How Do Teenage Stars Get Discovered These Days?

Generation Z is the 20-and-under crowd of actresses, musicians, artists, and entertainers on the verge of ruling Hollywood. Meet the freshest faces in the industry and get ready to root for them as they rise to the top.
Where do generation Z stars come from? Are they sprung, fully formed, from the loins of YouTube and Musical.ly? Do casting directors spot their Instastories and say, “That kid’s got a personality for pictures?”
Stories of the transition from vlogger notoriety to television and movie stardom aren’t new. Jake Paul, who has over 9 million followers, until recently starred on Disney Channel’s Bizaardvark. Lilly Singh, who has over 12 million followers, will soon star in HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Colleen Ballinger — better known as Miranda Sings — has nearly 8 million followers and a series on Netflix. Awkwafina, née Nora Lum, released singles like “NYC Bitche$” on YouTube, and she’s now starring in Ocean’s 8 and Dude, which was recently acquired by Netflix. Amanda Steele (a beauty vlogger with nearly 3 million followers) is starring in season 2 of Hulu’s Freakish.
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Still, they have to get on casting directors’ radar to make the jump — and the ways in which they’re doing so are different from any generation before.

Generation Z-ers have become masters at getting themselves seen by the people who make major decisions for networks.

In the past, casting directors, producers, and networks would come across talent using a tried-and-true method — a role needed to be filled; agents and managers sent in candidates for the part. Tannis Vallely, who cast the upcoming U.S. adaptation of Misfits, recalls having “binders and binders of lists for every project we ever worked on.” Setting up auditions required “making 50 phone calls,” and “you were basically limited with who was around, who was in town, and who had representation.”
It’s different for digital-native gen Z-ers, who have always existed in a world with internet and screens that keep shrinking. In a recent survey, Defy Media survey found that YouTube occupies 95 percent of their digital time, with 50 percent saying they can’t live without it. Thanks to the ability to generate content that is effectively what Vallely calls “self-taping,” YouTube is placing already-known personalities who come from personal branding — rather than acting — backgrounds on casting directors’ radar.
“If I see a YouTube video and it sparks my interest, then we try to learn a bit more about them and get to know them besides just what they’re doing on YouTube,” Elizabeth Boykewich, senior vice president of talent and casting at FreeForm, says. Vallely elaborates, “If I have a specific project, and we know that what we’re looking for is not going to be easy to find in the pool of actors here in L.A., then yeah, we start going to Funny or Die, or sort of jumping off and looking at the content that users are creating for themselves to see if anyone fits the bill.”
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Disney, long the star-making powerhouse for talented youngsters (perhaps you’re familiar with Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato), now supplements the traditional casting process by looking at various digital and social platforms, Judy Taylor, senior vice president of casting and talent relations for Disney Channel and Disney XD, wrote in an email. The Mouse House is able to get a more comprehensive look at aspiring entertainers thanks to the hours of content they’ve uploaded. Before social media and YouTube, a short casting call may have had to suffice. Generation Z-ers have become masters at getting themselves seen by the people who make major decisions for networks.
While experts couldn’t quite agree as to whether millennials are complacent and entitled versus empowered and innovative, early research on generation Z shows that we’re dealing with a hard-working, entrepreneurial, open-minded cohort. They’re expert brand managers, hence the swath of gen Z-ers garnering fame just by being themselves (or, at least, a content-creation-friendly, camera-ready version of themselves). They’ve figured out how to transition into stars whose faces their target audience can recognize without the traditional television methods of minting them.

“A large social following acts as proof of concept."

Danny Zaccagnino, YouTube Talent and Casting Executive
Eric Friedman, the executive producer of Disney shows including Bizaardvark and Austin & Ally, tells Refinery29 that, “I think kids who are watching at home know these people from the internet, and it is a draw…. It is appealing to want to cast them in shows because of their following.” Bizaardvark, which follows two girls who become popular vloggers, has also had influencers guest-starring as themselves.
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Just because a person’s got star talent when it comes to generating their own content doesn’t mean they’ve got the chops when it comes to acting on the big or small screen, though. “It’s definitely a different kind of audition than the traditional kid actors,” Friedman continues. “In my experience, they kind of right now feel like two different breeds. I actually don’t really know if their goal is to get on TV…. If they have 8 million followers on YouTube, are they looking to be on traditional TV?”
As part of the self-starter generation, though, many gen Z-ers are willing to put in the work to make the jump if that’s what they desire. “Some of the people that we have found, they take it very seriously. They’re in classes, and they’re studying. They want to learn the craft. They want to turn their recognizability into something more long-lasting,” Rich Delia, who has cast movies including To the Bone and Don’t Breathe (which starred Dylan Minnette from 13 Reasons Why), says.
There are also more platforms than ever on which influencers can make the jump from vlogging to acting. Awesomeness, a multi-platform media company that specifically targets 6 to 21 year olds (a.k.a. generation Z), is a springboard for talent like Amanda Steele to get that Hulu series, according to Paula Kaplan, the company’s head of talent. Baby Ariel (real name Ariel Martin), Musical.ly’s top “muser,” signed with heavy-hitter talent agency CAA in 2016. Still, YouTube is one of the main jumping off points for talent, something of which the Google-owned video platform is well aware.
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“A large social following acts as proof of concept. It shows they resonate with our audience and that there is a desire to see more from them,” Danny Zaccagnino, YouTube Talent and Casting Executive, wrote in an email. “Audiences have shown they respond to talent that is authentic and diverse. YouTube is the place where Gen Z goes to share and connect, so it's natural that they would want to create amazing content on the platform where their community lives. And with over a billion views each month, what they share on YouTube can be seen around the globe.”
This kind of social-media clout can actually sway some directors and producers into casting them, when dealing with a specific type of project. “If they have an indie film, if you have people with a huge social-media presence, then they will do some of the lifting with the marketing of your project,” Vallely explains. Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner told Porter (per the Telegraph) that she was once cast over a better actress because she “had the followers.”
Be it positive or negative, this different route to fame means that members of generation Z are breaking through decades-old barriers to entry. YouTube, Musical.ly, and more platforms have democratized access to a previously insular industry, per Vallely, who says, “On Misfits, I probably watched between 400 and 500 self-tapes. There’s a lot more, but you get to the gold.”
And just like that, a generation Z star emerges from the rough.
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