Why Hollywood Should Pursue TikTok Content With Extreme Caution

Illustration of a filmstrip with TikTok logos
Illustration: Variety VIP+: Adobe Stock

With the original SVOD content landscape shrinking, is TikTok the next frontier for Hollywood?

The industry would undoubtedly like to think so. The social video app’s popularity has exploded over the past few years, now standing just behind Netflix in terms of average minutes spent per day by U.S. adults. And usage trends suggest social video consumption, particularly on TikTok, is approaching parity with traditional video entertainment (TV shows and movies) consumed on SVOD or FAST services.

Accordingly, Hollywood has already been attempting to court TikTok users by partnering with content creators or seizing upon key trends. Paramount, for instance, briefly posted the entirety of 2004’s “Mean Girls” on TikTok (in 23 parts) after news surfaced of users watching full movies and TV shows on the platform.

And a new development recently took the industry’s inroads a step further: “Cobell Energy,” the first major original scripted series on TikTok from a traditional Hollywood producer, debuted last week.

This is perhaps a sign of things to come, as studios are no doubt eager to reach TikTok’s large, young audience however they can. But any company planning to invest in TikTok content should be wary, as the platform presents a narrow road to success, with enormous risk of failure and limited financial upside.

“Cobell Energy,” for instance, seems tailor-made for the social video audience: short runtimes (the first episode is two and a half minutes), a vertical aspect ratio, a quick pace and goofy humor. But the series has yet to gain much traction on the platform; as of Monday, the pilot had just 14,400 views on TikTok, and the show’s official account had garnered less than 650 followers.

That means the series may face a steep uphill battle to earn any income on the platform. While TikTok video views can be monetized, creators must hit certain thresholds to qualify (10,000 “authentic followers” and at least 100,000 video views in the past 30 days), and payouts are reportedly quite low even for many of those who do.

For “Cobell Energy,” which hails from Adam McKay’s nonprofit production company Yellow Dot Studios, monetary rewards may not be the chief concern. But for anyone else looking to produce original TikTok content, it’s worth keeping in mind that there may not be much to gain financially from doing so.

Indeed, the predominant method for making money in the creator economy is advertising, primarily through sponsored content or affiliates — two techniques that would be difficult for studios to integrate into scripted series (though product placement could potentially be effective).

TikTok also allows certain creators and publishers to sell ads alongside their posts and receive half of the associated revenue, though this capability is also reserved for an upper echelon of creators. Original series on the platform would need to prove their popularity first before collecting ad revenue — again capping the potential upside.

And even setting aside financial metrics, professionally produced shows would need to walk a fine line to appeal to TikTok audiences. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but a few major guidelines should be followed carefully.

First, the fact that users enjoy watching chunked-up movies and shows might suggest demand for Hollywood-caliber content on TikTok. But I think the bigger takeaway is that scripted narratives can be used to catch viewers’ attention and draw them into a longer story.

This app is designed as an attention wormhole, with viewers moving almost seamlessly from one video to the next, following whatever catches their interest. The prime directive for any original TikTok series should be not only to hook viewers but to keep them hooked. (Why “Cobell Energy” didn’t drop all its episodes at once is beyond me.)

Second, any studio striving to appeal to young audiences will naturally risk looking ridiculous. Hollywood would do well to partner with established TikTok creators and other voices who understand what works on the platform, in order to avoid serious “How do you do, fellow kids?” syndrome.

And one final lesson those established creators would likely also impart: Keep your overhead on TikTok series low. There’s simply no reason to invest in huge production value for this type of content, not when success can be had on the platform for no budget at all. Investing huge sums to court success here is simply courting disaster (as anyone who recalls the spectacular flameout of Quibi should know).

Indeed, the ultimate point here is that Hollywood must be careful not to chase another gold rush in pursuit of riches that may not even be possible. Certainly, if the studios’ misadventures in subscription streaming should have taught them anything, it would be that.