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Hollywood agencies are betting big on TikTok talent as they seek to woo Gen Z audiences

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In this photo illustration a TikTok logo seen displayed on a smartphone with stock market percentages in the background.
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When TikTok creator Boman Martinez-Reid first got an email from Creative Artists Agency he ignored it. As an Ontario native, he saw the acronym CAA and assumed it was CAA Insurance, a major car insurance company in Canada.

It was only after a TikTok representative contacted him that he realized he was being courted by one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies.

“I get a [direct message] from a guy at TikTok and he says let’s talk on the phone,” Martinez-Reid recalled. “So, we had a phone call and he asked me ‘I know that CAA has been reaching out to you. Do you know who they are? They represent Beyonce, Meryl Streep, you have to get on the phone with them.'”

Martinez-Reid, known online as “Bomanizer,” has more than 1.5 million followers and a budding career that includes a guest appearance on “Canada’s Drag Race” and a line of branded merchandise. While he rose to TikTok fame making reality show spoof videos, the 24-year-old has aspirations beyond the social media platform. He signed with CAA in July 2020.

Martinez-Reid is part of a growing list of content creators that have signed with traditional talent agencies, including dancer Charli D’Amelio, actress Addison Rae and the creators of the viral TikTok series “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear.

These artists have been tapped because of their talent, but also because of their engagement with online communities. These entrepreneurs have built large and loyal followings on the short-form video app, something talent managers and agents from traditional Hollywood firms see as a potential gold mine.

Not only can these agencies help build mini-media empires around these creators, they also can benefit from the strategies these digital influencers use, and apply it to bolster the careers of the agencies’ already established clients.

Actor Will Smith, who is repped by CAA, is just one example of an A-list celebrity who has embraced social media, including TikTok and YouTube, in recent years as a way to promote his content and to promote himself.

“Will recognized four or five years ago that young audiences are consuming media in a much different way,” said David Freeman, co-head of the CAA’s digital media division. “Will understood that he had to shift and change the way that he was interacting with his audience.”

This pivotal audience, which ranges in age from six to around 25, is known as Gen Z and is one of the most sought after consumer bases for companies. Not only is this young generation coming of age as consumers, but they are also driving major trends for older generations, said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research and strategic advisory firm.

“This makes this younger set of trendsetters overly valuable,” he said.

This generation is not just impacting entertainment, but apparel, food, technology and bigger social conversations, he said.

“As Gen Z comes up, they really are the best predictor of the future,” Dorsey said. “Smart brands are trying to figure out how you connect with them in a sincere way. … If you win Gen Z, you can win everyone else.”

Embracing Gen Z

Dorsey noted that many brands missed out on connecting with the millennial generation because they dismissed this demographic’s adoption of mobile devices and social media and believed that this group of young consumers would return to the traditions of previous generations.

“That didn’t happen,” he said.

While the millennial generation adopted the internet and a mobile-first mentality, Gen Z has never known a time that they could not do almost everything they needed to do on a mobile device, said Connor Blakley, a marketing consultant and Gen Z expert.

“Everyone always says that Gen Z has a six- to eight-second attention span,” he said. “What that is is just a really good ‘BS meter’ for different kinds of information so that we can pick the thing that we really want to spend time on.”

Blakley, who is a member of Gen Z himself, has advised companies like Pepsi, Johnson & Johnson and the National Hockey League on social media marketing strategies. He noted that Gen Z is a generation that can easily discern when people and companies are being disingenuous.

“That’s why you are seeing talent agencies, marketing agencies, influencer agencies, all kinds of branding agencies going to TikTok because that is the place where Gen Z already is,” Dorsey added. “If you want to reach them, you have to go to where they are because you have virtually zero chance of getting them to where you are.”

TikTok, in particular, has been a place for talent agencies to cull new talent because of its rapid rise to popularity and the viral nature of its content. In fact, TikTok was the most popular website in 2021, surpassing even Google, according to data from Cloudflare, a web security and performance company.

The social media app, which launched internationally in 2017, rose to prominence in 2018, but really gained traction with consumers in late 2019 and during the coronavirus pandemic.

Movie theaters were shuttered, productions of popular TV shows were halted and the rate at which content was being released to the public slowed considerably. With so many people stuck at home, many turned to alternatives like TikTok for entertainment.

“Suddenly there was a pandemic,” Martinez-Reid said. “Everyone was stuck inside. I had nothing to do but to make content and everyone else had nothing to do but to watch content.”

Boman Martinez-Reid, known on TikTok as “Bomanizer,” is a content creator who was signed by talent agency CAA in July 2020.
Boman Martinez-Reid

For Martinez-Reid, TikTok was a creative outlet. He was one semester away from graduating from Ryerson University’s RTA Media Production program when the social media platform began to gain popularity. So, he decided to try his hand at content production.

“What do I have to lose? If I post something and it does well, great. If it does poorly, then no one will know,” he said.

His first TikTok was posted in December 2019 and centered around Martinez-Reid having a conversation with his last two brain cells about joining the social media platform.

“I was just basically shooting for this like overproduced, super scripted, try hard kind of edge, which at the time was not a thing on TikTok,” he said. “And I think that’s why my content started to do so well, because I started to get this comment that was like ‘I can’t believe that this is a TikTok’ and from then on it sort of just snowballed into more and more opportunities.”

Martinez-Reid has become known for his reality show spoof videos in which, alongside family and friends, he pokes fun at how cast members often get into feuds over the small things. He said that during the pandemic, while people were stuck inside, they could relate to tiny little frustrations bubbling over into big arguments.

While Martinez-Reid has yet to break into Hollywood, he’s used his relationship with CAA to meet with casting directors and story producers at various networks over the last 18 months. His goal is to gain more knowledge about the industry so he can make more strategic decisions about what projects he wants to sign on for in the future.

But there is a path for Martinez-Reid, one that was first forged more than a decade ago by content creators on YouTube and the now defunct video platform Vine.

‘Talent is talent’

Over the last decade, CAA has helped content creators from nontraditional platforms make the transition to Hollywood. The group reps Tyler Blevins, aka Ninja, who rose to fame streaming himself playing video games. While Blevins continues to play video games professionally, he has also participated in Fox’s “The Masked Singer” and had a cameo appearance in Disney’s “Free Guy.”

The talent agency also represents Arif Zahir, who gained notoriety for his impressions posted on YouTube, and now voices Cleveland Brown on Fox’s “Family Guy.”

Other notable celebrities that have risen from this space include CAA-signed Justin Bieber, who was discovered by Usher and Scooter Braun and became a Grammy Award-winning artist; Liza Koshy, who also signed with CAA and now voices Zipp Storm on the “My Little Pony: A New Generation” TV show; and Bo Burnham, who is represented by United Talent Agency, went from making comedy YouTube videos, to writing, directing and starring in top Hollywood films.

“Talent is talent,” said Frank Jung, who launched CAA’s digital media division almost a decade ago alongside Freeman. “If they are an amazing talent, that’s just number one.”

TikTok is still a relatively new platform and has yet to produce the same number of Hollywood success stories as YouTube has in the last decade, but experts predict it won’t be long until its making a mark on the film and television industry.

Already we’ve seen the rise of Addison Rae, 21, who secured a multimillion dollar deal with Netflix in September after starring in the streamer’s film “He’s All That,” a sequel to 1999’s “She’s All That.” She is represented by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and currently has more than 86 million followers on TikTok.

And, of course, Charli D’Amelio, 17, who touts a following more than 133 million strong on the social media platform, has partnered with brands like hummus maker Sabra, Procter & Gamble and Dunkin and now has her own docuseries on Hulu. D’Amelio is repped by UTA.

Then there is Maggie Thurmon, who rose to fame on the social media app dancing and performing circus tricks with her father Dan. The 19-year-old was signed by UTA in February 2020 before she hit 1 million followers on the platform.

Now, she has more than 5 million followers, a popular podcast called “Mags and Dad’s Wholesome Chaos” and just wrapped her first feature film “The Other Zoey,” which features Andie MacDowell and Heather Graham.

“I’m auditioning at the moment,” Thurmon told CNBC just hours after finishing up on set. “I’m so excited for the possibilities of acting in the future. If I can do this for the rest of my life, I would just be the happiest person on the planet.”

Thurmon said she was “greatly surprised” when she announced to her TikTok following earlier this month that she would be pursuing acting alongside her burgeoning social media career.

“I prepared for the backlash,” she said. “But I did not find one negative comment on the TikTok announcement or Instagram post.”

Thurmon’s experience is not unique. “What we see is that Gen Z influencers on TikTok have built meaningful followings and have a built-in audience of fans that feel a personal connection to the creator and want to be more supportive,” Dorsey said. “They feel like that are going along with them on the project.”

That’s one reason these content creators have clout among Hollywood agencies looking to sign fresh talent.

‘Data is the new oil’

“The unique thing is not only being able to identify talent, but this talent already comes with a built-in audience,” CAA’s Freeman said. “Through social media and these platforms, there is a direct conversation that is happening between talent and audience.”

For Jung and Freeman, these audiences provide much needed data about what people want to consume for content and who they want to see make that content.

“Data is the new oil,” Jung said. “What we are trying to do is make sure we are amplifying these voices and eventually creating media businesses for the clients, which will leave lasting legacies.”

“And also everyone can make some money,” he added with a laugh.

Not only can these agencies help build mini-media empires around these creators, they also can benefit from the strategies these digital influencers use, and apply it to bolster the careers of the agencies’ already established clients.

Smith, who has been campaigning for a best actor nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for his role in Warner Bros.’ “King Richard,” is a prime example of a traditional CAA client who has used social media to jumpstart the next phase of his career.

Freeman said that much of the actor’s learnings and best practices came from Koshy, who taught him that his social media videos didn’t need to be perfect, well-produced videos, they just needed to be authentic and give audiences a peek behind the curtain into his life.

Smith started his own YouTube channel in 2017, posting vlog-style videos about his life alongside curated series. 2018’s “The Jump” focused on Smith’s preparation to bungee jump out of a helicopter over the Grand Canyon for his 50th birthday, while 2021’s “Best Shape of My Life” centered on the actor’s journey to improve his personal fitness.

More recently, he has posted videos of himself training alongside Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, quizzing his young costars from “King Richard” about his career and explaining how he went about recording his audiobook.

Actor Will Smith takes a selfie at the UK Premiere of “King Richard” at The Curzon Mayfair on November 17, 2021 in London, England.
Samir Hussein | WireImage | Getty Images

“His career was colder than it had been,” Dan Weinstein, of Underscore Talent, said. “I wouldn’t say it was nonexistent, but he was not the ‘Independence Day’ blockbuster draw he was. He found new audiences. He reinvented his persona around his celebrity. There’s no denying the fact that he is an insanely creative, talented, charismatic individual and he’s leveraging that to breathe new life into all of his endeavors.”

In the last five years, Smith has starred in major blockbusters like Warner Bros.’ “Suicide Squad” and Disney’s “Aladdin,” reestablishing himself as a force at the box office.

And Smith isn’t the only celebrity following this path. Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez and more have embraced social media as a way to connect with fans and promote their work.

Jung and Freeman’s digital media division of CAA has been devised as a place to meld the best practices of the traditional Hollywood model with the strategies of grassroots entrepreneurial content creators. In doing so, their team can take already established talent and reinvigorate their careers. They can also take up-and-coming talent, like Martinez-Reid, and build from an already sturdy foundation.

Martinez-Reid is still forging his path and CAA isn’t rushing him.

“That’s why I love CAA,” Martinez-Reid said. “Because they see me as a talented creator who will have a career. It’s not just about quick jobs. It’s about shaping what my next 10 years are going to look like.”

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