A few months ago, CBS Films wanted Bethany Mota, an 18-year-old video blogger, to make a cameo appearance in the movie The Duff and tell her 7.2 million YouTube followers about the experience. CBS figured that Mota, known for making fashion videos from her Los Banos, California, bedroom, would jump at the chance.
Her response: Talk to my team.
Mota, as the studio discovered, is now encircled by a Hollywood talent agency – United Talent – and lawyer, not to mention two publicists. The representatives came back with a $250,000 fee, according to a person involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private. CBS’s jaw fell open.
The star-making system of the future, it turns out, needs the star-making system of the past – or at least a swarm of agents and managers has decided it does: The middle men and women have arrived, eroding YouTube’s status as the quintessential do-it-yourself enterprise.
The great promise of YouTube was its ability to cut out Hollywood-style intermediaries, but there are now more than 20 agencies and management companies competing to represent YouTube personalities, at least triple the number of three years ago.
Their sales pitch: For a 10 to 20 per cent cut of your income, we will make you a bigger online star while broadening your career to include traditional licensing, endorsement, recording and acting deals.
"We're not just miners digging for gold," said Larry Shapiro, head of talent at Fullscreen, a web video company. "We're turning that gold into precious jewellery."
Still, YouTube stars are not exactly scarce. CBS, which declined to comment, passed on Mota and signed five lesser-known social media personalities for a fraction of her fee; together, they reached a larger subscriber base.
Did Mota’s representatives overask? While declining to comment on a specific client, Brent Weinstein, United Talent’s digital chief, said video creators are represented no less aggressively than movie and TV stars.
“These are extraordinarily talented artists, with large audiences, and it’s our job to help them build long-lasting careers,” he said.
Two years ago, YouTube was still predominantly a do-it-yourself kind of place. But then the video platform decided to allow all content producers (instead of just some) to share in ad sales.
At the same time, lucrative brand deals – embedding a product into the action of a video – started to proliferate, driven in part by spiking subscriber bases; one YouTube personality, PewDiePie, now has 30.7 million followers.
The most popular video creators make $1 million or more annually.
Intermediaries of all stripes started chasing the cash.
"Almost overnight it became a complete frenzy," said Raina Penchansky, chief strategy officer for Digital Brand Architects, one of the first companies to open a YouTube management division.
The rush to represent social media stars has become so overheated that some entertainment executives are raising questions about exploitation and even government regulation. The concern is that some intermediaries – upstarts and less-honourable companies – are taking advantage of internet performers, many of whom are naive teenagers.
"Money changed everything," said Naomi Lennon, president of Lennon Management, which focuses on YouTube personalities. Exploitation is now "an issue with our industry", she said, because a lot of inexperienced video creators "are just believing everything these people are telling them".
Like traditional celebrities, many YouTube stars have hired both an agent and a manager, even though the distinction can be blurry. Under a 1978 California law, agents are licensed and “procure” employment; managers, who are not regulated and function more like career advisers, are not allowed to procure work – but nobody is exactly sure what that means, especially when it comes to the Internet.
For the most part, video creators seem thrilled that the cavalry has arrived. YouTube has become so crowded that they need help getting noticed. As mainstream advertisers, book publishers and TV networks have started to view them as more than flashes in the pan, the deals have grown too complex to handle alone.
Horror stories about signing contracts without proper vetting have circulated. Last year, an online video supplier called
came under public fire after a client,
, who was 21, realised he had signed away rights to his videos “in perpetuity, throughout the universe, in all forms of media now known or hereafter devised”. (Machinima says it now offers less-restrictive contracts.)
"Almost every Hollywood person that has been in my life has been a user, except for United Talent Agency, which believes in me and protects me," said Shane Dawson, a 26-year-old comic, actor and musician with 6.2 million YouTube followers.
Dawson does not employ a manager. “I used to, but the managers were just doing the same job as my agents, and I felt like I was giving away money,” he said. He also sees no need for the newest go-between to arrive on the scene: publicists.
Intermediaries see themselves as crucial advocates. Lennon pointed to Stefanie and Tracy Barton, sisters from Alabama who make videos under the name eleventhgorgeous. They had secured brand deals worth $500 before becoming clients in 2012, Lennon said.
“Within five months, I was booking them $5,000,” she said.
At Fullscreen, where Shapiro now commands a Swat team of managers, roughly 50 clients have signed on for what he calls “360-degree” service. He said another 200 or so receive “high-level” management help.
Shapiro cited a deal Fullscreen worked on for its client Our2ndLife, a group of comedic heartthrobs, that involved taking over MTV's social media channels (Vine, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr) and starring in a preshow for MTV's Movie Awards. The group members were paid, and it significantly raised their profile in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, Shapiro said.
“It’s balancing their social imprint and their book deal and their music deal while brokering new relationships,” he said.
And sometimes it is acting as bodyguard and babysitter. Worried that a client, Sam Pottorff, would be exploited at a festival in June called DigiFest NYC, a free-for-all featuring live performances by YouTube stars, Lennon said, she and an associate, Triana Lavey, spent the day trailing him. Sure enough, an organizer pressed Pottorff, a member of Our2ndLife, to promote a sponsor on Instagram in exchange for a few hundred dollars. Lavey jumped in and rejected the under-the-table transaction.
“Obviously shady” is how Lennon summed up the impromptu request.
Later, when Our2ndLife was scheduled for a fan meet-and-greet, Pottorff (18) was nowhere to be found. Lavey finally located him napping on the tour bus. Deciding that he had been run ragged, she let him rest.
Meanwhile, Lavey doggedly scouted for new YouTube clients, in particular stopping to chat backstage with a member of Settle Down Kids, another comedic troupe. But she soon forgot his name.
“What matters is he’s in with the group,” she said. “It’s like high school when you become friends with one of the popular kids. Once you get in with one of them, then you get them all.”
© 2014 New York Times News Service