The savviest Hollywood players are seeking new opportunities as the stalemate with studios continues
Words by ROB LEDONNE
Illustration by ADOLFO CORREA
“It feels like it’s a reflection of the gig economy, but on a much larger scale,” says one publicist on a sweltering Thursday about three months into the writers’ strike and a month into the actors’ walkout. The publicist, who works with a top consumer firm, is musing on the ever-expanding entrepreneurial life of modern Hollywood players.
“Turning yourself into a brand has become something you not only can do, but should be doing,” she says. “If you’re a singer or an actor, you don’t have to earn your income just from your profession.”
Although celebrities turning into entrepreneurs is a tale as old as time, from Elizabeth Taylor’s House of Taylor beauty empire to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment agency, in the face of the unprecedented dual strikes that have ground the film and TV industries and their accompanying paychecks to a screeching halt, the number of Hollywood players seeking revenue streams outside their day jobs is about to hit an apex.
“It’s absolutely everywhere,” she adds, who acknowledges that the two strikes could help the trend hit new heights after an already bonkers 2022, which saw everything from Kevin Hart launching a plant-based restaurant, Hart House, in Los Angeles, to Stranger Things star Noah Schnapp peddling a hazelnut spread.
“For A-list celebrities who can sign endorsement deals, they’re already used to sporadic income, and representatives are always looking to make money where they can,” says Los Angeles–based Richard Rushfield, chief columnist for The Ankler, the industry newsletter widely read by Hollywood insiders. “Acting isn’t an office job where you get three weeks of vacation a year. But now they all have some time on their hands, and they’re looking to book.”
Across categories, regardless of whether a celebrity is tangentially associated or deeply entwined with a product, it’s a symbiotic relationship that can give both entities a financial lift over the long term.
“If you have a product with an interesting story, that sometimes can only get you so far,” the publicist explains . “It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that having a celebrity is going to help you reach a massive audience, but it sure does help a lot.”
September will see the most star-filled front rows in recent history
All those eyeballs mean big dollars. Launchmetrics chief marketing officer Alison Bringé recently told the New York Times that actor Margot Robbie’s red carpet premiere appearance for the summer blockbuster Barbie while wearing a Schiaparelli gown “generated more than $2.1 million in media impact value in just 24 hours, which is more than half of what Schiaparelli’s Fall 2023 show amassed overall.”
And because the SAG-AFTRA strike rules don’t prohibit fashion or product promotional work, it becomes a no-brainer when there’s money to be made from a star with plenty of time on their hands. Industry insiders predict that Fashion Weeks this fall in New York, Milan, and Paris will see the most star-filled front-row turnouts in recent memory. Fashion brands will pay to get a star to their show, throwing in flights, hotels, and clothes, not to mention the prospect of a long-term six- or seven-figure annual contract as a campaign star or brand ambassador.
To decipher how the strikes could impact the fates and finances of modern Hollywood players, look no further than another unprecedented moment that put a muzzle on Tinseltown: the lockdown years. Much like the pandemic gave mere plebeians sufficient downtime to perfect their sourdough, the same was true for actors who were left with scant shoots and no red carpets. In their place, a bevy of quarantine projects pushed Hollywood into the entrepreneurial stratosphere. Some explored familiar territory (Greta Gerwig recently told The Guardian that her and husband Noah Baumbach’s out-of-the-box script for Barbie came from “the deep isolation of the pandemic, that feeling of being in our own little boxes, alone”), but many other projects were laser-focused on brand-building.
From John Krasinki’s web series Some Good News (sold to ViacomCBS after a bidding war) to Dua Lipa’s lifestyle newsletter, podcast, and event company Service95, the strikes could translate into a similar project trajectory as the boom spurred by Covid in 2020. “When you’re a star you get pitched stuff every single day,” says Rushfield. “I’m sure there are a lot of meetings they wouldn’t have taken two months ago and they are thinking, ‘Oh, maybe this is something.’” Indeed, one manager at a major agency confirms that since actors experienced their principal income streams drying up in the spring of 2020, “endorsement departments within agencies have swelled, sometimes becoming the biggest department in the company.”
“It’s a very good question as to where this goes, but the strikes could very well make everyone’s creative juices head in another direction,” says another top publicist who wished to remain anonymous. “And even if they’re not very involved, I’ve seen it done many times by celebrities with brands where they use your name and you do one appearance and that’s all you’re required to do,” the publicist said of the ease with which an actor can quickly boost their bottom line.
But as many in Hollywood seek entrepreneurial projects, two starkly disparate sectors seem to have proved most popular with celebrities. Saunter down any beauty aisle and you’ll find a Who’s Who of A-lister endorsed brands, whether you’re interested in clean beauty (Scarlett Johansson’s The Outset), male beauty (Pleasing x Marco Ribeiro), or even hand soap (Courteney Cox’s Homecourt), all of which dropped last year.
You can also drink like a celebrity now that liquor stores are awash with Hollywood booze collaborations. “There’s just such a big market for it,” says the first publicist, who claims the trend has George Clooney to thank. “Casamigos was the company that really started it all.” It’s only natural that once you sell something for a cool billion dollars — as Clooney did when Diageo acquired his tequila brand in 2017 — it tends to snowball. “That really kicked off a lot of it; people want to get a slice of the pie.”
Of course, that also doesn’t mean having an entrepreneurial nature isn’t a risk-free endeavor. “Jennifer Lopez [allegedly] doesn’t drink, and then she comes out with a liquor brand!” a third anonymous publicist says, referring to Delola, Lopez’s new line of bottled spritzes. “If you’re [allegedly] sober, why are you joining forces with an alcohol company?” she asks in reference to the backlash. Lopez later announced on Instagram that she enjoys an occasional cocktail and doesn’t get “shitfaced.”
In addition to strike-induced projects, Rushfield also points out that stars may be returning to set sooner than we think. SAG-AFTRA recently approved waivers for production on 40 independent films, including A24’s Mother Mary starring Anne Hathaway and Michaela Coel, when the production company agreed to its terms. “I think a lot of stars are hearing that and saying, ‘Well, it’s a good time for me to do an indie film now and jump into that loophole.’”
How long the strikes last and what their legacy will be is anyone’s guess. Let’s not forget that the 2007 strike gave us Donald Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice, and look where that got him. But, according to Rushfield, one thing is certain: “It’s crazy times.”
Feature image: Illustration by Adolfo Correa.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of C Magazine.
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