The Sketchy Economics Behind the Jeremy Renner App
The Marvel actor and musician’s official fan app was shut down last week after it spun out of control. This is the inside story, in all its skeevy glory.
The catastrophic downfall of the Jeremy Renner app, Jeremy Renner Official, can be distilled into a single post on the platform in which a woman shared a selfie — writing “Wishing everyone a good day, yeah I know I need to dye my hair” — and immediately received death threats from an anonymous user named “dippy fresh.”
“I cannot report or block this person […] making threats against my life,” said the woman.
“You make my prenis tingle,” another person told her.
“Hang tight and we will sort this out for you,” exclaimed a community moderator with the username “JRHasTonedArmsButANormalBody.”
Throughout the bizarre exchange, Jeremy Renner was nowhere to be found.
The 48-year-old actor, best known for the hit song “Heaven (Don’t Have A Name) [feat. Jeremy Renner],” and also some movies, dramatically announced on September 4 that the app would be shutting down “due to clever individuals that were able to manipulate ways to impersonate me and others.” Over the previous week, the platform had exploded into surrealist levels of shitposting (intentionally low-quality posts). The fireworks attracted an obsessive amount of attention, all of which belied the fact that it had been around for years, and caused everyone to ask: “Wait, Jeremy Renner has an app? That Jeremy Renner?”
“What was supposed to be a place for fans to connect with each other has turned into a place that is everything I detest and can’t or won’t condone,” wrote Renner in a message on the app before it was shut down.
There exists a fine line between monetizing your fan base and swindling them, which Renner appears to have toed with impunity.
Many people are as confused about the app’s sudden death as they were about its existence. Others are enjoying the schadenfreude. I am personally sad for the genuine Renner fans who are now marooned in a sea of other platforms that don’t claim to be “the ultimate bird’s eye view into Jeremy’s world.”
But one takeaway from the experience is this: There exists a fine line between monetizing your fan base and swindling them, which Renner and the company behind the app appear to have toed with impunity.
When the app launched on March 22, 2017, marketing materials claimed it was a way for “fans all over the world” to “interact directly” with Renner who, theoretically, would be able to see people’s comments and reply to them. Renner would sometimes post photos of himself, like a brooding noir shot captioned “Mood…” meant to let users know what he was up to. There was also a tab called “FanFeed” where Renner aficionados could post their favorite Renner pics or original Renner fanfiction, art, and chat with one another about the latest Renner news.
“I’m always looking for new ways to connect directly with my fans all over the world in our own shared environment,” wrote Renner when the app debuted.
But according to OneZero’s interview with the app’s creator, the Singapore-based app developer EscapeX, Renner had virtually nothing to do with the Renner app’s genesis.
EscapeX says it has created “personally owned platforms” (or POPs) for more than 500 celebrities and influencers. The clientele listed on EscapeX’s website includes Amber Rose, Tommy Chong, and Bob Marley (though based on the description of Marley’s app, it is unclear whether EscapeX knows that the reggae star is deceased). The company distinguishes itself from countless other app developers by touting its “patented ‘boosting’ function,” which is a tab where users can pay to elevate their comments. It also considers each app to be an entirely “decentralized social media platform,” meaning that clients own their apps and the rights to any content they share on the platform. (The thorny issue of social media and copyright law is actually quite complex, and led to several celebrities falling for an Instagram hoax in August.)
“When a fan goes onto an influencer’s Instagram they want to be noticed, but the problem is that there’s too many people,” said Sephi Shapira, founder and CEO of EscapeX. “If you’re a celebrity and you want to spend five to 10 minutes a day engaging with your audience, how do you identify the fans who have earned your attention?”
Shapira said that Renner first met with EscapeX representatives in early 2017 after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. The company “basically offered him to have his own platform, and he kind of jumped on board.”
But while Renner’s devotees may have assumed the app was built specially for them to connect with their idol — and understandably so, because that is precisely how it was marketed — Jeremy Renner Online was simply a reskinned version of the platform that EscapeX sells to all of its customers. (The process “was no different than” changing the name, according to Shapira.) EscapeX works with clients to customize app features based on their personal objectives, whether that’s doing brand sponsorships, promoting their music, or monetizing their fans like Renner.
EscapeX’s pitch goes something like this: Say 10 million people follow a celebrity on Instagram. They do so at no cost because the platform is free. But what happens if you convert even a small percentage of them into paying subscribers? One dollar per month, for example, could easily generate tens of thousands in revenue.
“The unit economics are quite attractive,” said Shapira.
That may sound a little skeezy, not unlike the 1–900 number hotlines in the 1980s, which would charge callers by the minute to receive supposedly inside information about celebrities like Hulk Hogan. But fans using EscapeX apps like the one made for Renner presumably knew what they were paying for. “I am not sure if it is manipulative for celebrities to come up with an app that promises interaction, as I think that would be taking some credit away from consumers who I think would be pretty savvy in understanding how genuine someone is in matching what they promise, and at the end of the day we are talking about a limited amount of money,” said Carolina Milanesi, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a market intelligence and strategy consulting firm.
“The celebrity apps are in my mind no different than celebrity products, in the way that they play on the desire that fans might have to interact, have a glimpse of their life, or try and be like them.”
There is something undeniably icky, even predatory, about Renner asking his fans to pay money to boost their comments and increase the likelihood that he will see them.
The celebrity app climate reached its apex between 2014 and 2015 when the Kardashians and Jenners launched a suite of monetized apps. Kim’s app, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, ranked number one in the App Store at one point and generated millions of dollars in revenue from its in-game currency, called “Koins.” Forbes subsequently hailed her as a “mobile mogul.” Other celebs such as Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, and Nicki Minaj likewise tried their hand at paid apps and custom emojis. Even “America’s Dad” Tom Hanks has an app! But the bubble eventually burst due to a lack of interest from users and the celebrities themselves, as Cosmopolitan’s Blane Bachelor wrote earlier this year.
Whether or not these apps were grifty is debatable, but EscapeX has morphed the idea into a model that is scalable to any celebrity, and openly advertises its products as a way to pay for access to them.
There is something undeniably icky, even predatory, about Renner asking his fans to pay money to boost their comments and increase the likelihood that he will see them. That was the premise of the app’s virtual currency or “star system,” which let users pay up to $99.99 (equivalent to 14,800 stars) for these credits. EscapeX says the currency was a reward “for being on the app” or creating original content (such as photoshopped images of Renner). People could gift stars to other users and spend them on offers such as lunch with Renner. But what it really boiled down to was a lottery system: the illusion that throwing more money at the app would considerably improve your chances of winning Renner’s attention.
What’s even worse is that users also documented years of abuse and harassment on the app, though Shapira said that it “did not happen frequently.” When OneZero told Shapira about instances of racial slurs, threats, and sexist remarks being made by commenters, he replied that since bans take 24 hours to go into effect, “you met some of [these offenders] on their way out.”
The app had few safeguards for preventing abuse. Shapira said that while individual posts and users could be blocked and flagged, EscapeX relied on community moderators and A.I. to address these problems, which they seem to have done ineffectively.
“Our goal is to develop a fully functional social network but of course we are a startup company,” said Shapira. EscapeX, though, was founded in 2015, and claims to have raised at least $18 million in venture funding.
It remains unclear whether any of this was elevated to Renner’s attention before the bitter end. OneZero asked Shapira if Renner ever brought up the issue of abuse and was told that “the application is completely owned by the celebrity — it’s their platform. These decisions are all up to the talent.”
Representatives for Renner did not respond to OneZero’s numerous requests for comment.
“To all the super-fans who have supported me with your words or encouragement, amazing art, stories and time shared on the app,” Renner posted, “a genuine THANK YOU and I hope to see you on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.”