The Next Big Indie Filmmaker Might Be a TikToker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The social media platform is shaping the future of filmmaking.
- Novice filmmakers are using the platform’s sophisticated editing tools to learn the trade and test their work.
- Unlike Instagram, TikTok’s algorithm allows users without many followers to go viral, adding to its popularity.
A cover of Frédéric Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu sets the scene. As the 19th-century composition plays, a young man, his back to the camera, pounds away on a grand piano. A series of jump-cuts follows: to his emotionless face, then as he fixes a picture on a wall and finally as he appears to watch himself play.
The 15-second short titled An Endless Struggle for Perfection is not a Hollywood production. It’s among the exploding genre of short indie films on TikTok. The platform, best known for lip-syncing, dancing and comedic skits, is now serving as a potential launch pad for the next generation of independent filmmakers with its combination of easy-to-use technology and an algorithm that makes it less difficult for novices to break through than on YouTube or Instagram.
An endless struggle for perfection.♬ A cover of Chopins Fantaisie Impromptu – kgbaddie
On TikTok, #cinematic — used to mark films created on the platform — is emerging as among the top-trending hashtags, with a staggering 1.9 billion views. Some of the fast-growing stars of this movement include @lastmanstanley, whose viral cinematic videos have garnered 5.5 million views, @nuhchez (404K views) and @aaronbaldwinart (310K views).
You don’t need to have any following at all to get exposed to millions of people [on TikTok].
Khalil DaTerra, 17-year-old TikTok filmmaker
In 2018, Film Independent, a nonprofit that produced the LA Film Festival, partnered with TikTok to create the Real Short Award, with prize money of $10,000. As streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix desperately look for more viral content, TikTok could reshape the cinematic landscape.
“Even in like the ’90s, it was a lot harder for people to do an indie film — it cost way more,” says 22-year-old Mateo Mejia, whose most viral #cinematic video has 2.5 million views. “But now that everything is digital and at our hands, I really think further down this decade we’re going to see a lot more indie filmmakers getting more attention than actual people making movies in the industry.”
Because most TikTok users are younger than 25, the platform also offers critical audience exposure for established filmmakers. For those without moviemaking experience, TikTok is a medium where they can practice and learn for free. “It is just a way to get my shorts out there,” Mejia tells me.
And thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, “out there” was somewhere he was able to reach quite quickly. Although specifics of the algorithm are not made public, researchers have identified definite patterns. When you upload a video to TikTok, it’s placed among the most popular content on the platform. The machine-learning technology then evaluates whether or not to promote your video to more users based on a set of qualifications that include engagement, comments, whether the entire video was watched and other metrics. Instagram, on the other hand, promotes videos based on your existing following. That difference makes it easier for a novice’s video to go viral on TikTok than it is on Instagram.
“You don’t need to have any following at all to get exposed to millions of people,” says Khalil DaTerra, who started the #cinematic hashtag. Inspired by Toronto filmmaker Jesse Driftwood, a pioneer of vertical videos on Instagram, the 17-year-old decided to do the same on TikTok. “The reason why I was able to grow a following on TikTok is because of the algorithm,” says DaTerra, who has 289,500 followers and 4.5 million likes on the platform.
TikTok is the world’s fastest-growing social media platform, with more than 1.2 billion downloads bringing in $176 million in revenue in 2019. Add the fact that it’s available in more than 150 countries, and it makes sense to put your content on TikTok. It’s where Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” first started picking up steam and it’s why brands, businesses and filmmakers are choosing the app to slice up and promote their own content.
The platform is also serving as a basic, and free, film school. “TikTok reminds me of all the drills we used to do in grad school on the camera,” says Themba Moyo, a talent scout at Hayes Talent Agency, which represents actors and models for TV, film and commercials. The app offers advanced editing features, in-camera speed controls, image-tracking composites, collaborative split screens and a shortened video timeline. “I wish I had all this stuff when I was younger. What people grew up on were camcorders,” Moyo adds. With 60 percent of the app’s monthly active users in the United States in the 16- to 24-year-old range, the pool of potential indie filmmakers might be much larger than that of the generation before it.
The skills they learn, however, aren’t necessarily easily transferred to the big screen. Sure, talent agencies, brands and even Hollywood are tapping TikTok creators for campaigns, but “I don’t know if it’s there yet for feature-length films,” says Moyo. “Maybe for short concepts, but I don’t know about feature-length and I don’t know about television.”
DaTerra, though, questions why transitioning to the big screen needs to be the next step for filmmakers who are gaining a following as creatives on smaller ones. “In this day and age, all you need is your cellphone to create content for millions to see,” he says.
And TikTokers might lead the way.