How TikTok’s Irreverent Humor Became Hollywood’s Indispensable Tool for Reaching Gen Z

·9-min read

There are countless accounts on TikTok dedicated to “The Mandalorian” star Pedro Pascal, where fans gather to ruminate on his acting skills and, of course, dashing good looks. But who would expect that the account calling him the “daddiest daddy” would be Lionsgate, the distributor behind Pascal’s latest film, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”?

“I’m the daddiest daddy,” Pascal says in one of Lionsgate’s viral TikTok videos, taken from a livestream the actor did for the studio. “Am I the daddiest daddy? Because I’ve been seeing that name get thrown around a lot to other people and I just wanna make sure that I’m the daddiest of the daddies.”

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The video’s comments section is full of viewers marveling at Pascal’s “daddiness,” and also expressing their shock that this clip was posted to Lionsgate’s official account. But this social media strategy is nothing new for the studio — in fact, tapping into TikTok’s comedic voice and ever-changing trends is a staple of Lionsgate’s account, which boasts 4 million followers and 90 million likes. As TikTok has become more integral to today’s social media landscape — particularly to users born between 1997 and 2012, otherwise known as Gen Z — more major movie studios are adopting the platform’s unique voice in order to harness its undeniable power.

“You can’t fake engagement on TikTok. It’s a platform with its own language that demands authenticity,” says Marisa Liston, Lionsgate’s president of worldwide motion picture marketing. “Because our social team uses TikTok the way fans use it, they are engaging our followers and building our brands from a fan-first perspective. They are an audaciously creative group that continues to push the boundaries in unexpected ways.”

This strategy is perfectly exemplified in Lionsgate’s most viral video, a clip from the “Pinocchio: A True Story” trailer. The studio added onto the Twitter discourse that had occurred a week earlier, when viewers were surprised to hear Pauly Shore’s Valley Boy inflection as the voice of Pinocchio in the trailer. Some users heard Pinocchio’s slightly effeminate tone and declared him a LGBTQ icon, flooding comments sections with the nail polish emoji. Lionsgate got in on the joke by making the video’s caption “the yassification of #pinocchio,” a TikTok slang word which, according to Urban Dictionary, means “the act of making someone or something gayer or more girlboss.”

With over 26 million views, many of the video’s 109,900 comments ask the question “who is in charge of this account?,” while others praise the studio’s marketing strategy. “This type of advertising is so effective. I want to watch this now,” the video’s top comment reads.

Although Lionsgate wouldn’t reveal the ages of its social media leaders, it’s clear that the studio has a specific handle on how Gen Zers post, talk and interact on TikTok. Liston says for Lionsgate’s team, it’s all part of not taking themselves too seriously on the app.

“It’s about understanding the platform, the way that people use it and having a team that is fully engaged and speaks the language authentically and organically,” Liston says. “Knowing our titles, putting our own spin on trends and sharing our unique value proposition as an entertainment studio is key.”

Studios aren’t only using the platform to promote upcoming movies, but also to stoke nostalgia and create conversation around older titles. With each of Universal Pictures’ new films having their own dedicated TikTok handles, their overarching account hops on the app’s trends with clips from films like “Bridesmaids,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Bring It On.” One of Universal’s most viral videos, with 8.9 million views, is a clip of the opening “We’re Cheerleaders” chant from “Bring It On,” with captions of the words and the description “the original TikTok dance.” The video racked up more than 6,000 comments, like “watching this with captions was a whole different experience” and “I haven’t seen this movie in years but tell me why I knew every word.”

“When you look at our history, Universal can speak from a place of authority in a way that no one else can, by leveraging the movies that people love and that are ingrained in their own history,” says Alex Sanger, Universal’s executive VP of global digital marketing. “We can get a little bit more irreverent and lo-fi with those titles, less precious and more in the vernacular of how people like to communicate on TikTok… It’s just a great place for us to have that ongoing, creative conversation with fans.”

Nikao Yang, TikTok’s head of media, entertainment and gaming, North America global business solutions, has seen firsthand how this strategy can pay off for movie studios.

“They’re seeing that this is a genuine way to connect with audiences and convert them into fans,” Yang says. “It’s really about how you leverage TikTok to amplify your message to connect with audiences, convert them into fans and then they will come to watch and stream your movies, to ultimately drive return on ad spend.”

Besides creating content to engage audiences, advertising is a large part of major studios’ TikTok strategy. According to TikTok’s research, 58% of users are interested in seeing more content from entertainment studios on the platform, signaling that there is a real opportunity for studios to leverage the app to achieve box office success. As opposed to other video platforms like YouTube which have skippable ads before content, TikTok’s ads appear organically as the user scrolls down. Of course, ads can still be skipped by simply scrolling, but the fact that users are watching sponsored content is not expected or immediately recognizable.

“Because we are an entertainment and content platform, the engagement of what our community can bring to the table to these advertisers is truly unmatched,” Yang says. “In terms of time spent and engagement on the platform in general, our users spend on average over a movie’s length worth of time on our platform. That’s crazy, right?”

Universal strives to have several ad activations per title, which are typically driven by popular creators on the platform. For example, “Sing 2’s” campaign involved a singing competition on the app that ended with the winner being flown out to Los Angeles to attend the film’s premiere and receiving a record deal. The content generated during the campaign garnered around six billion views. Another campaign Universal is proud of is for “Fast & Furious 9,” which saw the studio partnering with creator Daniel Mac for a hilarious video with star Helen Mirren. The video amassed 46.3 million views — a win for both Mac and the studio.

As Yang explains, TikTok creators are the glue that holds everything together in terms of pairing content with advertising.

“It all goes back to this message of amplification and taking an entertainment brand’s IP and giving it longer legs,” he says. “On competitive platforms, you push that content out; once it disappears it’s gone forever. But on TikTok, what’s happening is creators latch onto it, co-create against it, share it, audiences find it, latch onto it, co-create and/or share it. So you’ve got this virtuous cycle of the propagation of entertainment content [which] continues significantly longer on our platform than anyone else, and that’s a very big reason why studios continue to work with us.”

One of movie TikTok’s star creators is Juju Green, aka @straw_hat_goofy, who has 3 million followers and over 296 million likes. Dubbed the platform’s “movie guy,” the 30-year-old Compton, Calif. native started posting in January 2020 and has since partnered with Sony to host the “Spider-Man: No Way Home” red carpet and was one of TikTok’s hosts for their livestream of the Oscars red carpet. Green works in advertising as a copywriter by day, which gives him special insight into both users and marketers.

“At the end of the day, these actors, directors, screenwriters, studios — they got into this game because they saw a movie one day and they said, ‘Wow that was incredible, I want to be a part of something like that,'” Green says. “And when you have that in mind, it makes them more human. I’ve learned that through my time in advertising because it’s literally just a very collaborative, creative effort with a team that wants to hopefully make something that makes people feel something.”

Green has partnered with the likes of Sony, Google and Hulu — and has turned down many a partnership when he doesn’t believe in the movie — but says the best campaigns are always when the company gives the creator freedom to be creative, and not just meet their bottom line.

“Since TikTok is a very creator-first platform, putting the fate of your movie in the hands of people who could potentially love it is a very, very smart move. It takes a little bit out of the corporate shill persona,” Green says. “If you establish yourself on TikTok first as a real person who just has a lot of thoughts about movies and then people want to hear your thoughts about a particular movie coming up and a studio wants to get in on that, then it kind of removes that layer. It’s more of a creator who is genuinely excited about something, and they want to speculate and bring you along for that journey. It feels less like an ad.”

But when it comes to studios earning box office revenue — which has been a significant struggle since the COVID-19 pandemic — are their efforts on TikTok actually driving Gen Z to theaters? Though the exact answer is hard to quantify, Yang does know that the film industry is becoming a stronger presence on TikTok because studios are seeing significant return on the time and money they spend to promote their films on the platform.

“The industry is leaning more heavily into what we’re doing because they know we can bring the audiences at scale,” Yang says. “They know that we have this coveted swathe of consumers and audiences that their industry needs, in a very mutually beneficial way, to grow the entertainment community and to grow the industry as a whole.”

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