With the current box office success of “Ride Along” and “About Last Night,” Kevin Hart has become one of the hottest names in comedy, known for an ability to appeal to a demographically wide audience that bridges the racial divide. It’s an attribute that’s no accident.
Hart, 33, who started in standup comedy, models his career on such online-savvy music industry giants as Jay-Z and Beyonce, and uses his social-media presence — including more than 10 million Twitter followers — to brand himself and his work. “Ride Along” co-star Ice Cube is duly impressed by the results.
“By him being just a cool dude, Kevin has a delivery that can work for a totally urban audience,” says Cube, “but he also has a delivery that if he ever hosted the Oscars, he could pull it off and it wouldn’t be a stretch, so watch out, Ellen.”
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Hart is spontaneously funny. During the filming of “Ride Along,” which recently passed $125 million domestically, he pranked William Packer by jumping into the back seat of the producer’s car and demanding, “Gimme yo’ shit!” Recalls Cube, “I’ve never seen that kind of panic on a grown man’s face before.”
Jeff Clanagan, CEO of CodeBlack Films, the company behind Hart’s comedy concert docs “Laugh at My Pain” and “Let Me Explain,” points to the comedian’s uncompromising faith in his own abilities — a confidence drawn in part from the global minions who know his online persona. On tour in Norway, Hart refused to alter his standup act, even though most comics make allowances for jokes that get lost in translation.
“Kevin stayed true to his comedic vision, and the audience got everything he was saying,” says Clanagan, who also serves as co-partner of Hart’s marketing company Hartbeat Digital.
Hart — who stands an unassuming 5 feet, 4 inches tall, a feature he frequently pokes fun at in his comedy routines — lives in Los Angeles but was born and raised in Philadelphia, where he once worked as a shoe salesman.
Throughout the more than decade-long span it took him to build his brand, digital know-how has been the cornerstone of his promotional strategy. “I have so many goals that I have set for myself in this business, I’m not even close to being where I want to be in my career,” Hart notes. Lately, though, his Internet strategy has helped him convert social-media impressions into theatrical dollars.
Ben Carlson, president and co-founder of the social-media listening firm Fizziology, says the sudden rise to fame for Hart both online and onscreen are based on character choice and genre in equal measure. “Comedians naturally have an easier time creating content for the 140-character world of Twitter,” he says, “but also there just aren’t a lot of comedians other than Kevin Hart playing these types of dynamic roles in movies today.”
In January, when “Ride Along” scored a record $40 million-plus opening over Martin Luther King weekend, Hart had 4.7 billion earned impressions online. Though the number was inflated because his two films were released around that time, he remains one of the leading celebs when it comes to number of Twitter followers. By comparison, Tyler Perry has only 3.5 million Twitter fans, while Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson have 9 million and 6.8 million, respectively.
“The support that I get from my fans is unreal,” Hart notes. “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for them.”
That social-media following gives Hart an edge when promoting his films, Clanagan says, adding, “Kevin has the ability to market a project to his audience more effectively than a studio can.”
Tim Story, who directed Hart in “Ride Along” and “Think Like a Man,” says the success of recent African-American pictures has raised the bar significantly for future urban-targeted projects.
“I think now, the high-end expectation has gone up to $50 million during opening weekend,” Story says. “But in order to hit that number, you need talent like Kevin to make a film accessible. If every studio is not out there (on the Internet), then they’re leaving money on the table.”