There are challenges for filmmakers who want to create work for TikTok, but Michelle Melky says these “open up doors to new ways of storytelling.”
Melky is one of the creators of Love Songs,first released in 2020 –believed to be one of the first narrative web series produced exclusively for the social media platform in the world; it has more than 150k followers, 20 million views and 2.8 million likes. After the success of the first season, Melky and co-creator Hayley Adams created a second in in partnership with Tinder.
The duo also went on to produce Scattered, which was the first TikTok series supported by Screen Australia.
Although Love Songs – about a soft-spoken book lover and Zavier (Leon Kreober) her heartbreaker next door neighbour – wasn’t originally conceived for TikTok, Adams tells IF that when they settled on it as the medium, the show really took shape.
“Then everything about it was formed around it being specifically for TikTok. The idea didn’t make as much sense until TikTok came along,” she says.
On TikTok, the algorithm is everything. Getting cut through isn’t easy, but creators can use trends in their favour to get eyeballs on their content, especially audio and hashtags. However, when creating Love Songs, Adams says they tried not to chase trends because they moved so fast.
“The only trends we’ve really been able to jump on have been audio trends. We’ve changed the song when it’s being posted just because that song was trending,” she says.
Adams and Melky reposted the first trailer of Love Songs with a trending sound which led to it getting 2.9 million views overnight. Melky thinks that a combination of factors went into the trailer’s success: “It was different to other videos. It was clearly shot professionally. It was a story. And it was paired with this song that was trending at the time.”
Erin Good, who has previously had success with web series Jade of Death on YouTube, turned to TikTok to create her latest work, Krystal Klairvoyant, at the suggestion of Screen Australia.
Krystal Klairvoyant is about an online tarot card reader who discovers she is a witch when she starts accidentally casting spells on her customers.
The cast is led by Nancy Denis as Krystal, an agoraphobic online tarot card reader with a shopping addiction, alongside Leah Purcell, Jordan Cowdan, Tommy Misa, Alex Kis, and Joshua McElroy. Good teamed up to with Huna Amweero (Blaze) to co-write and co-produce.
In distributing the series, which launched late November, Good has focused on hashtags to bring in potential viewers, as relevant to the series.
“When I started looking into it and the hashtag Witch-Tok, it was perfect.”
For Melky, TikTok offers filmmakers new creative options.
“The vertical frame, for example, can open up an exciting challenge for the right cinematographer who’s really keen to make something beautiful in the vertical frame.”
One of the challenges of TikTok is that episode lengths must be short. In 2019 when Love Songs was first created, the limit was 60 seconds. Now the limit is 10 minutes, although Melky says “the shorter your video is, the more likely it is to succeed.”
To accommodate the time constraints, Melky says creators have to “interrogate the story thoroughly,” to keep audiences interested.
Adams found that creating episodes in a short time span varied from being very “natural to really tricky”.
“From an attention span point of view, making the first three seconds for everything catchy, every single time, is really hard. Sometimes the episode feels too short or too long, or like too much happens, or not enough happens.”
Another challenge for creators is that audiences might be served an episode via the For You Page out of chronological order – that is, the first episode they see might be episode five, rather than episode one.
Having viewers first see a later episode of her series is something Good is “always nervous about.” One of her methods to reduce confusion is “really simply labeling the episodes.”
Adams created Love Songs so that “the story was recognisable enough that if you came in halfway through you understood the character tropes. It’s a YA romcom and it’s a bit fluffy. So, it’s really fun to watch. We hoped that even if you came in halfway through, you’d understand.
“We find that the audience is really quick to understand things that might seem complex at the start.”
Good says a major challenge in creating for TikTok, as with creating projects for other social media platforms, is the lack of financial gain.
“Realistically, there’s such small opportunities to make money with the series.”
However, Adams and Melky both see TikTok as an opportunity for upcoming filmmakers to make their mark.
“I think for emerging filmmakers, it’s a great way to get feedback quickly and start perfecting your craft and your understanding of filmmaking, audience, plot, structure and, communication essentially,” says Adams.
Melky adds: “As an emerging filmmaker, there is no option to release it on TV. No one’s going to give you a TV show, right? So, when you are starting in the industry and you’re looking for the foot in the door, web series have come to represent that foot in the door.”
To be successful on TikTok, Melky says that you need to know the platform and your audience.
“All the answers come back to knowing your audience,” she says. “If you want to make a web series on TikTok, be on TikTok. You need to use TikTok. A common mistake I see all the time, is people go through that whole process of making a show for TikTok, but they don’t actually use the platform.”
All three creators agree that a benefit of self-distributing on TikTok is the direct access to the audience. Good is able to know how many people are watching and exactly who they are.
“You get an understanding of exactly who your audience is and how big that audience is.”
Not only is there a direct connection to the audience, Adams says that on a social media platform “going from nothing to a hundred people or a thousand people is a lot more achievable,” compared to TV. “That audience interaction as a filmmaker is really interesting to see to and get that immediate feedback.”
Melky adds: “Your work can really reach your audience. You can really see the one-to-one relationship between your viewers and your show.”