Elizabeth Banks covers the April 2016 issue of Advertising Age, where she is promoting her new comedy site featuring female comics, Whohaha.com.
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Elizabeth Banks is a rare Hollywood talent. We know she can act and make us laugh out loud with her strong, sometimes off-kilter, verging on insane characters, whether she’s playing mad stylist Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games or buying a house in ads for Realtor.com. She’s also a successful producer and director, having helmed the global box-office hit Pitch Perfect 2. Now, she’s tackling her next challenge, WhoHaha.com, a comedy site that puts funny women at center stage.
“This is an opportunity,” said Ms. Banks, taking a break at the airy studios at YouTube Space in Playa Vista, California. She’s filming new content for the site, which will feature both original and curated films. “There are people doing it really well for boys. I just felt like there was not a place that was doing it really, really well, and specifically, for girls and women.”
WhoHaha is designed to be an online entertainment destination not just for Ms. Banks’ own funny business, but for that of other women, too. It will be a new stage for her currently running YouTube series, such as “Really Important Questions,” in which she answers fans’ burning inquiries like “Can I have a sandwich?” and “Will you call me sometime?” In “Ask a Badass,” she interviews other funny talents and co-stars including Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and Julianne Moore.
The site will also showcase fresh faces from the “new” Hollywood – famous YouTubers like Hannah Hart, best known for her “My Drunk Kitchen,” in which she cooks things while totally wasted; Mamrie Hart, who’s behind the series and book You Deserve a Drink; and up-and-comers like Megan MacKay, who woke up viewers with a makeup tutorial that satirized the National Football League’s treatment of former Ravens player Ray Rice’s assault scandal.
Today, Ms. Banks is on set with yet another “Hart,” a YouTuber who earned internet love for dancing around in a watermelon-rind bikini to tackle lesbian stereotypes. Ms. Banks has her in the “Badass” seat, and neither misses a beat quizzing the other for new videos to feature on their respective channels – Ms. Banks asks Hart about how her mom reacted to her fruity attire, and Hart, more formally known as “Hartbeat,” asks Ms. Banks about her last trip to a strip club.
Here, among new-media creators with various piercings, multicolor hairdos of assorted shapes and sizes and artfully shredded clothing, seasoned Hollywood star Ms. Banks is something of an anomaly.
In person, she’s slighter but no less perfect than her big-screen presence. She’s stylish yet subdued in a puff-sleeve striped shirt, jeans and jeweled sandals – all of which is cloaked underneath a long hooded jacket because, as is the plight of people with little body fat, she’s very cold. Her voice, however, is as big and sonorous and musical as it is in the movies and could transport you instantly to any of her fictional haunts, from the Lego universe to Panem to Monroeville, Pa.
The soundstage her team has reserved features a variety of setups – from a pair of director’s chairs to a faux gynecologist’s office with models and pictures of female organs strewn about.
Which is a nice segue to the site’s name. “We wanted something that really spoke to the brand of the site,” Ms. Banks said. “It’s meant to be funny and clever and a little bit racy and silly.” “WhoHaha” is a double entendre that’s both a cheeky play on lady parts and a celebration of a more substantive idea. “It’s about promoting female voices,” she said. “It’s about the ‘who’ behind the ‘ha-ha.'”
That said, “We’re not anti-male,” she said. “We love boys and men and their eyeballs. There will be lots of boys and men on our site, just not as content creators.”
To launch the site, Ms. Banks teamed with her digital management company, Digital Media Management, which has also helped create celeb-driven destinations like Ashley Tisdale’s lifestyle site, The Haute Mess, and Felicity Huffman’s quirky mom destination, What the Flicka.
Having worked with a number of female clients, Luigi Picarazzi, CEO-president of Digital Media Management, observed that for comedy, “The only platform they had online was to do something with FunnyorDie, which starred females but was very much made for men. I thought it was sad women didn’t have a platform where they had the power. We’ve been talking to so many YouTubers, and they’ve been backing us up in terms of ‘We need this.'”
WhoHaha will feature new, exclusive content starring Ms. Banks and those new-media stars while curating the best of female-focused comedy online. She’s also talking to some of her Hollywood friends about taking part. While Ms. Banks will no doubt be the main draw for the site initially, “hopefully WhoHaha stands on its own,” she said. “The content and the community is what we’re selling.”
WhoHaha arrives at a pivotal moment, as girl power in marketing is at an all-time high, with brands such as Dove, Always and HelloFlo garnering buzz and awards for their empowering messages, and entertainers such as Ms. Banks, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Melissa McCarthy showing that funny women are big box-office draws. Yet gender inequality scandals and headlines continue to plague the worlds of entertainment, tech, gaming and advertising, the last seen in stark relief during the recent JWT lawsuit involving PR exec Erin Johnson and former President-CEO Gustavo Martinez.
WhoHaha has the potential to be a unique offering among celebrity platforms, as a female-focused counterpart to the vet in the field, FunnyorDie, introduced by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy in 2007. And it joins other female-founded star-powered destinations, such as Zooey Deschanel’s Hellogiggles.com, which Time Inc. acquired for around $20 million, according a source cited by The Wall Street Journal. There’s also Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny (which in October landed its own site as well as ads with Hearst).
But WhoHaha will not be just about showcasing female comedians, said Ms. Banks. It will aim to nurture them too. Like online media giants with multichannel networks such as AwesomenessTV, WhoHaha intends to be more than just a content play, aspiring to be a holistic media company that creates movies, TV shows, podcasts and books, and also prepares new-media talents for Hollywood.
“I think about when I was young and sneaking up late to watch Saturday Night Live on Saturday nights or The Carol Burnett Show or Murphy Brown,” Ms. Banks said. “Candice Bergen, I just thought she was amazing – funny, quippy, charming, sexy, everything that I wanted to be. I had to seek out and find role models for myself, funny, charming women. And now, it’s everywhere. I just want to curate it and make it easier for those young girls looking for role models.”
Moreover, she hopes to be the bridge that gets these girls into the big leagues. “We need in Hollywood and entertainment those fresh voices, and they need a leg up. I really try and have personal relationships with a lot of these women. I bring people in to meet at my [production] company, and we’ll be looking to do more content creation, more mentoring. Most of the people I talk to do want to be in more traditional media, and their online presence is often just a way to get here.”
Ms. Banks believes young women will benefit from that extra help. “Believe us when we tell you that it’s not equal and it’s hard and you will be held to higher standards and you have to work hard and you have to stay committed,” she said. “I was told growing up, ‘The world is your oyster and you can be whatever you want.’ The fact of the matter is, that is empirically untrue for most women. We need those barriers to be broken down by young people, as well as us seasoned pros.”
On the flip side, Ms. Banks has already learned a lot from her collaborators. “They remind me to be fearless. There’s a real authenticity to what they’re doing.” Also, they keep her on her toes. “Even today, they pitched me ideas and we said, ‘This is the kernel of a great comedy idea, this is a little sketchy, this won’t hold someone’s attention for three minutes.’ I get to flex my muscles and my creativity as I work with these girls.”
As for advertising, Ms. Banks and her team are currently in talks with brands, but the site will debut ad-free. Traditional options such as banner ads will be available, but “we really want to get away from that,” she said. “We would like to innovate more and integrate brands into the content. I love the notion of being able to promote things that really matter to women that are funny and clever. I hope that we can find people who would want to partner with us in creating the kind of content we’re already putting out.”
Content platforms – and advertisers – have fared well from letting the comedy pros do their thing. FunnyorDie has an in-house team of about eight to 10 writers, with access to a larger pool of “friends and family” talent that has successfully delivered branded films for categories including entertainment, consumer packaged goods, fashion, beer and technology – and even the White House. For the last, it created one of its most successful branded plays, Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” episode from 2014 starring President Barack Obama. According to a White House spokesperson, the film led to a 40% jump in traffic to Healthcare.gov from the previous day. The episode went on to win numerous accolades, including a 2014 Emmy and the One Show’s 2015 Best of Show.
Brands and agencies “are typically coming to us to make our type of content,” said Chris Bruss, president of digital at FunnyorDie. “At the end of the day, they could make their own thing, but they’re coming to us for our voice, our point of view.” Also important: “They like our audience and our reach.” According to ComScore, FunnyorDie.com’s unique U.S. visitors in February totaled 7.3 million, up 25% from February 2015. The brand says it has more than 31 million followers across 16 social platforms.
Similarly, WhoHaha will not just be WhoHaha.com, but will also exist on an array of social media. The idea mirrors Ms. Banks’ own do-it-all persona. As an actor, producer, director, wife and mom of two, Ms. Banks said, “I thrive on being busy. That’s a personality trait I was genetically born with. People that are worried about balance for me? You don’t need to worry. I’m good!”
Socially speaking, she’s active on all the major platforms. On Facebook, she clocks more than 1.3 million fans; on Twitter, about 2.1 million followers; on YouTube, about 42,000 subscribers.
“I didn’t have email until I was 19 or 20 – that’s crazy!” she said. “We’re now in the age where there’s always been the internet. It’s not just me, everybody wants to get into the game of creating content. We are creating and consuming content in new ways all the time. That’s what I do for a living, so of course I’m interested in it. I’d rather be a pioneer and an innovator in the space than continue to be that person who didn’t have the internet.”
As cliché as the word has become, “authenticity” has been the driver behind the Elizabeth Banks brand. In recent years, she’s brought comedic charm to advertising for Realtor.com out of Pereira & O’Dell, as well as spots for Old Navy created out of Chandelier. In the case of the Realtor.com ads, in which she plays an obsessed home buyer, “They are my personality in an ad. When Realtor came to me, it just happened to be at the beginning of my own personal home search. I was legitimately obsessed with it and I’m literally negotiating on a house today.”
For Old Navy, she played a covetous clothes shopper who stalks women over their cool buys. She liked the creative, and it felt right to be part of an oeuvre that’s featured talented comedians like Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler and Julia-Louis Dreyfus.
Her foray into Twitter was a matter of reclaiming her identity. “I joined in such a random way,” she said. While she was away on a shoot, she received an email from a friend, director David Wain (Role Models, Wet Hot American Summer), who had been staying at her house at the time. “He emailed me to say, ‘I’m following you on Twitter and [you] just tweeted, “Sitting in my yard by the pool,” and I’m sitting in your yard by the pool and you’re not here.'”
Mr. Wain then negotiated with the imposter to give up the account to Ms. Banks, who quickly took to the platform. “I got connected to people really easily, authors that I would never meet, other actors.” It was through Twitter, for example, that the Green Bay Packers landed a spot in an epic a capella showdown in Pitch Perfect 2. Ms. Banks had followed one of the players, David Bakhtiari, who then DM’d her about getting a spot in the film, and the rest is history.
Ms. Banks posts all of her own Instagrams and writes all of her tweets, about 80% of which she posts herself and 20% of which her team schedules. “Nothing gets tweeted that I don’t see. With Twitter, there are just certain things that are coming that I know I won’t be around to do – like if I know Hillary’s giving a speech and I want to make sure we retweet it.”
Playing in the digital space, she believes, has truly boosted her career and allowed her to take the reins of her brand. “I really like having an outlet for my voice,” she said. “The whole ‘you do you’ takes a lot of anxiety out of being a celebrity. Before social media, your image was not controlled by you necessarily, and I feel really lucky that I exist in a time when I have way more control over my image, even in just being able to correct people’s ideas about me and being consistent in who I am.
“My career is directly impacted by social media,” she added. “I got to direct a major motion picture because I made smaller media online.” Prior to her big-screen directing debut, Ms. Banks directed “AIDS! We Did It!” an exclusive video for FunnyorDie that imagined the post-AIDS world, and “Just a Little Heart Attack,” a humorous yet serious film about women’s heart disease for the American Heart Association. Now, she’s set to direct Pitch Perfect 3 and a reboot of the Charlie’s Angels franchise, as well as play the villain Rita Repulsa in the upcoming Power Rangers film.
“The idea of short-form media having a place to exist online completely helped me have a directing career,” she said. For her, the online world is a “platform not just to experiment [with], but to really express myself and to create consistency among all media, so when you put it all together, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s Elizabeth Banks.’ They’re all a little funny, pretty sweet, a little joyful, they all have a little bit of female empowerment in them. That’s the media I’m making.”
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