Kecia Bal wasn’t looking to write the Great American Novel when she signed up for James Patterson’s online class.
She already had a successful career as a business reporter, covering local companies and entrepreneurs at the Tribune-Democrat, a newspaper in Johnstown, Pa., with circulation around 30,000. In fact, her schedule was so packed that after she paid for the $90 MasterClass taught by the bestselling author, she realized she’d have time for the coursework only after midnight.
“I thought if I could just learn one new trick or some new way to approach the way I write, it would be worth all the time investment,” Bal, now 33, recalls.
The journalist got a lot more than she bargained for. Just over a year after completing Patterson’s class, Bal is about to have her first book published: “The Dolls,” a crime novel she co-wrote with the famous writer. After completing the Internet course, Bal decided to enter a competition held by MasterClass that offered the winner an opportunity to work on a piece of fiction with Patterson. She won, and the resulting collaboration goes on sale in August.
It’s the kind of success story that MasterClass was dreaming of when it launched in May 2015 as a start-up seeking to connect the masses with A-list celebrity instructors. Dustin Hoffman was the first big name to sign on, followed by Patterson. Two years later, the company boasts a roster that includes Serena Williams (tennis), Aaron Sorkin (screenwriting), Jane Goodall (conservation), Usher (the art of performance) and Christina Aguilera (singing).
MasterClass in on track to release about three times as many classes in 2017 as it did last year, and the company now counts late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson as fans.
Stephen Colbert got Steve Martin to teach a custom version of his MasterClass for “The Late Show,” giving the workshops the kind of pop culture boost once enjoyed by the Learning Annex — which was famously referenced on “Sex and the City” and “The Simpsons,” and counted Donald Trump among its celebrity teachers.
As a business, MasterClass seems primed to capitalize on this era of self-betterment, when thousands flock to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop newsletter for advice on wellness and self-care has become a millennial mantra. But just how effective are the classes, which range between three to six hours? Does watching an acting course taught by Kevin Spacey actually give aspiring stars a leg up in Hollywood?
Some industry professionals have their doubts.
“It’s like someone studying violin but not holding a violin — just looking at videos of how to play a violin,” says Sharon Chatten, an acting coach who has worked with Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller. “It’s silly to put on your resume that you’ve studied acting because you’ve taken this course. I think it’s valuable in the way that watching ‘Actors on Actors’ or Charlie Rose is. You’re expanding your mind, but I wouldn’t consider that taking an acting class.”
Stuart Rogers, who runs an L.A. acting school that has been home to Allison Janney and Octavia Spencer, agrees. “It’s not a master class, or a class of any kind,” he says. “It’s tips and anecdotal information — a very cool thing professionals have done to share stories about their art. But it’s not training.”
But the founders of MasterClass argue that the programs serve a larger purpose in dispelling the myth that success has to do strictly with innate talent instead of a dogged work ethic.
“Every single one of our masters worked their butts off,” says David Rogier, the company’s co-founder. “They have worked for decades on their craft. They also have the same fears and insecurities that some of us do about becoming good. I think our students are actually really inspired by it.”
Rogier, who earned a Stanford MBA in 2011, went to work for the Silicon Valley-based venture capital fund Harrison Metal Capital. After just a few years, the company’s founder, Michael Dearing, decided to give Rogier seed funding to launch his own venture.
Rogier, a native Angeleno who attended Santa Monica’s Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, thought long and hard about how to spend the money, but kept returning to a story his grandmother had told him as a boy. After immigrating to the U.S. from Poland in the midst of the Holocaust, she applied to numerous medical schools but was continually rejected. One admissions director told her she was unlikely to be accepted anywhere because she was a woman, a foreigner and a Jew. But she persisted, and eventually went on to become a respected pediatrician.
“She said, ‘David, in case this isn’t clear, the point of this is education is the only thing somebody can’t take away from you,’” Rogier says. “I realized that I wanted to build something that people couldn’t take away from others. There is knowledge locked in the heads of the very best in the world, but that usually stays in their heads and is shared with only a few other people. If you could make it so anybody in the world could learn from the absolute best, you would — in a small way — make the world a bit more equal.”
When Rogier came back to Dearing to share his idea, the investor was skeptical.
“Why in the world would these people who are all beyond accomplished celebrities in their field sign up for this?” Dearing remembers saying. “He was telling me people were interested, but I was like, ‘Are they smiling and nodding and saying, call my agent?’ But he really worked his magic and got them interested before there was even one minute of footage to show anybody.”
“These folks wanted an opportunity to mentor and give back,” explains Rogier, who got Hoffman to participate as his first teacher with the help of his old Crossroads classmate, Becky Hoffman — the actor’s daughter. “And I think the other part that was appealing to them was that it was going to be at scale. It wasn’t going to be 12 kids in a classroom. They could reach tons of people around the world at a price point where it would be cheap enough that lots of people could afford it.”
Of course, the teachers’ motivations weren’t all altruistic.
“Some of them were very cash-motivated,” Dearing says. “We offered incentive pay and back-end, and some others wanted to be part of the company long-term as shareholders. I was a little worried about the price tag of the big-name celebrities, but David sat me down and showed me what the economics looked like — how many classes do we need to sell to feel good about a big investment? He was confident that you could get to profitability just based on a strong fan base.”
The company has raised more than $56 million and has offices in L.A. and San Francisco. MasterClass employs 60 people; Rogier says he is aiming to hire about 40 more by year’s end.
And some instructors, like Hans Zimmer, are already pitching secondary installments of their courses. The German film composer — who said he became especially interested in MasterClass after he learned Sorkin was one of the teachers — made a concerted effort to make his class accessible to non-musicians.
“I think one of the main things that everybody can learn from musicians is that in music, the operative word is ‘play,’ ” says Zimmer, who has been nominated for nine Oscars and won one for his score for “The Lion King.” “A certain amount of playfulness leads you to a certain amount of creativity, and anybody can do that. And I also wanted to emphasize: ‘Don’t listen to your parents and get a normal job!’ ”
In his class on comedy, Steve Martin starts out by assuring students he had no talent when he was an aspiring stand-up. Though he goes on to offer plenty of practical techniques — he addresses the use of vulgarity, how to handle hecklers and the importance of editing an act — like Zimmer, he primarily wanted to offer encouragement to novices.
“I wanted to say that if you have a motivation to do it and think you’re untalented, don’t let this stop you, because you can actually learn this,” says Martin, who himself has taken the classes by Patterson and Usher. “Before this, I’d been feeling like I had this loose knowledge that had no place to go. This was a perfect vehicle for it — a way to talk to people who were interested in the subject who might get something from it. I’d hate to die and go to my grave with all this information that I didn’t share with somebody who could have used it.”
That boost of confidence was just what Graydon Kouri, a single father in Palmdale, was looking for when he signed up for Hoffman’s MasterClass. An actor who keeps a day job at a printing company to support his two daughters, Kouri had been struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood. After seeing an ad for Hoffman’s class on Facebook, he wanted to find out how “The Graduate” star navigated through his career.
“But what stuck with me most was the part about having courage and faith in yourself,” Kouri says. “Since, I finished a screenplay I was working on because he gave me that attitude of ‘do what you want and put your heart into it.’ Before I took the class, it really felt like I didn’t have time to sit down and work on this stuff — if I didn’t have somebody supporting it, then what was the use in trying? And now I want to send this screenplay to him that I finished. I think there’s a part that would be great in there for him.”
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