TikTok Stars Sparking Interest in Hollywood

Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

With almost 120  million (mostly young) users in the U.S., the quirky video-sharing app has become a surprisingly effective launchpad for unknown talents — and a valuable marketing platform for brands seeking to court Generation  Z.

On Sept. 22, Ken Jeong took the Emmy stage alongside Masked Singer colleague Nick Cannon for a bit about the red-hot app TikTok. The act fell flat, and those inside the Microsoft Theater had good reason to be somewhat perplexed. Though most in Hollywood likely know a teenager who has been hooked on the video-sharing app since its U.S. debut in August 2018, dealmakers have largely watched from the sidelines as the service has exploded on social media.

But that's starting to change as usage of the app, which analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates has been downloaded more than 100 million times in the U.S., is skyrocketing. UTA, for instance, recently signed Brittany Tomlinson, whose August video that showed her trying kombucha for the first time went viral with more than 1 million likes, and the NFL on Sept. 3 announced a multiyear partnership with TikTok to offer game highlights and behind-the-scenes footage to the app's users. Now even Will Smith, who has already conquered YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, has posted his first video — and he already has over 700 million fans. "If you had called me at the end of June, I would have told you, 'I don't think it's for us,' " says John Shahidi, the founder and CEO of Shots Studios, which works with such digital talent as Lele Pons and Rudy Mancuso. "Now we have a dedicated team just on TikTok."

Although TikTok is benefitting from a recent burst of popularity — thanks in part to Lil Nas X’s record-breaking single "Old Town Road," which went viral via the app earlier this year — it has actually been around since 2014, when it launched as Musical.ly, a platform that encouraged people to post short clips of themselves lip-syncing or dancing to popular music. Chinese tech firm ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017 for a price tag said to be between $800 million and $1 billion and, nine months later, merged it with TikTok, a similar app that it had already launched in markets outside of China.

TikTok shares much of its DNA with the now-defunct Vine. Videos often are short and comedic, typically set to music and might feature dancing or a sight gag. Gimmicks that take off essentially become video memes, with more people putting their own spin on the concept. The TikTok algorithm surfaces trending posts and videos personalized to each user.

But TikTok is still a relatively young app, meaning it doesn't have the same moneymaking opportunities as platforms like YouTube, which offers a revenue-share arrangement that has turned some creators into millionaires. While TikTokers can sign deals to endorse brands, those agreements require a team of managers and agents, which few up-and-comers on the app have. Further, TikTok isn't currently paying for content. (In its early days, it did offer one-time payments worth as much as seven figures to lure established talent to its platform, but those deals have dried up, sources tell THR. A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment on such deals, noting in a statement that the app is "always exploring new ways to support and bring value to our community, including brands and creators.")

"A lot of talent on that platform are, I would argue, aspiring off platform," says CAA digital media agent Andrew Graham. "They view their career as a ladder, and one of the rungs of the ladder is TikTok."

Still, it's hard to ignore TikTok's ability to draw a large, predominantly young — think Generation Z — user base. Comedy Central, Jimmy Fallon, Howie Mandel and, most recently, Korean pop group BTS haven’t. Neither has Shahidi, who in the last few months hired a three-person team to build out a TikTok strategy for talent partners like Juanpa Zurita, who now has 2.2 million followers on the app. Shahidi acknowledges that part of his shift in thinking came from his desire learn about the platforms that are trending with Gen Z, explaining, “We’ve got to build that audience because that audience might not be on YouTube today.”

Bryan Thoensen, TikTok's head of content partnerships, notes in a statement, "TikTok's fun, authentic and inclusive sensibility has attracted industry leading entertainment and media partners to the platform who have really leaned into the way our community expresses themselves through video." 

Increased awareness about the app has been beneficial to talent who have been grinding away on the platform. Ashlay Soto, for instance, has garnered 6 million followers by posting short comedic clips about her life as a mom in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2018, she made $55,000 via TikTok through fan donations (which she can earn during live streams) and brand deals with Walmart, The CW and others. She expects her income to more than double this year. "Before this, I was just a stay-at-home mom," she says. "Now I stay home and still make decent money."

Soto had somewhat of a head start because she began posting on the app when it was still called Musical.ly. A number of creators from Musical.ly — called Musers — were quick to pop. Jacob Sartorius, for instance, signed with UTA and capitalized on his growing audience by releasing original music. He currently has 21 million followers on TikTok. 

As TikTokers become more prominent, more companies are forming to work with them. Vivid Management, for instance, represents a roster of 10 TikTokers, per its website. And TikTok itself has established a partnership team to help guide talent like Soto and Tomlinson. "We're excited to help our creators reach their ambitions and aspirations — there's truly a new wave of entertainers and artists emerging from TikTok," says head of creator partnerships Kudzi Chikumbu in a statement. "Our team invests time meeting with our creators because we want to learn about what they are passionate about and what their goals are. We love seeing them thrive on TikTok, and then to see them connect with partners both on and off the platform. Sometimes that's getting on The Ellen Show, sometimes that's appearing in a Blanco Brown music video, sometimes that's partnering with major brands — these are awesome opportunities for our creators and we love seeing them shine."

Given some time, TikTok could become the platform where the next crossover talent like Lilly Singh or Liza Koshy gets their start. "TikTok is an amazing platform if you're looking to find an audience and you don't yet have one," says Graham. "Most of the new voices that we're seeing from an influencer perspective, their origin story is beginning on TikTok."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.