TikTok has taken the world by storm — skyrocketing in use amid the pandemic as a source of entertainment and human connection — and now it wants to change the way Hollywood markets movies and TV series. The social video platform is hoping to make inroads at its first Sundance Film Festival — and it’s bringing a dozen people from its creators program to Park City.
Catherine Halaby, the head of entertainment for TikTok in North America, says Sundance creates an opportunity to support established and emerging creators and “uplevel their content and their industry savvy and their exposure.” She adds, “We’re really thinking from a content-first perspective and how we can be an accelerant to those creators in their growth on and off platform.”
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Two of those creators spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the trip. Joe Aragon, known on TikTok as Cinema Joe, has more than 1 million followers, while Maddi Koch has caught the attention of 3 million people and counting.
“I would call myself a movie content creator who wants to help people stop wasting time,” says Koch, who recently graduated from Virginia Tech with dual degrees in marketing and finance. Aragon says he typically posts a video a day that could be anything from ranking a director’s filmography to reporting on recent movie news. “It really just depends on the mood I’m in and also trying to capture what is the topic of conversation right now,” he says. “I never do reviews for movies that are coming out. I think there is a good way to promote movies without providing critique or commentary.”
They’ll be joined at Sundance by 10 others with accounts ranging from just under 200,000 followers (@filmupdatetime) to more than 9.5 million (@justthenobodys).
“We are bringing them. So, it’s a trip hosted by TikTok, but we’re not paying them to do anything,” says Halaby. “It’s up to them how they want to share that experience with their audiences.” They’re booked for screenings, junkets, red carpets and more.
“We’re working closely with the Sundance team and, in some cases, with our partners from the studios and the networks to facilitate those opportunities,” Halaby notes. “They’re going to be very, very busy.”
Koch has received invites from Shutterstock, White Claw and “something with Jason Momoa” — and her must-see list includes The Moogai and Handling the Undead. “I blew up on TikTok from indie films,” she says, adding that she’s known for talking about movies “that are thrilling or kind of weird.” Aragon has a similar mission and rattles off a Sundance to-do list that includes Love Lies Bleeding, Love Me, I Saw the TV Glow, Freaky Tales, A Real Pain and Hit Man.
In addition to elevating TikTok talent, Sundance also presents a chance for the platform to catch the attention of filmmakers and studios. It’s pretty well settled that TikTok isn’t just a dance challenge app anymore, but Halaby says she wants Hollywood to think outside the box when it comes to using the social video app as a promotional space. For example, behind-the-scenes content like set visits where TikTok creators talk with the talent, the director or the art department is especially popular.
This isn’t TikTok’s first festival foray, with the tech company having partnered with the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 on a short film competition.
For their part, Hollywood studios have long been using the app for promotion, as well as hoping for organic virality. Recently, TikTok has been credited with boosting the box office for Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney rom-com Anyone But You. After a slow opening weekend, TikTok became overrun with videos of users reenacting the film’s credit sequence. The movie currently has an impressive $58 million in domestic box office receipts.
“We want people opening brand accounts and making great content, but usually the best way for them to make great content is to partner with creators,” Halaby says. “The content that often does best is content that is lifting the veil on the production process, and you need the buy-in of the filmmakers and producers to do that. So, that’s part of who we’re hoping to reach at Sundance.”
Sundance regulars are no strangers to social media, with buyers having long tracked film reactions on platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd to try to gauge potential audience interest when weighing potential acquisitions, much to the chagrin of indie producers and financiers.
Aragon notes, “Maybe that small movie I watch at 9 o’clock at night with 30 people in the theater ends up being my favorite movie of the festival, and if I can spread that word that’s a really exciting opportunity.”
“If it trends on TikTok, it tends to perform elsewhere,” she explains. “Whether that’s a title opening in the theaters, or a new show dropping on Netflix, or a celebrity’s book launch, if there’s a community getting excited about it on TikTok, it tends to drive business results.” Beyond Sundance, just how big are TikTok’s Hollywood ambitions? Halaby says, “We want to be their most high-impact partner.”
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