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Jonathan Shambroom ’89 hopes to turn TikTok and YouTube social creators into movie stars with his new company, CreatorPlus.
By Tom Kertscher
very day, people watch more than 1 billion hours of video on YouTube. Each month, more than 1 billion accounts use Instagram, a photo- and video-sharing app. A newer kid on the block, TikTok, which specializes in short-form mobile video, has been downloaded more than 2 billion times.
Besides videos and numbers in the billions, what these social media platforms share is an outsized reach to younger audiences. And this: an emphasis on a term that has found its place in this age—“creators,” some of whom have used the platforms to attract tens of millions of followers.
Jonathan Shambroom ’89 is seeking to capitalize on this convergence. After using the Macintosh Plus, one of Apple’s first computers, in his freshman dorm at Connecticut College and PageMaker 1.0 to lay out The College Voice school newspaper, Shambroom parlayed that experience into helping lead a series of tech companies—the first eight of which were acquired by larger concerns.
Now, the San Francisco Bay Area resident is making news as co-founder and CEO of another startup, CreatorPlus. As Variety puts it, the film studio and streaming platform for digital-first storytellers wants to “turn social creators into movie stars.”
CreatorPlus, which has raised $12 million in funding, is targeting creators with huge followings on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube. They will be featured in 90-minute movies that will premiere on CreatorPlus behind a paywall but can then be distributed anywhere.
If you’re of a certain age, names such as Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast on YouTube; 62.1 million subscribers) might mean nothing to you. But Donaldson is on Forbes’ 2020 list of the top-10-earning YouTubers. The magazine says that, together, those 10 YouTubers earned an estimated $211 million from June 1, 2019, to June 1, 2020, a 30% jump from the previous year. MrBeast’s 11-minute Fourth of July video in 2020, featuring what it said was a $600,000 fireworks show, was viewed more than 80 million times.
CreatorPlus has not yet announced deals with any creators, but younger audiences will be targeted.
“Young audiences today are digital natives; not just mobile first, they are mobile everything,” Shambroom said. “They don’t have a romantic notion of seeing a film in a theater, not like past generations did. We believe that creators are the brands and the storytellers of tomorrow, and we believe that the future of cinema is in the home. We know that creators have demonstrated they can attract, engage and monetize massive audiences.”
Shambroom grew up in New York City and Westchester County. “Creativity and communication were always at a premium in our house,” he said, referring to his late parents, Rick, a Madison Avenue promotion and marketing man, and Betty, an artistic stay-at-home mother.
At Connecticut College, the English major was a member of an improv comedy group and the soccer team, and he captained the ski team. He recalled the school as a place that encouraged initiative, which he showed by fashioning his own minor in communications, in part by taking classes at McGill University in Montreal.
Shambroom moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and started a succession of jobs in tech.
“It was the dawn of multimedia, which was years before the web would come out. I knew this was my calling. I just embraced it,” he said.
Shambroom managed the line of Virtual Petz—virtual pet games with artificially intelligent characters you could play with—at PF.Magic, then became executive producer at When.com, a web calendar and event directory service he helped launch. When.com was later acquired by AOL.
“It was a very handsome exit,” Shambroom said of AOL’s acquisition of When, which followed The Learning Company’s purchase of PF.Magic. “Now, I’m entirely hooked on: join early-stage startup, build product, build brand, build team, build company, and if you’re successful and you can provide great value, provide something that a large-enough market wants and get options. Multiple people might be interested in acquiring you.”
Next came Evite, an online invitation service, where Shambroom was the senior director of products. His team grew a user base from 50,000 to more than 1 million. In less than two years, that company was acquired, too.
“Now I’m clearly set. I’ve now had three solid experiences and I just love product management, because in all of those companies, I was in the center of the structure, where product was the hub,” Shambroom said.
“There were no more geographic boundaries; the web unified everything. And it ushered in a brand-new mentality and capability, which continues to manifest itself to this day. It was absolutely enthralling. So much of the excitement for every web startup was possibility; everything was new. So much of what spoke to me was creative possibilities.”
After time at an internet incubator, Shambroom joined what became Crackle, a video streaming platform, in 2005.
Video—that would be a pivotal career experience.
“It was the dawn of internet video,” Shambroom recalled. “That, to me, was the epitome of creativity—making it possible for the masses to have a voice to publish and broadcast something creative.”
Shambroom said the societal implications have pros and cons.
“You accelerate the benefits and the challenges of free speech,” he said. “It certainly has fostered an incredible ability for people to connect, and to be heard and seen, and to be creative. That can be used for good and for harm, and it can be abused. I don’t envy the task of moderating today’s massive open social platforms, but overall, I see it as a net positive.”
There’s no question social media has disrupted the way people live. A majority of Americans say they use YouTube and Facebook, while a majority of 18-to-29-year-olds say they use Instagram or Snapchat, and roughly half in that age group say the same for TikTok, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in April. On Instagram, 73% of 18-to-29-year-old users say they visit the site every day, with roughly half saying they do so several times per day.
After leaving Crackle, and then doing stints at several other companies, followed by gigs in consulting and angel investing, Shambroom launched CreatorPlus in January with co-founder Benjamin Grubbs. Grubbs is the former global head of top creator partnerships at YouTube.
A key test for CreatorPlus will be whether stars on social media, known for quick bits of entertainment, can carry feature-length films. Shambroom said his company will choose creators who are passionate and have stories to tell, and not simply hand over lead roles to charismatic fresh faces simply because they have followers.
“We will make movies because we believe that select creators can be phenomenal filmmakers. Something about their art or their voice or their style is very compelling, and they have a large and engaged audience, which is a great starting point when it comes to marketing a film,” Shambroom said.
“And we built our own distribution platform because we want economic and creative freedom. We know that each creator’s community is passionate about identity and also about supporting their favorite creator.”
Some creators have already made the jump from social media. Issa Rae created her series, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, on YouTube in 2011. By 2016, she was starring in an HBO series called Insecure, and by 2021, she was signing a new five-year TV and film deal with HBO. Joe Penna was MysteryGuitarman on YouTube. His pitch: “I make crazy videos and short films with animation, stop motion, visual effects, music, etc..” Now he has a bio on IMDb, which notes not only that his videos have received more than 400 million views but also that he directed and co-wrote the films Arctic (2019) and Stowaway (2021).
Shambroom said CreatorPlus will deliver a quality product by bringing in people with deep experience in Hollywood filmmaking and by having large enough budgets—initially $500,000 to $2 million per movie.
“At that level, we can have outstanding production value, but what we will be driven by is story, that’s our focus. And I think that’s the difference. We will appeal to audiences really based on the merit of the story and the characters,” he said.
Shambroom said the company, which aims to release its first film during the first quarter of 2022, will split revenue equally with the creators after it recoups the costs for financing and marketing a film. A central strategy is to connect with the target audience, ages 13 to 29, by reflecting their values.
“The young audiences today are more diverse than ever, and they also care about diversity and their identity more than ever,” Shambroom said. “And creators, also younger, are equally diverse. We want to represent that diversity. We want to tell stories that reflect that, and we are embracing that as a company.”
Tom Kertscher is a national freelance writer; he is a contributing writer for PolitiFact and a sports reporter for The Associated Press. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. Kertscher is the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire.