When superfans speak, Hollywood should listen.
The entertainment economy is increasingly relying on the superfan demo, the built-in audiences that make it plausible for a studio to take a nine-figure swing on a film or TV entertainment entertainment franchise. To take the pulse of some of media’s most committed fans, I ventured to Anaheim, Calif., last week for VidCon, the annual gathering for devotees of YouTubers, TikTokers, Twitch personalities and other digital, social and gaming media extensions. These are the hardcore fans who will spend real money to attend a four-day conference stacked with panels and meet-and-greet opportunities.
I had a hunch going in that these would probably be the most important conversations I have all year in terms of getting insights into where entertainment is headed. I was not disappointed.
It’s a given that this generation and their older siblings no longer watch old-fashioned TV. I wanted to hear directly from some of the most rabid consumers of this emerging form of content that fuels the YouTube and social media machine. I wanted to learn more about how TikTok et al have supplanted TV viewing for the generation that has never known a world without smartphones. Do they watch in primetime hours? How do they discover new personalities? How do they navigate their social feeds?
The responses blew me away. I spoke with 10 randomly chosen small clusters of VidCon attendees at the Anaheim Convention Center. It’s not a scientific sample by any means, but it is enlightening. Each group was devoted to their own custom-tailored esoteric slice of fandom. One thing that Hollywood needs to know that was consistent across each group: Most of what they “stan” deeply is produced and monetized entirely outside of the mainstream entertainment giants that dominate traditional TV and film. This is a world of fans who actively support the creators — and yes, that’s what they are broadly called, creators — through merchandise and direct subscription sales.
As you’ll hear, it’s important at this juncture for Hollywood to understand that this rising consumer cohort expects to have a very different kind of relationship with the creators they embrace. They were also extremely generous with their time and downright eager to talk about their media consumption habits.
Here’s a sampling:
On the difference between watching TV and TikTok:
Jamie, 18, from the Minneapolis area: “Well with TV, you know, you turn on a show and you like it and maybe by the end of the day, like you find yourself falling asleep. With TikTok, it’s definitely different because you just go you scroll and scroll and scroll. And next thing, you know, it’s like 3 a.m. And you’re still up watching TikTok.”
On the appeal of following internet-based creators versus TV series:
Bryn, 19, from Southern California: “You’re watching these, like, creators, put their own personality and their own person that they want to be to portray themselves whereas if you’re watching a TV show, then you would be like watching an actor, a character like someone else. So I think it’s like, easier to fall in love with, like, who that person actually is. And just like, what they have to bring to the world. I think that’s really cool.”
On the importance of the fan community that grows around creators:
Khalia, 19, from Colorado: “It becomes like, just a really big community because then you find other people through it, like other people that watch the same stuff. And then you find, like, your best friends. Then you want to meet the people that made this stuff because they made you happy. So you’re like, let me tell you that you made me happy.”
On how people discover new creators to follow:
Emma, 18, from the Minneapolis area: “I think you just see one video or like, one compilation of them. And you just, you find them. They’re like, their profiles. And you go from there and [it’s] like a domino effect, kinda. You see one thing? You go to more and more and more. Yeah, then you end up here [at VidCon.]”
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(Pictured: Fans listen to a panel session with internet creators at VidCon on June 23, 2022.)