LOS ANGELES — David Ma, a film director in Brooklyn, never had the money to go to film school. And though he loved shooting films, he was largely shut out of the types of opportunities reserved for big-time directors with Hollywood connections. Then came TikTok.
“I was never on the radar in places like Netflix or HBO Max or Paramount,” he said. “Since I’ve been able to create work on the platform, my work has reached studio executives and marketing departments. TikTok allowed me to build that network without having the roster or résumé.”
Since the last time the U.S. government considered banning TikTok, in 2020, the app has evolved from a social platform supporting a robust ecosystem of content creators and small businesses to an entertainment powerhouse, upending Hollywood power structures and rewriting the rules of the entertainment landscape. A ban now would threaten not only the livelihoods of TikTok’s biggest stars and thousands of small businesses, but it could also deal a massive blow to the entertainment industry, forcing movie studios, record labels, casting directors, Hollywood agents and actors to radically shift the way they do business.
“TikTok is the most democratized content platform we’ve ever had, and it has revolutionized Hollywood,” said Adam Faze, studio chief of FazeWorld, an entertainment studio that produces scripted and unscripted shows. “I see TikTok as the old days of free network TV. … Taking it away would go back to an era where we’re relying on legacy media brands and what Hollywood wants us to watch because they’re the only ones who can afford a marketing budget to find an audience.”
TikTok has allowed those who have traditionally been shut out of the media and entertainment industry a way to circumvent legacy gatekeepers and get a foot in the door.
That is consistent with what a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post found about TikTok’s audience: Its users are more likely to be young and non-White.
The poll found that 53 percent of non-White adults (including 67 percent of Hispanic adults) used TikTok in the past month, compared with 29 percent of White adults. Fifty-nine percent of Americans ages 18-34 used TikTok in the past month, compared with just 13 percent of those 65 and older.
TikTok users are also more likely to have lower incomes: 45 percent of those with household incomes of less than $50,000 used TikTok in the previous month, compared with 32 percent of those with incomes of $100,000 or more. And people without college degrees are more likely to have used TikTok in the past month (42 percent) than those who are college graduates (32 percent).
Faze began producing scripted and unscripted television shows for TikTok last year, after discovering he could reach millions of viewers overnight at scale. One show produced by FazeWorld, called “Keep the Meter Running,” where comedian Kareem Rahma conducts Anthony Bourdain-style interviews with cabdrivers as they travel on adventures together, became an overnight hit, amassing millions of views.
“Three weeks into doing the show, we went to London to shoot an episode, and we were getting chased down the street by kids saying, ‘This is my favorite show,’” Faze said. “TikTok helped the show find an audience in a way that would have taken years in traditional media.”
Unlike platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, TikTok bills itself as an entertainment platform, not a social network. Rather than relying on users to friend or follow dozens of accounts to find interesting content, the app delivers a fresh feed of videos every day through its “For You” feed. In that way, it’s as much of a Netflix, HBO or Spotify competitor as a social platform.
“I’ve never, in my entire life working in Hollywood, been able to talk about a project I’m working on and assume the person I’m talking to has seen it,” Faze said. “TikTok has allowed that to happen.”
Although there is no authoritative figure of how much money studios spend publicizing their offerings on TikTok, it is clear the platform’s role in launching new movies is huge. When a TikTok trend around a movie takes off, it results in box-office gold.
Last year, after a TikTok trend in which teenagers dressed up in suits to see “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” Universal Pictures saw ticket sales rise. The Minions movie netted more than $940 million globally at the box office, becoming the fifth highest-grossing film of 2022. Movies such as “M3GAN” and “Cocaine Bear” have also become hits with the help of TikTok.
Alex Sanger, executive vice president of global digital marketing at Universal Pictures, said the company relies on TikTok “heavily” when it comes to marketing its movies. “TikTok is how we can reach basically everyone at scale,” he said. “We use it as an awareness builder, we use it to drive deeper engagement with our IP, we use it further down the funnel to convert people into moviegoers. We certainly use all the other platforms, but they have different functionality and different uses.”
“When our films really break through [on TikTok] and become kind of a part of the cultural zeitgeist, that’s an amazing thing for us,” he added.
TikTok has said its research shows that 58 percent of its users are interested in seeing more content from entertainment studios on the platform. Last year, Variety reported that more major film studios, including Lionsgate and Universal, were leveraging the app to achieve box-office success. Sony also used TikTok to generate hype for the theatrical release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” It gave popular TikToker Michael Le a walk-on part in the film and enlisted TikTok content creators to share behind-the-scenes footage before the film’s release. The film became the seventh highest-grossing film in movie history.
In October, the app rolled out an advertising format called Showtimes, specifically tailored to the needs of entertainment industry clients. The ad format allows users to more easily discover new movies, watch trailers and purchase tickets.
In addition to television and movies, TikTok has also radically transformed the music industry. It is now the primary place where young users go to discover new songs and artists, it’s where record labels do A&R (essentially talent scouting and talent development), and it’s what huge music stars use to engage with fans in a way they say they could never replicate on Instagram or YouTube.
TikTok has launched the careers of a slew of pop stars, including Lil Nas X, JVKE and Jack Harlow. Other major artists such as Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat all skyrocketed to fame after their songs went viral and became trends on the app.
Tatiana Cirisano, a music industry analyst at Midia Research, an entertainment industry research and consulting firm, said banning TikTok would throw the music industry into disarray. “This isn’t just about artists losing a tool. This is a major discovery mechanism for major labels themselves,” she said. “The [potential ban] is more important and more related to their bottom line than you might think.”
Although many Hollywood and music industry insiders told The Post that they weren’t lobbying hard against the ban publicly for fears of wading into a political PR disaster, they were angry at what they considered government overreach and were worried that a ban could seriously hurt their businesses. “Everything about how you market music and ‘break’ an artist is changing,” said Cirisano, using industry jargon for introducing a new performer. “TikTok is something the music industry has been relying on to help solve some of those challenges over the past couple of years.”
It has also provided a new revenue stream the music industry has been desperately seeking. “The music industry gets revenue from music being played on TikTok,” Cirisano said. “These licensing deals are becoming a more and more important part of labels’ revenue streams.” A TikTok ban would wipe out that revenue overnight, Cirisano said.
TikTok contributed an estimated 13 percent of record labels’ “emerging platform” revenue in 2021, according to a report from Goldman Sachs. Since then, the app has nearly tripled its revenue.
While entertainment executives scramble to create contingency plans if the worst-case scenario comes to fruition, workers in the industry are also nervous. Casting directors, agents and model scouts all rely on TikTok to identify up-and-coming talent. The functionality of the platform is radically different from that of YouTube or Instagram and has allowed a generation of Hollywood talent to bypass traditional gatekeepers.
“The consensus among the people I’m talking to is a fear that their voice might be silenced in the event that TikTok does get banned,” said Stephen Hart, an actor in Los Angeles who began creating content on TikTok during the early days of the pandemic, when jobs were scarce. His TikTok account, which has more than 416,800 followers, has helped raise his profile significantly and provides a steady stream of income.
Sarah Pribis, an actress in New York City, said a TikTok ban would be disastrous financially. “I would have to go back to bartending,” she said. “Right now, I’m able to do everything from home and have this nice, loose schedule. If TikTok was banned, I would have to go back to being on my feet at a bar eight hours a night, then come home at midnight exhausted. I would have less financial stability and freedom.”
Grant Goodman, an actor in Atlanta who appeared on the TV series “Stranger Things,” said a ban would be particularly harmful for actors who don’t traditionally have the Hollywood connections and the money to move to Los Angeles.
“A TikTok ban would be an active hindrance to people wanting to become actors who don’t have these advantages,” he said. “It would thin the talent pool and give an advantage to a lot of people who can afford rent in L.A. and already have connections at talent agencies and other advantages, whether financial, professional or familial. A TikTok ban would hinder a lot of the working class from even beginning in this industry. People who have advantageous upbringings, they’d have a tremendous advantage if the app was banned.”
Ma, the film director, agreed, echoing that a ban could be catastrophic for those from marginalized groups seeking to pursue a career in entertainment. “In an industry that is a very difficult one to break into, TikTok gives people without schooling or relationships the opportunity to be seen, attend premieres, film sets and tell their stories they wrote, acted, directed, shot and edited,” he said. “These kinds of opportunities and visibility mean a lot to young and underrepresented filmmakers trying to make it in the industry.”
TikTok has allowed a generation of talent to bypass traditional gatekeepers, industry experts said, and yanking that away would be a huge step back in terms of equality and access.
“TikTok allows an unbiased look into other people’s lives, without the need for a media establishment,” Faze said. “This bill is being fueled by a media and tech establishment that’s very scared of TikTok, and not because it’s owned by China.”