Could This Comedian-Actor Be Hollywood's Greatest Marketer?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Hitching your star to another is a very good way to get noticed.
By Libby Coleman
“I love your film so very hard,” Flula Borg says to a director in his heavy German accent. He’s wearing a sweatshirt that can be described only as depicting a serene cat staring at the galaxy. “I want to spread it around like dope news, or like an excellent cold.” 1.5 million views later and he’s done pretty much what he wanted.
Whether the 33-year-old German is promoting his own films or comedies helmed by Will Ferrell, Amy Schumer or Tina Fey, Borg’s PR hustle is symbiotic: He promotes films to his 760,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, Flula, and in the process becomes more famous next to the household names. Variety named him one of the 10 comics to watch in 2015; Flula also won best comedy channel at the 2015 Streamys. And now he’s enjoying a meteoric rise from digital star to screen star: Last summer, he was the villain in the summer hit Pitch Perfect 2, and he’s a co-star and co-writer of Buddymoon, which premiered at the Sundance alternative, Slamdance. But Borg swears he’s not working with any formula: “I could not describe my style — I don’t even know what’s funny.”
On-screen, Borg comes off a bit like Borat, but German, with his mangled English idioms and confused, innocent mistakes. “Move those tiny legs,” he yells, in a thick accent, to his Buddymoon co-star. Later he quips, “I have goose skin right now.” He’s “fearless,” director Alex Simmons says. “He instantly takes the air out of any room.” In person, Borg’s a giant, dressed in a pink, orange and green scarf, fuzzy hat and bright blue jacket. He’s always down to go along with the joke; when I take a picture of his boots, he asks if he should pop his heel up, to give me a “little toesie-woesie.” (Yes, please!) At every moment, he is Flula Borg, YouTube personality.
And that’s a very, very good thing. According to USC marketing professor Jeetendr Sehdev, YouTube stars are considered far more authentic and genuine than mainstream celebrities. “They’re essentially a new breed of celebrity that’s rising up and redefining the face of celebrity,” he says. Yes, it’s amazing: A man named Flula Borg is authentic. If these stars say they like something, the idea goes, their fans flock as well. That can be quite lucrative: PewDiePie, the YouTube gaming personality, last year made millions playing video games to a YouTube audience of 43 million subscribers. Borg’s videos have been viewed more than 83 million times, according to Social Blade, a YouTube analysis site that ranks him in the top 3,000 for YouTube subscribers. It estimates Borg’s YouTube income at less than $45,000, but, hey, Borg doesn’t rely on YouTube alone. Having his mug on the big screen also pays.
All the while, movie studios are doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to market their flicks — and struggling to figure out what works. They haven’t found a winning formula yet, though social media is influencing consumers’ choices more and more. While harnessing YouTube celebrity isn’t the full answer to the conundrum, it could cut costs significantly, experts say. Borg isn’t the only YouTube star invading the mainstream: Smosh, the YouTube sketch comedy duo, smashed a blockbuster, and YouTube personality Grace Helbig has her own talk show on E!, named appropriately to capitalize on her brand, The Grace Helbig Show. Entire companies, like AwesomenessTV, are based on leveraging social media celebrities to helm nondigital projects. After all, they bring with them a built-in audience of millions, along with their own channels for promotion.
These stars are often truly international: The top earner on YouTube, PewDiePie, is Swedish. Borg is from a small town near Nuremberg. The son of an engineer and a teacher, Borg studied engineering at university, which came in handy when he worked as a technician for Spike TV’s Auction Hunters in between acting gigs. The comedy that dominates Germany tends to be imported, which meant that the best opportunities were abroad. Borg ended up in Los Angeles after a chance encounter in a bar with David Giuntoli, the star of the TV show Grimm. They hit it off, and Borg found himself camping out in a tent on Giuntoli’s porch. Being in LA has helped “1 million percent,” says Borg, who now has his own apartment — sans porch, alas — but: “The jobs are here.” As it happens, Hollywood seems warmer to international comedians and their funny accents these days, from Trevor Noah to John Oliver to Rebel Wilson.
His first film-promo video featured Jason Segel, who was on a press junket for Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Borg started his video with his signature “Booo-ooom!” Segel “looked at me like I was from another planet,” Borg recalls. Then publicists started to invite him to more junkets, knowing, he says, that he wouldn’t make their client look bad. Then the Pitch Perfect 2 casting directors found his vlogs and asked him to audition. At the time, Borg was wearing many hats: DJing (many of his videos feature a techno song he produces from found sound), emceeing and (less lucratively) slap dancing, the German folk dance that dates back to the first millennium. Borg gets up to show me. He’s very good.
It hasn’t gone to his head. Borg says humbly, and German-ly, that Smosh and others are “true professional YouTube men. I started as an accident with YouTube.” But, oh, how he uses it. On Flula, Borg promotes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s latest comedy: “So to make your film a hot, hot billboard, watch out, Adele and other diva ladies, I’m going to make a techno song about your film.” Please do, they ask. “This feels like we don’t have to do any work,” Poehler says. It’s true. He’s stealing the show.