Jason Nash is already firing up his Snapchat app with his right hand when he extends his left hand for a handshake. “We’re at Fast Company, and this is Sarah,” he tells the screen, tilting it so that I’m in the frame. During the short walk between my desk and the conference-room table, he fires off three more Snapchats: one of the skyline view; one of the 9/11 memorial, which is visible from the conference-room window; and one of the newly completed skyscraper at 1 World Trade Center. He takes a fourth to recap my first question.
“I post wherever I have an audience,” he offers.
Nash is best known on Vine. About 1.5 million people have subscribed to his six-second looping videos on the Twitter-owned service, and he’s here to promote what has been pitched to me as “the first-ever Vine-star feature film.” But unlike most of the successful comedians on the service (most of whom, it seems, plan to star in said movie), he’s been working at his comedy and writing careers for 17 years, starting with a stint assisting Norm MacDonald on Saturday Night Live in the ’90s. He has sold television pilots that were never made, produced web series for GQ and Comedy Central, done standup, starred in a comedy contest show, and created a movie, Jason Nash Is Married, that he packed with comedy friends in the same way he plans to pack his new movie with Vine stars. In addition to Patton Oswalt (Young Adult, Justified),Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine 1 & 2, Childrens Hospital), Paul Scheer (The League, Fresh Off the Boat), and T.J. Miller (Silicon Valley, Transformers: Age of Extinction), it will include Eric Dunn (3 million Vine followers), Nicholas Megalis (4.7 million Vine followers), and Brittany Furlan (8.9 million Vine followers).
That his Vine account ended up being the success that gets Nash recognized on airplanes surprised nobody more than him.
It also made a great idea for a screenplay. The Vine star movie, called FML: A Social Media Adventure, loosely follows Nash’s own foray into social media fame. Its central character is a middle-aged man, who, like Nash, meets a much younger friend through a social media app (in the movie, the app is called ReLoad). They decide to travel the country together to collaborate with social media stars in hopes of making a career out of ReLoad. Nash’s real-life Vine collaborator, Brandon Calvillo, who is 20 years younger than him, will play the role of the younger friend in the movie.
Nash’s story highlights a new reality for aspiring celebrities: every time a new platform launches, it’s a new, even playing field for fame–one without gatekeepers, where if you want to make something, you just make it.
Nash, who also has large followings on Snapchat and Twitter, joined Vine soon after Twitter acquired the app and launched it in 2012. He didn’t suddenly get funnier–he suddenly found an audience.
His first Vines were intended to promote Jason Nash Is Married. But his account soon swelled beyond that. He started scripting goofy series, like one starring a father who is always offering his kids soda. He and Brandon began collaborating, which resulted in, for instance, a series featuring cops who fight crime in dance outfits. Nash had been waiting on various pilots he had sold to actually be made (the latest is one he sold to Fox in January). It was frustrating. But here was this audience he could reach as quickly as he could create. Some of the videos have been viewed more than 5 million times. Sure, most of his fans were teenage girls (seemingly Vine’s largest demographic), but it was a powerful fanbase. “Would I rather be on Saturday Night Live or Snapchat? I’d rather be on Saturday Night Live,” he says. “But this is what I have. This is my business, and it’s what I’ve fallen into, and I love it. I respect it. The truth is that I have [stations] calling me, to do ads for them.”
Such is the great open frontier of the Internet. YouTubers have fan bases that will show up by the thousands to scream at them as though they are the Beatles (“Who?” any of those young fans might ask). Internet memes have agents. Vine and Instagram stars get advertising deals.
But, Nash has learned, the frontier has some limits. For one, as any platform becomes more mainstream, its opportunities shrink. “It’s like a stock,” he says. “Timing is everything. There are plenty of funny people who could get on Vine now, but they wouldn’t get any traction.” Second is that the rise of the Internet celebrity narrative has slightly outpaced the rise of the Internet celebrity.
Yes, Disney acquired Maker Studios, a company that manages YouTube channels, last year in a deal reported at almost $1 billion. And DreamWorks Animation bought YouTube channel AwesomenessTV for $33 million. And Warner Brothers has invested–twice–in another channel called Machinima. Makeup guru Michelle Phan has her own product line and just launched her own network. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have both created shows based on YouTube channels. And all of this as television viewership, box-office sales, and interest in the Oscars continue to plummet.
But so far Hollywood hasn’t been greatly moved to bring web stars to the big screen. The most notable movie starring Internet celebrities was Camp Takota, which was built around Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, and Mamrie Hart–who together have such an enormous, loyal following that they are known as “the holy trinity” of YouTube–and was first released on digital platforms VHX and iTunes. It was not a box-office hit (there was no box office), but it kept pace with the Oscar-nominated movies in iTunes’s independent film category.
Even with 25 Vine stars who together have 150 million followers on board, Nash couldn’t find an entertainment company that was willing to fund his latest venture. “I get so much backlash in Hollywood,” he says. “I go and I say, ‘These people, they have a following. This is a good business plan for you. I am not asking you to throw your money away. I am telling you that this is the future.’”
Another quirk of the Internet age, however, is that not only do you not need Hollywood to make you famous, you don’t need Hollywood to give you money. Nash posted a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film last week. So far it’s only collected about $20,000 of a $200,000 goal. But Nash is making frequent dispatches to his many followers requesting support. “This is an audience right here,” Nash tells me, tapping on the phone in front of him on the table. “It’s immediate. There are a hundred thousand people on my Snapchat that I can talk to. And I think that’s awesome.”
Watch Vine star Jason Nash give advice about social media etiquette.