How Netflix and Paramount Reach Gen Z on TikTok: ‘You’ve Got to Sprinkle a Little Chaos on It’

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TikTok can add jet fuel to entertainment marketers’ messages — but they have to learn how to speak the language of the platform to effectively harness the creativity of its creators.

That was one of the key takeaways from the Variety/TikTok Culture Catalysts Dinner, held in West Hollywood on Sept. 20.

Paramount Pictures’ approach with its TikTok campaign for blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” — 2022’s top-grossing movie at the box office so far — was to introduce the nearly 40-year-old flyboy franchise to Gen Z, said Danielle De Palma, EVP of global marketing for the studio. With TikTok, its biggest goal was to reach “younger audiences that didn’t have that same emotional, nostalgic connection to the film that so many of the older audiences did,” De Palma said.

“At every major marketing beat … it was really listening and learning to what that younger audience wanted from the film,” she said. “And of course the incredible aerial action and Tom Cruise was always at the top in what was most compelling, but what we really saw was that younger people wanted to see themselves on screen, and they wanted to see more of the new recruits.”

Khartoon Weiss, TikTok’s global head of agency and accounts, noted that videos with the #TopGunMode hashtag on TikTok have more than 13 billion views — exceeding the Earth’s population. “That is massive,” she said. “That is fandom at its finest. That is literally repeat usage behavior, watching, engagement.”

Film marketing is constantly evolving, especially in the digital realm, said De Palma. “But I do think we’ve seen a pretty seismic shift with the proliferation of TikTok over the last couple of years,” she noted. “I think it’s changing the way that we’re cutting creative. It’s changing the way that we’re working with creators… I feel like we’re constantly on the platform to see how people are expressing themselves.”

Jonathan Helfgot, Netflix’s VP of film marketing, said the what the streamer sees with TikTok, probably more than with any platform ever, “is the necessity to show up as a fan first — and as a marketer second.” With TikTok users, “it’s a little bit more leaning in, rather than just, ‘I’m going to lean back and let this advertising talk to me.’” I think they want a little bit more engagement and a little bit more personality.”

For Netflix’s “The Gray Man,” starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans, the company enlisted the action film’s directors — the Russo brothers — for a behind-the-scenes series on TikTok, aimed at the #filmtok community on the app. The goal was “to harness the love that exists within the film community for the Russo brothers,” Helfgot explained.

Helfgot borrowed the phrase “sprinkle chaos” from his colleague Kelli King, who heads TikTok strategy for Netflix, to describe the streamer’s approach to the short-form video app. “You can’t just take this thing that you’re going to put somewhere else and put it on TikTok,” he said. “You’ve got to sprinkle a little chaos on it,” clarifying that “It’s chaos with a point of view.”

When partnering with TikTok creators, Helfgot added, “If you don’t understand the voice, and if you don’t understand the point of view, and you don’t understand what they make when they’re not necessarily getting paid by a brand, it’s not the right partnership.”

TikTok’s Weiss said part of her team’s job is to educate marketers on how best to engage the community. “We talk about it by way of assets, not ads,” she said. “So if you think about assets not ads — a sound, a color, a character, a separate ending — all of a sudden you have multiple ways to actually bring your stories to life.”

Undeniably, TikTok has cracked the content-algorithm code in becoming one of the biggest internet media platforms in the world. A year ago, the app announced it had more than 1 billion users worldwide — and today TikTok has somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.6 billion monthly active users, according to estimates by research firm

The “beauty of TikTok is it’s not about the following that these creators have amassed, it’s about the creativity that they bring to the platform,” De Palma added. “And it is so joyful to be able to be entertained and excited about the creators that we’re finding on the platform.”

Earlier in the evening, a trio of entertainment-focused TikTok creators — Daphne Le (@daphnedtle), Emily Uribe (@emilyuuribe) and David Ma (@davidwma) — spoke about how to they approach content creation, fan engagement and brand deals on the platform, in a discussion moderated by Adrienne Lahens, TikTok’s global head of operations for creator marketing solutions.

Uribe talked about her recent partnership with Lionsgate for “Moonfall,” creating “some really sick content” for the film that encompassed “crazy talk show videos.” Lionsgate’s team “took that and made me the moon in ‘Moonfall,’” Uribe said: “That’s a brand that reached out and knew the creator and their audience and what they do.”

Ma recommended that when brands are dealing with TikTok creators, they should keep their marketing brief to one page that spells out the primary (and secondary) messaging as succinctly as possible, and that they should trust the creator to express that in their own voice instead of scripting it out. “When I see companies like Netflix or Disney+ and Marvel utilizing and leveraging their intellectual properties and their talent and bridging that world between where we see these stars on a big screen, and then seeing them in a TikToker’s video, it just connects that thread through,” he said.

Le said that TikTok, from a marketing perspective, is “a great way for streaming platforms to have audience recapture because a lot of people are sharing content about existing IP that they love.” She said she was originally expecting to go to medical school “and then I blew up on TikTok and was able to work on TikTok full-time.”

The Variety/TikTok Culture Catalysts Dinner was held at West Hollywood’s Soulmate restaurant. The event coincided with the inaugural Variety Entertainment Brand Marketing Impact Report, which profiles the most innovative entertainment marketing campaigns over the past year and the exec behind them.

Pictured above (left to right): Netflix’s Jonathan Helfgot, TikTok’s Khartoon Weiss, Paramount’s Danielle De Palma