Investors are trying to turn TikTok stars into movie stars — but the project is doomed to fail

  • A new startup company, Creator+, plans to create six feature films this year starring digital media stars. 
  • But past attempts to move internet stars into mainstream media are riddled with failure. 
  • The skills that make TikTok stars famous are very different from the skills necessary for film and TV. 
  • Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of the upcoming book “TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media.” 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

TikTok and YouTube stars are just as much household names to a generation of social media-literate teenagers as Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lawrence, which polling carried out for my recent book on YouTube demonstrated. But while social media stars are plenty popular with their audiences, what they haven’t proved is their ability to make waves in traditional entertainment.

While the likes of Jake Paul and KSI sell out boxing events live-streamed to fans through apps like Triller — Paul claims to have received more than 1.5 million pay-per-view purchases of his recent boxing match against a former MMA fighter in Atlanta earning $75 million — they haven’t yet moved the needle on TV or movies.

It’s not for a lack of trying: KSI, who along with Paul popularized the YouTube boxing genre, was in a schlocky 2016 movie with fellow YouTuber Caspar Lee, which scored a 4.4/10 star rating on IMDb and 58% rating among users of Rotten Tomatoes. The sole professional critic who deigned to review the movie called it “crass and witless”.  TikTok’s second-biggest name, Addison Rae Easterling, has been cast in a remake of the 1999 movie “She’s All That”, which fans worry she may tank.

Regardless, investors seem to think there’s a future in influencer-led entertainment vehicles: Netflix just announced it has commissioned an unscripted series about the people involved in the Hype House, a TikTok creator collective; and a film and streaming startup called Creator+ has attracted $12 million in investment to start producing movies and giving influencers top billing.

The problem with these ventures? Moving social media stars to the big screen doesn’t work.

This is at least the third wave of Hollywood attempting to co-opt digital talent’s massive audiences and shoehorn them into traditional media, and there’s little indication that the social media stars of 2021 will fare any better than their predecessors who tried to transition from the small screens on cell phones to the silver screens of movie theaters.

A trail of failed films

The Addison Raes of the world and whoever Creator+ is getting to star in the six feature films it plans to make in the next eight months would do well to try and book some time with older peers like Grace Helbig. Helbig, 35, was a star of early YouTube and remains one of its most recognizable faces. In 2013, with fellow YouTubers Mamrie Hart and Hannah Hart (no relation), Helbig starred in a direct-to-streaming movie called “Camp Takota.” While the film was a financial success according to a source with close knowledge of its performance, it didn’t move the needle in the mainstream. A followup movie, “Dirty 30”, was less successful. In between, Helbig was picked up to host a talk show for the E! network on traditional TV. The eponymous show lasted just eight episodes.

Helbig is far from the only online creator to be co-opted by traditional media and shoehorned into standard TV and film roles with little success. Colleen Ballinger’s character Miranda Sings got two seasons of a middling sitcom, “Haters Back Off”, without much success. And LadBaby, a UK influencer, appeared on a daytime TV show in 2019 produced by the BBC that appeared to make little of his talents. That same year, UK YouTuber Joe Sugg was one of the hosts of the BBC’s New Year’s Celebrations — the UK equivalent of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. All struggled to make their mark: Sugg notably wasn’t invited back for last New Year’s Eve, while LadBaby featured in only four episodes of the first season of the TV show he was linked to.

Different skill sets

The reasons these ventures typically don’t work range widely, but begin with the medium. TV, while intimate, is nothing like YouTube or TikTok. What can be entertaining and enthralling for 15 seconds or 10 minutes can often become tired when extended over 22 or 45 minutes — and God help the TikTok star without acting chops who gets cast in a 90-minute long movie. 

That isn’t to say that keeping digital audiences entertained isn’t a skill: It absolutely is. But it’s one that uses an entirely different range of talents than traditional entertainment. Being able to extemporize an anecdote over the course of a 15-minute YouTube video is enormously tricky, but so is hitting a mark, reading an autocue to the letter, and throwing it to a pre-recorded TV package all in the 30 seconds before you fall off air while a director is screaming in your ear. The two skills are not shared sides of a Venn diagram; just about the only thing that unites them is that you’re speaking into a camera.

Yet companies still try, throwing digital celebrities who have shown no aptitude for the skills required of TV or movies into situations where they’re in high-profile slots, scratching their heads at why it doesn’t work out. 

Traditional media keeps trying

Sugg and LadBaby are casualties of the second generation of traditional TV chancing their arm with digital celebrities, despite the previous travails of Helbig and her peers — including Ballinger. Similar to UK TV’s attempts with Sugg, NBC tried out Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh in a late night talk show slot that hasn’t really worked: while Singh is great in bouncing off guests in interviews, her YouTube act doesn’t translate well to opening show monologues. Early ratings were lower than the show it replaced.

And now it looks like we have the third generation of digital talent becoming cultural cannon fodder, likely to replicate the slightly corny corner of Hollywood currently inhabited by Bruce Willis and his fellow “geezer teaser” direct-to-video stars of yesteryear. 

Creator+ may well make money — just — but it probably won’t cover its stars in glory. Its film budgets, in the low seven figures for each movie, sound impressive, but it isn’t in Hollywood. Plus, the founder of Creator+ has already set expectations of the content low by saying creators “are accustomed to being incredibly resourceful in producing their short-form content” — code for “we’re making these on the cheap”.

The reality is few people have the charisma and acting chops to hang a feature film around. It’s why Hollywood’s biggest names are paid tens of millions to turn up and do something thousands of amateur dramatists try every week. Top-drawer TV hosts are in equally short supply, as the revolving door to replace Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!” shows. And just as Hollywood stars’ attempts to crossover into digital entertainment often feel a little stilted and wooden when taken off the big screen and put onto your iPhone, so TikTokers and YouTubers aren’t always natural fits on the big screen, either.

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