Social media provides an unprecedented way for stars to connect with their fans — but only the upper echelons of celebrities have been able to convert their online presence into cold, hard cash.
Steven Galanis, co-founder and CEO of Cameo, says his company is part of a rising wave of direct-to-fan platforms that is changing that, by letting a much broader range of talent make money online. On the latest episode of Variety‘s Strictly Business podcast, Galanis explains how Cameo built a booming business by selling bespoke video shout-outs recorded by its roster of tens of thousands of celebs.
“The mission of Cameo is to create the most personalized and authentic fan connections on Earth,” Galanis says.
In 2020, the company pulled in gross revenue of $100 million, 75% of which Cameo paid to talent. That was up 4.5 times the year prior, and the company sent out 1.3 million Cameos last year alone. Why the surge? Galanis says one reason is that actors, artists and other talent found themselves without work during COVID-19 — and more of them turned to Cameo to generate income.
Even as life has started to return to normal, Galanis says, for well-known talent, “Cameos and interacting with their fans this way was has become part of their stack as creators.”
There’s a huge opportunity for Cameo, he argues. Some 50 million people around the world consider themselves creators, and the “only solution to fixing this long-term” — which Galanis identifies as the gap between income and fame — “is by going direct-to-fan for monetization.”
The most successful talent on Cameo have “a big, authentic personality” and tend to be really funny, says Galanis. In 2020, the No. 1 best-seller was Brian Baumgartner (Kevin from “The Office”), followed by former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, Snoop Dogg and Gilbert Gottfried. In fifth place was Chris Harrison, who is stepping aside as host of “The Bachelor” after a controversy involving his defense of a racial controversy on the dating show. The sixth highest-grossing Cameo creator was Carole Baskin, of “Tiger King” fame, whom Galanis points out was not even a household name before last year.
To Galanis, prerecorded celeb videos are just the beginning for Cameo. The company has been testing other fan-engagement features as well: Cameo Direct, where you can live-chat chat with celebrities, and Cameo Calls, which connects fans and talent directly for live, one-on-one video calls.
In addition, earlier this month, Cameo partnered with MGM’s American International Pictures for the Feb. 12 premiere of film “Breaking News in Yuba County,” under which stars Allison Janney and Bridget Everett were featured on Cameo with special messages for fans just in time for Valentine’s Day — bookable for just $10 each, with proceeds benefiting the Trevor Project and COVID-19 relief.
“We believe we’re in the top of the second inning with Cameo,” Galanis said. “The larger vision of Cameo is to build the marketplace for people’s time. For X amount of money, you as a fan should be able to pay to do Y activity with Z person that you love.”
That said, unexpected issues sometimes crop up when Hollywood celebs connect directly with fans. Lindsay Lohan (who currently sells Cameos for $375), recently asked a fan to take down a viral Cameo video in which Lohan offered words of encouragement for the fan to come out to her parents. (Cameo users have full permission to post unedited videos on social media, per the company.) But Galanis says such situations are rare.
As for what else is next for Cameo, the company is on an IPO track, according to Galanis, although he doesn’t have a timeline for a public offering. Cameo has been in talks to raise another $100 million in funding, at a valuation of $1 billion, per a Bloomberg report; Galanis declined to discuss the company’s financing activities.
Cameo now has about 200 employees. Galanis, a former sales exec at LinkedIn, says the company is ramping up hiring in the year ahead. In late 2020, he recruited several key execs to round out the senior management team: Rob Post, formerly Quibi’s chief technology officer, as CTO; CFO Deb Schwartz (formerly with Bustle Digital Group); Mel Steinbach, chief people officer (formerly with McDonald’s); and COO Brian Frank (former head of global operations at LinkedIn).