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In the 2016 film LaLa Land, the aspiring actress played by Emma Stone jump starts her career by writing, producing and starring in her own play.
Jennifer Levinson has done something very similar, but instead of performing in front of a handful of theater-goers, she got her break by performing in front of millions on social media.
After years of appearing on YouTube and SnapChat, Levinson, 30, is now the writer and producer (as well as a performer) in Trust, a new feature-length movie distributed by Menemsha Films. She also hosts a show on Instagram and TikTok for Romwe, a Chinese fashion company owned by Shien.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Levinson studied theater at Chapman University before working in social media. She credits her social media following with propelling her career, which has also included filming commercials for Marriott and promotional videos for Sony Pictures.
The Observer talked to Levinson over Zoom from her home in L.A. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Observer: How did you get started in social media?
Jennifer Levinson: After college I was in a bunch of BuzzFeed videos and kind of got branded as a personality through BuzzFeed.
How did you end up on BuzzFeed’s videos?
I was pursuing acting and realized it was impossible. And my boyfriend at the time had a job that I wanted. So I was like, if I help you get a job at BuzzFeed, can I take your job? So I helped him get this job at BuzzFeed and because he was working there I ended up (in the videos). It started with one video and then they started putting me in a ton of videos.
The BuzzFeed videos that I ended up being in would get millions and millions of views, but I’m just one of many people on those videos. So my first thought was like, how can I turn this into something that can pay my bills while I pursue the creative stuff, like acting right, writing and producing?
Can you describe what was going on in these videos?
I would say they’re very low brow. A lot of them were reality videos, like couples try on makeup or boyfriend vs. girlfriend-type videos. But then I also tried to do some more scripted stuff and that kind of was a stepping stone for me to then get into my own scripted stuff.
There’s a show on Snapchat called Solve. And after doing a bunch of Buzzfeed videos, I sent a spec script to Solve and was able to get a staff writer job on that Snapchat show.
Tell me about your Romwe show.
So I go on camera once a week and talk about the clothes and talk to their audience. They have 2 million followers.
Before that I was doing social media marketing for a production company and about to go into production on my first feature. And then I got this gig and it’s once a week and has allowed me to do all the producing and acting I want to do.
What are the requirements of you? How long does it take for you to do this?
I have a whole lighting setup and a camera package they sent me and I have to storyboard everything. Sometimes I help cast other models or people to be on the show. And then it’s a few hours every Monday night, which is the prep time and the show itself. Throughout the week we’re doing brainstorming sessions and things of that sort.
How did all this lead to you making a feature film?
My heart’s in scripted content. So I started producing some shorts for fun just to get content out there. And I ended up getting noticed by Tribeca in 2020 which is a huge, really renowned film festival. They accepted me into their N.O.W. Creator’s Market, which basically gave me an opportunity to show off all the content I’ve been working on and pitch to different networks and producers. And I had this short proof of concept, called Trust, which is super off-brand for the types of content I was making at the time. But it’s basically about three siblings reconciling over their mom’s suicide.
I brought that to Tribeca with a feature script and I got really great feedback on it and then the world shut down (because of Covid). I was like, right, I need to make this feature, I can’t just sit here or I’m gonna lose my mind. So took the laurels I got from Tribeca and started just pitching to every single person I’ve ever made eye contact with and ended up raising like $200,000 in equity investments. We shot the feature in 2021 and we are now completely done with post production and we just secured distribution.
How are you using social media now to advance your career? Or have you moved past it?
No, it’s definitely something I still leverage in different ways. On Romwe, I truly don’t think I would’ve been cast as a host on their platform if it weren’t for the social media.
I’m constantly trying to find ways to do deals. I just partnered with Amazon to do an Instagram reel and that paid my rent for a month. I know that my following isn’t the biggest, but because I’m so specific with the brands I work with, I’m able to get a significant amount of money for a singular post because I don’t just take every single deal.
How do you see your social media presence helping develop or promote your movies?
I’ve tried to document everything on social the entire way and tried to already start building up that presence. The guy who plays my brother, Heston (Horwin), he blew up on TikTok. He has like 270,000 followers. So basically trying to get all the cast to be involved as much as possible and all the crew to be involved as much as possible.
Do you have any sense of who follows you on social media?
Yeah, so it’s a weird mishmosh of former BuzzFeed people and then Romwe fans and random men. I actually made a YouTube video a while ago called Dick Pic Fail because I was getting so many dick photos sent to me on Snapchat.
Ugh, I’m sorry to hear that.
Yeah. But the video did well. On Snapchat, I think my followings now around a hundred thousand followers but I’ve used it less because of those types of photos, but I definitely plan on really leveraging that fan base when the movie is out.
I guess as long as they buy tickets.
Exactly. I’m not going to open their messages to me anymore. I’ll just keep posting.
This interview was originally published in The Creators, a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it in your inbox before it’s online.