This week, the bad-boy comedy “Expelled” will hit a few theaters around the country before making its way to digital-video clearinghouses like iTunes and Amazon, an increasingly common strategy in the era of on-demand watching.
The trailer foreshadows a movie that’s half “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” half madcap caper — a smirky student (Cameron Dallas) gets expelled from school, and the movie follows him as he goes to great lengths (breaking and entering, poison darts) to prevent his mother from finding out. Fairly standard.
The twist, though, comes in the form of the 20-year-old Los Angeles resident Dallas, who might not be a household name just yet, but who holds a special place on quite a few smartphones and laptops. He has 3.9 million followers on Twitter, 5.5 million fans on Instagram, and — most crucially — 6.3 million followers on Vine, the social network devoted to sharing extremely brief video clips. Dallas’s teen-idol looks and penchant for pulling pranks have made him one of the nascent service’s bigger stars, with his six-second videos being looped again and again by people gazing into their screens.
Twitter launched Vine in January 2013, and the service’s original intent was one of chronicling how users see the world; among the clips on its launch announcement are a six-second flipbook animation and a cute shot of two young children holding hands. But Vine’s biggest clips have taken the form of larger-than-life selfies — first-person recaps of funny moments stitched together into a six-second whole, which have been getting increasingly sophisticated over the service’s relatively short life.
In the new issue of The New Yorker, entertainment-biz chronicler Tad Friend looks at the money flowing toward Vine stars like Dallas and his friend, Nash Grier (who has broken Vine’s 10 million mark, follower-wise) — and there’s a lot of it, thanks in part to the shifting ground underneath the entertainment economy and the increasingly fickle nature of younger audiences. In 2013, DreamWorks Animation, run by Jeffrey Katzenberg, bought AwesomenessTV — once a YouTube channel, it is now credited with distributing “Expelled” — for $33 million.
The stars themselves can bring in cash as well. Friend says that Vine star Brittany Furland’s going rate for a branded six-second clip is $20,000. Meanwhile, in the physical world, Shawn Mendes, whose brief, sincere covers of pop songs brought him enough attention to land a deal with Island Records, has an opening spot on Taylor Swift’s tour next year. And Dallas and Grier have rebrand itself to appeal to teens.
Internet celebrities rise and fall, in part, because of their ability to be quickly relatable to whatever swath of consumers is looking at online content en masse; certain themes tend to recur, many of which have either a close relationship with or a funhouse-mirror resemblance to mass media. Last week’s episode of “South Park,” which got its deal in part because of the pre-YouTube virality of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s foul-mouthed Yuletide short “The Spirit of Christmas,” took particular aim at Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, a Swedish video-game aficionado whose narrated playthroughs on YouTube have, according to Friend, propelled his salary into the low seven figures.
Vine’s hypercompressed nature doesn’t leave much room for error, or for anything remotely resembling context or subtlety. The type of humor that stars like Dallas and Grier specialize in is, both because of the restrictions of the medium and the hyperspeed nature at which it’s consumed, broad and shallow — think “The Three Stooges,” only with principals who would also pass muster with boy band svengalis. Dallas’s most recent clip, a production with Grier, sums up the Vine ethos pretty well; it punctures one stereotype with another, and adds a bit of over-the-top reaction for good measure.
Sometimes the humor can come off somewhat sociopathic; quite a few popular Vines are devoted to the mishaps commonly known as “fails,” whether it’s Dallas unsuccessfully tossing his trash over his balcony (hashtag: “#IPickedItUp”) or Grier mugging for the camera as his sister flubs a song lyric. (Despite being so well-suited to these types of clips, Vine’s comment box instructs users to “Say something nice,” and a “like” is expressed with pressing a smiley face.)
Then there are the clips where the humor is largely derived from stereotypes. Friend’s story details the crafting of a video by Andrew “King Bach” Bachelor, whose 9.6 million followers track his regularly posted clips featuring himself and other stars of the service. But “following” someone on Vine is, as it is elsewhere on social media, an inherently passive exercise; you have to be in the app or on the site to closely track new happenings, and it’s easy to let Vine just, well, wither behind one’s day-to-day doings on and offline. Follower counts or no, the real payoff comes when a performer inches closer to Hollywood’s big leagues — or at least that’s what Dallas’s promotion of “Expelled” and Bachelor’s happy recording of his recent appearance on “The Mindy Project” would intimate.
The production of Vines has certainly become more elaborate since the earliest days of flipbook animations and cute baby shots. It’s not uncommon for the more popular clips to be jam-packed with cutaways, which, again, cuts down the opportunity for nuance. The clip that serves as the centerpiece of Friend’s story hinges on stereotypes about African-Americans and Air Jordans and water. As Bach explained to Friend, “That’s because, when I tried out the ideas going around Hollywood — that Asians play the smart people, white people play the rich ones, blacks are the thugs — those Vines got the most likes. So it’s not Hollywood being racist — it’s Hollywood understanding what people want to see.”
That uneasy conflation of giving the people what they want and playing to humans’ worst instinctual feelings about each other has plagued the entertainment industry since its beginning, and its finer points have been debated over (and, at times, steamrolled) even more by the ever-increasing proliferation of places for discussion. How “Expelled” expands Dallas’s talents beyond the six-second mark will likely offer a clue as to what comedic tropes will survive, and whether or not all that extra storytelling time will allow for comedy that works on a slightly less broad level.
“Everyone looks at us like these pioneers, like we know exactly what we’re doing. We have no idea what we’re doing,” Vine star Marcus Johns (5.5 million followers) tells Friend at one point during the Air Jordan clip’s chaotic production. The way Johns’s statement echoes “All The President’s Men” scribe William Goldman’s screenwriting adage “nobody knows anything” is probably unintentional, but it does show how even those performers who are seen as new answers are asking time-honored questions.
Watch the trailer for “Expelled”:
Watch Cameron Dallas on Vine:
YouTube: A compilation of 40 of Dallas’s Vines: