Online Celebrities or Mainstream Celebrities: Who Should You Cast?

Mindy Kaling or Michael Buckley? Jessica Alba or Jessica Rose? Of course it helps to have well-known faces attached to your web series, but from what world should you draw them: the mainstream media, or the online video community? (Because the 6th thing we learned at NewTeeVee Live is that there’s definitely still a divide.)
If you’re not looking to be a flash in the pan viral hit, but rather a long-term success, you might reconsider the involvement of the truly famous. While having a known name like Amy Poehler behind your show is of course a huge benefit at launch time, for any sort of longevity you still have to build an audience for that actor within the online video community. And that actor has to be invested enough to stick around.
Felicia Williams of Next New Networks said on a recent panel at OMMA that “when a traditional celebrity embraces online video, such as when Jessica Alba challenged the Internet to a staring contest, it does huge numbers, but if that’s not the case it’s anyone’s guess.” Co-panelist Jake Zim of Safran Digital Group (whose projects include PG Porn), on the other hand, believes that it depends on your company’s business model. Safran focuses on the possibility of selling its projects “upstream” (ie: to TV networks and other opportunities), which is easier with mainstream personalities known offline. “But Gary Vaynerchuk,” whose phenomenally successful Wine Library TV made him one of our breakout video stars, “will work his ass off,” Safran said.

As mainstream celebrity’s increasing expansion into online video is a pretty new phenomenon, the success of shows like Poehler’s Smart Girls At the Party is hard to measure. But because mainstream celebrities are often busy doing, you know, whatever made them celebrities in the first place, hinging a project’s success on their availability is a dangerous game.
Take, for example, the case of Strike.TV, which had an impressive launch at the end of October thanks to the large presence of mainstream celebrities — but because a number of its series only shot pilots, three weeks later, new episodes of Mindy Kaling’s House Poor and Global Warming starring Kristin Wiig and Aasif Mandiv have yet to appear. House Poor producer Lester Lewis said via email that “Mindy and I had a blast doing House Poor. There is a second episode already shot that we are discussing showing if we think it is funny enough. (The joy of this is WE get to decide, not a network!).” It’s fantastic that Lewis and Kaling have this sort of devotion to quality programming, but any sense of urgency is clearly lacking. I really enjoyed House Poor, but without more episodes it’ll never build up the sort of following that will help anchor Strike.TV over the long term.
Personally, I feel that while people might enjoy the novelty of watching well-known actors like, say, David Spade and Tim Meadows goof around for an episode or two, online celebrities with established fans might be a better (and cheaper) long-term investment. Not only do they typically understand the space better, but so does their audience, which by default is making good use of the Web 2.0 tools at their disposal. Natalie Tran of CommunityChannel and comedian Jon LaJoie have nurtured loyal audiences that result in huge viewcounts by virtue of their clever videos — paired with larger budgets and bigger promotion, it’s easy to imagine their talents anchoring a new web sensation.
Of course, it depends on how you implement the talent once it’s attached. The series Hooking Up enlists a variety of actors who were previously Internet Famous, such as sxephil, Jessica Rose and Michael Buckley, and while its first episode has close to 750,000 views, the following episodes show a big drop-off to 300,000 to 250,000 views. The fact that the show hasn’t been able to capitalize on those previously existing fan bases isn’t too surprising, though, as the dorm room comedy is a pretty far departure from the vlogging format that made most of the cast popular — and only the truly devoted will follow every guest appearance made by their favorite actors.
But what do you think, and what examples am I missing?