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It may have seemed unthinkable a few years ago for top actors to be on social media, sharing the minutiae of their day or interacting with fans in the comments. But today, most major stars have turned to social platforms like Instagram, YouTube and, more recently, TikTok to boost their fan followings and make some — or a lot of — extra cash along the way.
These stars are taking a page from digital creators, who have forged lucrative careers and found fame through sharing content online. Digital creators, in turn, have looked to Hollywood as a place to expand their careers beyond the small screen.
In recent years, more creators who got their start on social media have found success in quote-unquote traditional Hollywood, appearing in studio projects across film and TV. Last year, TikTok star Addison Rae struck a multimillion, multi-picture deal with Netflix after starring in the streamer’s reboot of the ’90s classic He’s All That, while the D’Amelio family is the subject of reality series on Hulu. Meg Stalter, a comedian whose work went viral on social media at the start of the pandemic, parlayed her online popularity into a breakout role on HBO Max’s series, Hacks, and a comedy pilot with the streamer. And Abbott Elementary creator and star Quinta Brunson also got her start on social media, sharing a self-produced series on Instagram and starring in viral BuzzFeed videos before landing her hit sitcom at ABC.
But as much as studios and production companies have begun paying more attention to digital talent, some creators who are trying to expand their careers tell The Hollywood Reporter the transition hasn’t necessarily been smooth — especially as they confront misconceptions around what it means to be a content creator or consider how much they are willing to alter their ideas to meet the desires of studio executives.
What has resulted is roughly two different paths that top content creators have taken to grow their careers — at least for creators interested in making videos and other visual, entertainment-adjacent content. YouTube stars like Jimmy Donaldson, best known as MrBeast, have found success by eschewing traditional projects in Hollywood and has instead focused on building his own $54 million empire, while others continue to pursue their lifelong dreams of becoming actors, writers, producers or directors in the industry.
Alan Chikin Chow, who is currently shopping around a pilot he co-wrote with Crazy Rich Asians writer Kevin Kwan, says he still has to explain “what it is that influencers do” to some executives at traditional networks and studios.
“I think that they briefly see TikToks and YouTube videos, maybe through their kids, but they don’t understand how, actually, these creators have these intense fan bases, that the kids look up to them just like they used to look up to Disney Channel stars or pop stars,” Chow, who has 10.9 million followers on TikTok and 1.5 million on Facebook, says. “I think there is a lack of understanding of how powerful some of these influencers actually are, still to this day.”
Kris Collins, a Canadian TikTok creator with more than 44 million followers, says she’s thought of adapting her comedy sketches into a show but was discouraged by the process because she felt like she had less control over the project’s direction.
“I tried to go into networks or into production companies, trying to maybe make a show out of it and do that kind of thing, but everybody wants to … change it so much that I know the audience would be so upset with it, so I think I’m probably going to do it in my own way,” Collins told fellow creator Brittany Tomlinson (a.k.a. Brittany Broski) during a panel session at VidCon. Instead, the creator — also known as “Kallmekris” on social media — says she’ll likely stick with the “digital space,” whether that be expanding her content on YouTube or another medium online.
“Not everybody, but everybody in the digital space, we look at the traditional space and it’s like heaven, like that’s where we should be, but it’s not,” Collins said. “It’s beautiful that I can write what I want. I post what I want. I can talk to my audience one on one, which is super cool. You can’t do that in the traditional space.”
While Tomlinson doesn’t want to avoid Hollywood entirely — her career “end goal” is to do the “voice acting equivalent of, like, Olaf,” for Disney — she is wary of following in the footsteps of other creators who have tried to fit into a mold expected of them from the industry.
“When you go viral, or you have a following not because of any one thing you’ve done, but because you have a personality that people are attracted to for whatever reason, the next logical step is hosting a late-night show,” Tomlinson said during the panel. “When you try to fit into the archetype of the Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, that doesn’t work if you’re not a white man.”
The creator pointed to Lilly Singh as an example. Singh, a popular YouTuber who became one of the few women — and women of color — to host a late-night show on a major network, ultimately stepped away from the NBC gig after two seasons, citing the desire to create “longer form content telling underrepresented stories, which is difficult to execute on a nightly show.”
“That was so unfortunate for her because she had the tools to make it work and she was in the hands of the wrong people. They tried to fit her into a mold that didn’t celebrate her uniqueness,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t want to fall into that.”
Still, creators who spoke with THR noted the positive impact social media has had on Hollywood and changing attitudes within the industry that have resulted in more digital-native talent booking roles — especially those without a traditional background in entertainment or familial connections in the industry.
“More and more people are being discovered on social media,” Sam Song Li, a content creator and actor who is starring in the upcoming Netflix series The Brothers Sun alongside Michelle Yeoh, says. “This production is looking for a cool skateboarder, this age range, who can do really cool tricks or something like that? Well, if you’re putting your videos out on social media, that traffic [for] you getting discovered is just way higher.”
“I didn’t come from a background that really gave me any indication on how you enter this space. There are these iron gates on Hollywood, but I’ve watched them kind of fade,” adds Benito Skinner, a comedian and content creator known as Benny Drama who appears in Peacock’s Queer as Folk. At the same time, Skinner says there’s still the need to get rid of the notion that content creators aren’t suitable for film or TV.
“That, to me, is so crazy. Like what, because these people have been working so hard and holed up in their apartments editing for four years and trying to make content [to] get their voice out there, that that means they shouldn’t be in TV shows because they’re posting on the internet? I just don’t think that makes any sense to me,” the comedian says.
As the industry grows and traditional gatekeepers are replaced with a new generation of executives, the creators who spoke with THR say they expect to see more digital-native talent making the transition to the big screen. Because if the massive fan followings of these creators are any indication, the audience interest is there — and excited for more.
“The reason why I really went all in on creating a social platform is because I saw people like Anna Akana, Quinta Brunson, Lilly Singh — people who were able to take their online presences and create projects in film and TV, using their following as leverage,” Chow says. “To this day, there are a lot of struggles for people from diverse backgrounds to really get in, break down the doors in the industry, … but I think [with] the digital platforms, you can show that, hey, I know my voice. I know my vision and, look, 20 million people also love it and follow me and agree with it. You can’t tell me, ‘Oh, this won’t work,’ because we showed that it works.”
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