TikTok Boom! How the Exploding Social Media App Is Going Hollywood
Illustration by The Sporting Press

TikTok Boom! How the Exploding Social Media App Is Going Hollywood

The impossible-to-ignore, 2 billion strong platform is leveraging a massive sheltering-at-home audience hungry for new content to draw A-listers and turn its homegrown roster into bankable stars (with reality TV shows, of course).

On Tuesday, April 21, TikTok's biggest star crossed the 50 million follower threshold. One day later, video conferencing from her bedroom in Connecticut, Charli D'Amelio has another milestone on her mind: her 16th birthday.

Caught up in her excitement about the festivities, D'Amelio doesn't mention the appearance she has coming up on The Tonight Show, her second, where she will talk with host Jimmy Fallon about the dance she created in March to encourage people to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic. When she does pop into America's homes that Friday night — telling Fallon that #DistanceDance videos have been viewed more than 13 billion times, contributing donations for at-risk populations thanks to a partnership with Procter & Gamble — the soft-spoken teen exudes a youthful naivete that makes it hard to question her sincerity, even if a charity campaign also burnishes her brand. Giving back, she tells Fallon, is "all I've wanted to do since the start of this."

If you're wondering how society got to a place where a doe-eyed, freckle-nosed high schooler garnered millions of followers and coveted late night appearances for dancing in her bedroom, you're not alone. D'Amelio's own TikTok profile reads, "Don't worry I don't get the hype either." She says she wasn't after fame: "I was just making videos for fun like everyone else." Even her parents are a bit surprised. "I don't know how it happened," says her dad, apparel entrepreneur Marc D'Amelio. "I saw her dancing. Next thing you know, she had 500,000 followers."

Fame comes fast and furious on TikTok, which uses a powerful algorithm to excavate someone from anonymity and turn them into an overnight sensation. A year ago, D'Amelio had yet to post her first TikTok video. Now, she has the potential to earn millions and a team of agents, managers and lawyers working tirelessly behind the scenes. Though the nature of internet virality is that it can disappear as quickly as it arrives, there's evidence to suggest — and a growing faction in Hollywood who are mobilizing to ensure — that TikTok stars like D'Amelio won't be fleeting. "There's something happening here," says D'Amelio's agent, Ali Berman, who as co-head of digital talent at UTA has spent the better part of the past decade molding the careers of the internet famous. "This is definitely a place to discover new talent."

Less than 3 years old, TikTok — owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance and available in the U.S. only since summer 2018 — has been downloaded more than 2 billion times, according to estimates by measurement firm Sensor Tower. Its looping, 15-second videos have made it the social media platform du jour for a predominantly young, female-skewing audience (women ages 18-24 make up 22.6 percent of its adult U.S. users, per Comscore) that conferred similar cultural cachet on Snapchat and Instagram before the rest of the world caught on. The app's quick rise even has reigning social video platforms YouTube and Instagram on edge. Both are said to be plotting copycat products.

This was all before the global pandemic forced most of the world indoors. Now, left with more hours in the day than even Netflix can sate, people have been flocking to TikTok, each dance routine or snappy sketch like a shot of dopamine. In March, as most Americans began to shelter at home, TikTok's global downloads jumped 51 percent year-over-year to 199 million, per Sensor Tower. Average time spent on the app among U.S. users during the month was at a record 858 minutes, or more than 14 hours, according to Comscore.

TikTok doesn't disclose user data, but Vanessa Pappas, general manager of TikTok U.S., acknowledges, "We've seen an incredible surge in terms of both the level of creativity and diversity in the content and our users and what they're sharing."

As one of the few platforms that can continue to churn out new content while Hollywood production is at a standstill, TikTok is being flooded with videos — and not just from suburban teens. Start scrolling through the app's endless "For You" feed and it won't take long to encounter Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, who are isolating in their sprawling Miami home, dancing to Megan Thee Stallion's "Savage," or Jason Derulo, shirtless in bed, lip-syncing to his own song, "Trumpets." Amid the coronavirus shutdown, TikTok has become the great equalizer, collapsing the distance between a capital "s" star like Lopez and D'Amelio, whom she previously enlisted to help make her Super Bowl dance challenge go viral. They're both stuck at home, using the same app to reach their followers — except that D'Amelio has 40 million more of them.

"People say they feel like they know me now," says Derulo, who just passed 17 million followers on the app. "A lot of my career has been people not understanding me. This is the first inside look at me as a human being, what my personality is and interests are."

Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor Terry Crews, who likes to post dance and comedy videos that aren't much different from those on his 14-year-old son's account, concurs: "The medium was made for me. Every casting agent for my first five years in the business was like, 'Dude, you're too big.' But I'm perfect for TikTok."

Hollywood, caught flat-footed by the rise of YouTube, is going all in on TikTok, armed with more than a decade's worth of hindsight. This winter, Rihanna's Fenty Beauty launched a collective for up-and-coming beauty and lifestyle TikTokers — known as a "collab house" — including 22-year-old Texas native Challan Trishann (@challxn, 1.4 million followers). Brands are also catching on: Netflix and Warner Bros. have both recently run promotions on the platform. Meanwhile, agents — who, in addition to D'Amelio and her family, have scooped up TikTok talent like comedian Brittany Tomlinson, floppy-haired heartthrob Chase Hudson (along with Hype House, his L.A.-based TikTok collective) and actress Tabitha Brown, who broke out on TikTok with vegan cooking videos — are now inking six-figure brand deals on behalf of clients and shopping TV shows about the unbelievable reality of their sudden rise to stardom.

"When it comes to Hollywood, the product has always been influence," says YouTube vlogger Casey Neistat, who sold a video app of his own to CNN in 2016 for $25 million (it shuttered two years later). "Right now, there's no sexier place for that influence than TikTok."

***

Before TikTok, there was Musical.ly. Founded in Shanghai in 2014, the app — which made it easy to lip-sync to pop hits — had modest success with 20 million U.S. users. In November 2017, Beijing-based ByteDance acquired Musical.ly for as much as $1 billion. The following August, it merged Musical.ly with TikTok, a social video app that had been gaining traction in other parts of the world.

As a private company, ByteDance is cagey about TikTok's performance metrics. The company has not shared how large the app is or how much money it earns, so determining the extent of its power can be challenging. Sensor Tower estimates that users, who can tip creators during TikTok live streams, have spent nearly $457 million on the app since its launch. The vast majority of that spending comes from China, where ByteDance operates a separate version of TikTok known as Douyin.

TikTok wasn't an immediate sensation with users, many of whom were turned off by Musical.ly's reputation as a slightly cringey platform for young teens to vogue on camera. (So young, in fact that the FTC in 2019 fined TikTok $5.7 million over Musical.ly's collection of children's data.) To lure people, TikTok cut million-dollar checks to YouTubers and Instagrammers to post to the app and effectively market the platform to their existing followers. David Dobrik, who came up on the now-defunct Vine and has 17 million subscribers on YouTube, was one of those who started using TikTok because he was being paid. But he quickly saw the appeal of the app, particularly its personalized "For You" feed. Though no one outside ByteDance knows exactly how TikTok's algorithm works, it appears to reward engagement by pushing popular videos out to wider groups of people. Even someone with only a few followers can go viral as long as they have a video that TikTok's algorithm has deemed "good" — even if the app's definition of quality can be a bit squishy.
 
"TikTok is the app that Vine should have been," Dobrik says. By 2019, it began to attract a broad range of users, from beat-boxer Spencer X (29 million followers) to Louisville, Kentucky, family the McFarlands (1 million) to home cook Newton Nguyen (4.2 million). It soon gathered enough momentum to help turn Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" into a viral hit, launching it onto the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 83, where it broke records as the longest-running No. 1 single.

Pappas attributes TikTok's fast rise to its "ease of usability," explaining that it is what has made the app popular with both teens and their parents — or grandparents. "We're definitely getting those everyday users coming onto the platform, whether it's the families, the moms, the teachers, the healthcare workers," she explains. "It creates this environment of amazing creativity and inspiration. People are riffing off one another, and you're getting these memes and trends being born on TikTok."

Quick to declare someone passé and move on, Gen Z has already dubbed summer 2019 — yup, less than eight months ago — as the "golden age of TikTok," a period when many first discovered the power of the platform, but before it became overrun by boomer celebrities and wannabe stars. That's when D'Amelio became active on the app. Ditto dancer Addison Rae Easterling, who during the break before her freshman year at Louisiana State University began a steady climb to what is now 38 million followers.

That's also when Tomlinson posted a video of herself trying kombucha for the first time. Her comical reaction quickly blew up and was turned into a meme, earning her the nickname Kombucha Girl. A few days later, Tomlinson — who goes by the name @Brittany_Broski on TikTok, where she has 3.9 million followers — was called into her boss' office at the Dallas bank where she worked. "You have to pick if you want to be a young professional or a meme," Tomlinson, 22, recalls being told. "I was like, 'Obviously I want to be a professional,' because I have rent to pay. I'm not going to sit here and be like, 'I choose meme!' " But ultimately, meme chose her. The bank fired her days later.

For some, like D'Amelio, the rapid rise in followers is staggering. And it's had a ripple effect. Her sister, 18-year-old Dixie, who has 22.7 million followers, is focused on building "my own personality on the app." And the D'Amelio parents — who joined TikTok to monitor what their daughters were posting — also have garnered millions of followers. Everyone has an explanation for how those numbers have gotten so big so quickly. It could be the global nature of the app, which is particularly popular in India. "We've never seen numbers like this before," acknowledges agent Berman, who points to D'Amelio's growth rate on Instagram (she's at 17 million followers) as a sign that her numbers aren't being juked.

One of the reasons that early growth on TikTok felt so spontaneous was because the app lacked all the hallmarks of corporatization — no home decor brands posting about enviable lifestyles, no perfectly done beauty bloggers. TikTok introduced advertising in 2019, but it's not yet a marketing powerhouse. "It's definitely early," says eMarketer's Debra Aho Williamson. "It's still very experimental." That is, unless that brand is going after teens. Netflix was clearly seeking the youth demo when in late April it began running TikTok ads — including a popular campaign called a Hashtag Challenge that encourages users to make their own videos — for Mindy Kaling's new YA comedy, Never Have I Ever.

The boon to advertising has trickled down to TikTokers, too. The platform doesn't split ad revenue with creators the way YouTube does, but it has introduced a marketplace to help connect its top-tier users with brands. "We talk to creators every day, and being able to build a business and careers online is something that is important for us to support," says Kudzi Chikumbu, director of creator community at TikTok. He adds that TikTok is "definitely exploring" a revenue-share model.

Smaller creators typically can earn a few hundred dollars for sponsored posts, but it's not until someone hits the 500,000-follower mark that more lucrative opportunities begin to flood in. From there, sources say, sponsorship deals can range from the low thousands of dollars to upward of six figures, with the biggest paychecks reserved for creators with tens of millions of followers. Record labels are also paying as much as $25,000 to debut new songs with creators on the app in an effort to gin up buzz and get the track to chart. (Though some music collabs, like D'Amelio's recent debut of "Be Kind" from producer Marshmello and Halsey, come without a financial incentive.)

TikTok also opens up doors to other revenue opportunities, everything from podcasts to merchandise to live events (when those start up again). And many are making the jump to YouTube, where they can participate in the Partner Program that allows them to monetize their channels. One young creator with fewer than 5 million followers recently told THR that she is on track to earn more than $1 million this year. That means for someone like D'Amelio, who measurement firm SocialBlade estimates can make a cool half a million annually on YouTube advertising alone, the earning potential is even higher. "The money is good, I'll just say that," demurs Tomlinson, who recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy full time.

Insiders say TikTok seems to have learned from the mistakes of predecessors like Vine, which lost its biggest stars after it refused to offer monetization options. The app has dedicated staffers working with users, helping them grow their followings or parse the analytics that are shared around video engagement. Little things, like the gifts TikTok sends to creators for holidays, go a long way. "TikTok is definitely more personal with creators," says Johnathan Lynch, a college freshman who makes comedic videos for 4 million followers. He was among a handful of TikTokers flown to L.A. in February to participate in the app's #MakeBlackHistory creator summit. 

Less top-of-mind for U.S.-based TikTokers are the challenges that come from its Chinese ownership, which has U.S. regulators looking into whether the app is a national security risk. In an effort to distance TikTok from its Chinese operations and concerns about censorship, ByteDance says it has moved its content moderators out of the country and that it plans to open a "transparency center" in Los Angeles, where it keeps its North American headquarters.

A late 2019 Bloomberg report that ByteDance is weighing whether to offload the app as a way to protect itself from regulation serves as a reminder of just how speculative the business of TikTok influence is. On a recent call, Warren Lentz, CEO of management firm TalentX, which works with more than 30 of the platform's top creators, expressed some disbelief at TikTok's ascent: "When you see stats about how TikTok has been downloaded almost 2 billion times, it's like, how is that even real?" Even he's being cautious: "Because the algorithm is so good and because there's so many eyeballs right now on TikTok, the way that the industry needs to look at it as more of an incubator platform."

***

The epicenter of TikTok stardom was, for several months, a rental mansion in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley that serves as base camp for the creator collective Hype House. In early January, a New York Times article featuring the D'Amelios and Easterling painted the house as a content-creation utopia for beautiful, popular and predominantly white TikTokers  — one of the first stops on a fame-seeking pilgrimage to Los Angeles. "We just wanted to put out a lot of good content as a family and make it feel like the fans were connected to something," says 17-year-old master of the house Hudson, who has 19 million followers and a '90s-inspired skater look that, according to the internet, makes him an "e-boy." 

Brent Montgomery's Wheelhouse Group is currently shopping a reality series about the Hype House that is being pitched as a modern-day Mickey Mouse Club. It's just one of several Hollywood-facing projects in the works. The D'Amelios recently signed a production deal with American Idol producer Industrial Media for a family-based reality show of their own, and Dixie, a singer and former drama student, is making her acting debut in the digital series Attaway General from youth media company Brat, which is best known for Chicken Girls, a YouTube show popular with the under-13 set.

But there's no one way to go Hollywood. Easterling says she's taking (virtual) voice and acting lessons and keeping her dance legs limber so that she's ready for auditions when the shutdown ends. "Anything that allows me to dance and perform in front of a camera, or an audience, is exactly where I want to go," she says. "I feel like this is the perfect route to getting there." Meanwhile, singer Taylor Felt, who belts out covers to her 3 million TikTok followers, is using the app to gain the attention of record labels and promises she's got new music on the way. And Tomlinson of kombucha fame is hoping to find her way into the stand-up comedy scene. She's spending her self-isolation prepping a five-minute set. "Everything's on the table for these kids, and we've never seen that before," says WME digital talent agent Justin Greenberg. 

It all feels a little like deja vu. Not long ago, Logan Paul was the second coming of Chris Hemsworth and Grace Helbig was the next Chelsea Handler. But few YouTubers with Hollywood designs managed to break through. Lilly Singh, in the first year of her NBC late night show, A Little Late, has made the biggest strides in the world of legacy entertainment.

Those plucking promising new TikTokers off the app swear that Hollywood understands the career opportunities for digital talent better than it did when YouTube creators first burst onto the scene. "We're looking for people who are just talented," says Greg Goodfried, co-head of UTA's digital talent group. Part of the argument: Gen Z doesn't need convincing that a TikToker like D'Amelio can become a star. To those who grew up watching YouTube instead of ABC's TGIF programming, she already is. 

"TikTokers have a magnetism that can't be denied, but it's incumbent on Hollywood studios to figure out how to harness that and not run away from it," says Rob Fishman, whose Brat regularly works with young stars.

But everything on a frothy social media platform happens quickly, and downs can come as fast as the ups, the drama as quickly as the likes. Already, things have gotten a bit messy at the Hype House. In March, one member, Daisy Keech, left the group after a dispute about whether she would be recognized as one of its founders. "A lot of women in business are pushed aside and are not taken seriously," Keech says of why she decided to speak up. The 20-year-old has since started a female-led collab house in Beverly Hills.

As for the D'Amelios, a rep says, "When the Hype House started to become more of a business, Charli and Dixie stepped away from that aspect. While their businesses are separate, their friendships with the members continue."

Hudson shrugs off the notion that there's been drama. "We're always going to stick together as a family," he says. "We've always been there for each other, no matter what happens." And nothing can stop the content creation, not even the coronavirus. Though Hype House was forced to close its doors to the many TikTokers who previously streamed through its halls, there are still about 10 people isolating there. Hudson confides that at least five people have walked through his bedroom — on their way to the master bath, where many Hype House TikToks are filmed — during the 20 minutes that he's been on our call.

The Hype Housers, really, are just carrying on a tradition that began nearly 100 years ago, when Hollywood studios first flung open their doors. Countless idealistic young people have made the trek to Los Angeles to bunk up, form networks, experience heartbreak, face rejection and — sometimes, just sometimes — find fame. The big difference is that these kids have a multimillion-follower head start.

A version of story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.