet Johnson in person.
“It always felt extremely natural for us to be vertically integrated,” said Garcia, co-founder of Seven Bucks Productions and Johnson’s longtime manager. With the Rock’s huge online fanbase, “we already have a mass audience and we can bring incredible leverage to the digital space.”
While late-night TV hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden have amassed big digital audiences on YouTube and elsewhere, their digital forays are of a different ilk because they’re extensions of their shows owned and operated by the networks instead of new ventures.
Production company Whalerock Industries, headed by Lloyd Braun, has made celeb-focused digital properties a core part of its business alongside TV series and films. The company has deals with the Kardashian and Jenner sisters and rapper Tyler, the Creator to operate and manage some of their digital properties, and also has signed Howard Stern for yet-to-be-launched venture. It’s not chump change: Kardashian West’s “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” game, for example, has generated $160 million in revenue since launching in 2014 and she’s taken in $45 million of that, according to estimates by Forbes magazine.
“We’re building up an understanding of how this new economy is working, and how to be even smarter with the influencers diving into it,” said Whalerock president Jeff Berman.
Of course, not every Hollywood celebrity is well-suited to life as digital creators. “There’s art and science in this — and part of the art is identifying talent who are really invested in this,” said Berman. “It really matters that they are authentic: not that they seem authentic but that they are authentic.”
Studio71, for its part, has other celeb-driven properties including a venture with actress-model Shay Mitchell, who has more than 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube. Again, the key to making it work is an investment on the part of the talent: “She’s been doing 1-2 videos every week for her channel for more than a year,” Weinstein said. “If you’re so busy and can only do a video every few months when you’re on a 5-minute break, you are seemingly not vested in it – that tends to bleed through.”
For DeGeneres, Ellen Digital Ventures sprouted organically from her own active interest and enthusiasm in connecting with fans directly online, and her show was an early adopter on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The company has since launched dedicated video hub Ellentube, and has cut a deal with digital star Tyler Oakley to develop an original show that may end up in some fashion on TV. And she also has a best-selling mobile game, “Heads Up!”
“We’ve made Ellen a destination,” said Jill Braff, GM of Ellen Digital Ventures. “It’s taking an advantage of the fact that not only have viewing habits shifted, but that her viewers want more than from her than just one hour a day.”
While the prevailing strategy for celeb-driven businesses is to develop and spread content across multiple platforms — regardless of the monetization potential — some in the industry are looking for better economics by hosting material on owned-and-operated outlets. Kevin Hart, for example, is making Laugh Out Loud an ad- and subscription-supported network that doesn’t rely on third-party distributors.
“Kevin has 100 million fans — so why move it to YouTube and not control the data and have to split ad revenue with them?” said Jeff Clanagan, president of CodeBlack Films and Hart’s longtime business partner.
Seven Bucks’ Garcia, while she doesn’t rule out future subscription-based content services for the company’s new digital productions, said the major focus is to reach audiences where they are consuming content and said there are plenty of branded-content and traditional advertising opportunities. “It’s always been from the standpoint of audience-first,” she said.
Watch the launch video for The Rock’s Seven Bucks Digital on YouTube, which was directed by Studio71’s Scott Brown, written by Brown and Matthew Fawcus and produced by Mo Darwiche and Erin Lardy: