Studios enlist help of leading Web comics

What do 30 million YouTube hits mean to a studio executive? A ripe opportunity to promote a film.

As movie marketers look for fresh ways to reach the often-elusive young male demographic, they are hiring well-trafficked amateur comedians to shill for their pics. Similarly, the majors are increasingly allocating P&A dollars to partner with online comedy giants like Funny or Die in an effort to spread the word about an upcoming release.

When Sony wanted to reach a young male demo for “Year One,” it tapped Web sensation Fred Figglehorn (aka Lucas Cruikshank) to trumpet the comedy via the tie-in webisode “Fred Gets Dissed at Bible School.” Insiders say Sony paid host YouTube $50,000 for the promo, with Cruikshank nabbing a third of the total. Walden Media also used Cruikshank to tout its movie “City of Ember.”

Likewise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” director Rupert Wyatt recently met with L.A.-based funnyman Nice Peter (real name, Pete Shukoff), who regularly amasses eight-digit hits for his “Epic Rap Battles of History” Web videos, about promoting the Fox release.

“In the comedy world, it is seen as a huge promotional vehicle if you’re an artist with millions of hits,” says Gersh comedy department head Rick Greenstein. “If I can walk into a studio executive’s office and show an Internet video with 30 million hits, it raises eyebrows.”

A handful of agencies, management firms and collaboratives including Gersh, the Collective and Maker Studios dominate the Web-based comedy arena. And though no one has yet figured out how to directly monetize the millions of hits enjoyed by the biggest acts and sites, comics are beginning to reap the benefits of their virtual stardom.

The Collective’s Evan Weiss, who handles Cruikshank, says that in addition to the budding movie promotion revenue stream, Web-based comedy stars are pulling in coin for product tie-ins. Still, he cautions against quick money grabs; instead, he steers clients toward quality exposure.

“When you’re assessing these opportunities, you’re not just looking at it as a payday,” explains Weiss. “Instead, you’re looking at it as a chance for your client to work with someone who is bringing in outside money and doing something bigger and with higher production values than what (the client) is accustomed to.”

With its access to in-demand talent, Funny or Die has become a go-to destination for studios looking to promote their films via online videos.

“Trailers come out six weeks or 12 weeks before a film comes out, but the online community craves more,” says Chris Bruss, who oversees production for Funny or Die’s branded entertainment. “Generally the studios come to us and say, ‘We have such-and-such big star in the movie, and we have an extra day of publicity for him. We were trying to think of something interesting to do with this person.’ ”

Though Bruss wouldn’t disclose how much an FoD video costs, he says the studios pay for the content like a typical media buy. FoD owns the material and licenses it back to the studio, as it did with promotional videos for such films as WB’s “Hall Pass,” Universal’s “Your Highness” and Warner Bros.’ Steve Carell starrer “Crazy Stupid Love.”

Ultimately, both the content creators and the studios are seeking quality exposure.

“As a marketer, you are always looking for innovative and creative ways to deliver or reinforce your message,” notes Sony marketing prexy Marc Weinstock. “Sites like Funny or Die, Crackle and others offer studios a strong platform to communicate with non-traditional vignettes that, when done right, get a lot of viral traction.”

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