Nick Kennicott lives in rural Georgia, so when Gordon Ramsay asked him to go buy truffles and sea urchin to make an omelette, he balked. “I can’t get sea urchin and white truffle,” he said. “They’re like $500 per ounce.”
Kennicott is a student in Ramsay’s MasterClass, an online course made up of 20 videos, each under 10 minutes long. The video recipe that called for sea urchin and white truffle is called “Make: Elevated Scrambled Eggs.” In it, Ramsay stands in a pristine, well-lit kitchen and monologues about the importance of not overcooking your scrambled eggs. This technique is the first thing he learned in Paris, he says to camera, and he’s going to teach you how to do it in this six-minute video. This is an insiders-only tip.
“Insiders only” is the basic premise of MasterClass, except anyone with a credit card can become an insider. For a one-time $90 payment, users get lifetime access to several hours of video, plus written materials, from people who are considered “masters” in their field. Pay $90 and Serena Williams will teach you how to perfect your backhand. Pay $90 and famed director Werner Herzog will teach you how to scout a film location. Pay $90 and Deadmau5 will teach you the correct timing of a beat drop. MasterClass launched two years ago this month, and co-founder David Rogier recently told The Verge that the lineup is not just an attempt at obvious celebrity endorsement. “I really wanted people to learn from the absolute best, and I don’t think that’s been offered before,” he said. “The real filter is people who you’d still want to take a class from in 100 years.”
But who exactly are these classes for? Are they for people like Kennicott, a pastor who cooks as a hobby for friends and family? (For the record, sea urchin and white truffle appear to run for around $45 / ounce online, but that’s still not cheap.) Or are they for people easily swayed by a celebrity’s word? Online-only education doesn’t have a good reputation — just ask anyone who’s ever paid $1,400 thinking they could get a medical degree on the internet. But MasterClass is not a scam, even if it sometimes sounds too good to be true. It really is the only online education program to count Aaron Sorkin, Gordon Ramsay, and Steve Martin as instructors.
Rogier told The Verge that among MasterClass’ paying students are both accomplished professionals and Oscar winners, as well as amateurs and hobbyists. In each video’s comments section, users can talk to their fellow classmates, although there’s no way to tell who else is online at the same time as you. It’s like any other comments section in that it can look like a stream of people just chatting into the void. Gordon Ramsey’s students include a man living in Honolulu who has no sense of smell, a woman from Alberta who says she’s “having an affair with [her] kitchen” and a kid from Ohio who says he’s the “middle son wanting to be cool.” In Werner Herzog’s filmmaking course, there’s a “Filmmaker / Editor / Producer / Musician / Human Being” living in Los Angeles and “a curious polymath with a strong desire to tell beautiful stories!” from Paris.
But no matter where the students are watching from, or what bio they write to describe themselves, everyone ends up taking the same exact classes, down to an instructor’s weighty pauses. As with most startups, MasterClass seems to be prioritizing reach over personalization, which can lead to disappointment for users who go in expecting one kind of class, only to find out after the money’s been paid that it’s another thing entirely. In that case, there’s always the 30-day refund.
Sherry Strong, an author and clean-eating advocate, took Steve Martin’s MasterClass with the hope of infusing some levity into her work. She’s giving a keynote presentation about sugar addiction soon, and she hopes that comedy will encourage people to let their guard down during the post-keynote discussion. She enjoyed Martin’s class, but was “not nearly as impressed” with Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting course. “Perhaps it was for more advanced screenwriters, but there were key basics missing for me,” she said. Nick Kennicott, on the other hand, found some of Gordon Ramsey’s videos a bit too basic. “I think some of the things that were in this class were actually in videos of Gordon Ramsay on YouTube,” he said. “Like parting out a whole chicken.” He’s right — there are actually several videos of Ramsay breaking up chickens on YouTube — but his MasterClass lesson plan is right there on the website. One course is called “Breaking Down A Whole Chicken.”
So if you need to figure out how to break apart an entire chicken, head to YouTube. But maybe MasterClass gives users $100 worth of inspiration, if not tangible skills. Clark Coffey, an independent filmmaker and actor who took Werner Herzog’s class, said the experience wasn’t really about how to make a movie, but rather why you should make one. “A person taking this class isn’t going to learn much about the technical aspects of making a film,” Coffey told The Verge. “But I think there’s a lot to learn in these videos about something more important: a philosophy of filmmaking, and of craft, and art — and dare I say, life. The videos are uniquely inspiring and motivating — at least to someone like myself who’s a fan of Herzog’s.”
Herzog, whose tutorials have titles like “Financing First Films,” “Negotiation Skills,” and “Working with Actors on Set” do give some practical advice. (On funding: “I do not want to have attorneys negotiate, that’s the end of everything.”) But he also talks about things like pre-filming rituals and how to get past the “endless chain of banalities” that filmmaking can sometimes turn into. “I’m not really teaching,” Herzog told The Verge. “I’m just passing on what I learned in practical experience in my life.”
You need life experience to make a movie, too, and if you don’t have enough, Herzog has some suggestions. According to Coffey, the class assignments include things like, “Using your house as a starting point, pick a direction and walk 100 miles in that direction,” and “arrange an interview with a prison inmate in your hometown.” This is Herzog’s version of Ramsey’s white truffle omelette. Obviously, not everyone has the free time or mobility to go on a 100-mile walk, and a prison visit comes with its own set of roadblocks. Coffey did complete the walking assignment, although he says it was broken up over a week of traveling, in Chicago, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Hawaii. “The most significant limitation is that you’re not actually there in a room with the instructor and your fellow students,” Coffey said. “You can’t ask questions and have a two-way conversation.”
Herzog did film a Q&A session in which he answered questions from his students, sent though and vetted by MasterClass. “There were hundreds and hundreds of questions coming in in writing,” Herzog said. “It has surpassed all expectations from anyone in the amount of response.” But Herzog is not and cannot be available at all times to answer questions (one of the downsides to having a famous teacher), and so users are left with the abyss-like comments section and something called The Hub, a forum embedded into MasterClass’ site where students can discuss specific topics.
On The Hub, students frequently post drafts of their work, asking for candid feedback. Unlike a more public platform like Reddit, the comments on The Hub are largely thoughtful and generous — there’s just not a lot of them. In a post from about two weeks ago, a student asks for “general feedback” on an experimental short film. Only one person responded to his call, clearly trying to nail the grad-seminar balance of criticism and praise.
Despite the fact that The Hub has been available since launch, Coffey said the most helpful discussions have occurred off-platform — when students move their conversations over to Facebook. And that’s going to be MasterClasses biggest issue: getting members to come back, even after their six-hour classes end. The subscription might last a lifetime, but how many times can you watch Aaron Sorkin’s lengthy monologues about his craft? And if other platforms provide more useful discussion spaces than MasterClass, why stay there? But MasterClass doesn’t want people to rewatch the same videos over and over; the company’s business plan only works if people keep coming back for new and different courses.
Rogier refused to offer even a ballpark figure of how many users MasterClass has, but it’s clear that the company is trying to expand quickly. Rogier told me he wants to double the number of classes offered in the next year, and expand the amount of tutorials from existing instructors.
Increasing the number of instructors makes sense, because for all of the students I spoke with, the celebrity instructors were MasterClass’ biggest appeal by far. (Coffey is a lifelong Herzog fan; Kennicott found out about Ramsay’s class because he follows him on Facebook.) MasterClass makes it pretty easy for the celebrities, too, who are compensated an undisclosed sum for their effort. Herzog told me it took just three days to film his class, and he didn’t even mind that MasterClass’ aesthetics didn’t quite jive with his own. “It was in a small studio,” he said. “And in my opinion, too many cameras. I’m always on the frugal side — basically, let’s face it, I’m a one-camera guy.”
There’s another MasterClass selling point, one that Rogier only mentions to me at the end of our chat, and it’s a little bit dark. We were talking about the possibility of having Prince as a guitar teacher, and Rogier remarked that with Prince’s death last year came the death of his craft. Not guitar-playing in general, but how Prince specifically played guitar. “If [musicians] do interviews, it’s about their music, new albums,” Rogier said. “This is about making sure their craft isn’t lost.”
MasterClass becomes a bolder and slightly more eerie startup if you think of it as meticulously documenting the artistry of the world’s biggest celebrities — as described by the celebrities themselves — so that it can serve as a digital time capsule after their deaths. If that’s the case, MasterClass still has a number of celebrities to collect, but ego and fear of death has always been a great persuasive device.
Happily, all of the current MasterClass teachers are still alive and working, and the students that I spoke to were all able to name at least one benefit of taking a class. Coffey says Herzog was his “dream instructor.” Sherry Strong says that she’s writing a screenplay, and Steve Martin’s class encouraged her to inject some comedy into her script. And Nick Kennicott said Gordon Ramsay’s course made him more comfortable working with fish — just not, of course, sea urchin.