As the oldest and baldest person to have access to a TikTok account, I usually have a pretty good idea of what sort of content I’ll be served, in that it’s usually equal parts animal attack videos and jet-washing tutorials. Recently, however, the algorithm threw me a curveball: a 90-second clip of the 23-year-old Nancy Meyers film What Women Want.
It was a good scene, one where Mel Gibson listens in on Judy Greer’s self-hating inner monologue and starts to see her as a true contemporary. I watched the whole thing. And, as a reward, TikTok then gave me another scene from What Women Want. And then another. And another. And over the course of a couple of days, albeit in a disjointed and non-linear manner, I had basically watched all of What Women Want. It’s a good film! Sarah Paulson is in it! Who knew?
At the time, I just assumed that I had stumbled across the film by accident, as a result of some crank uploading it as a dare. But that might not necessarily be the case. Because more and more films are being uploaded to TikTok in dozens of tiny chunks. Before that, NBC released the first episode of the second series of its comedy series Killing It on TikTok before it was traditionally broadcast. Some of the clips have been watched hundreds of thousands of times.
Today, to mark Mean Girls Day (because a character in the film references 3 October once in it), Paramount Pictures has shattered Mean Girls into 23 parts and uploaded the resulting clips to TikTok. But, as a recent Dazed piece pointed out, the real business is happening unofficially. One TikTok account has uploaded 300 clips of Emily in Paris. Another is dedicated to showing clips of The White Lotus. Type “full movie” into TikTok and you’ll very easily be able to watch the entirety of Avatar 2, The Little Mermaid remake and apparently every Pixar movie ever made, broken up into short little fragments.
You’re right to react to this news with a blankly uncomprehending gaze. Because, on the surface, TikTok is an absolutely terrible way in which to watch a movie. Not only is it frustrating to have to keep scrolling on to the next clip every few seconds, but by and large film-makers and showrunners hate it when you watch their lovingly crafted work on a phone. Spike Lee and David Lynch have both bemoaned people squinting at their films on a tiny screen and, just a few weeks ago (and apologies for the name-drop), Jesse Armstrong gave me a bollocking for watching an episode of Succession on my phone once.
And they were talking about people watching their shows “properly”, in landscape. You cannot do this on TikTok. When it shows you a film, it’s showing you a closely cropped vertical version that only shows you what’s going on in the middle of the screen. If any character was unfortunate enough to linger on the outer thirds of the frame, an entire generation of moviegoers will miss them completely.
But even though TikTok might seem like the worst possible way to watch a film, you can guarantee that one person is currently kicking themselves silly over it. Jeffrey Katzenberg saw this exact thing coming, which is why he invented Quibi. For those of you with short memories, Quibi was once going to be the future of entertainment; a streaming service that allowed people to watch long-form entertainment on their phones, vertically and broken into chunks. Quibi had news shows. It had reality shows. It had cartoons. It even remade The Fugitive, in 14 six-minute parts.
That isn’t why you remember Quibi, though. You remember Quibi as a punchline, for its ability to lose a billion dollars in less than a year. But with the benefit of hindsight, it seems as though Quibi was really on to something. The platform didn’t die because people hated watching things on their phones. It died because people hated watching Quibi content – in all its overpaid, underdeveloped glory – on their phones.
Give them something better, like Mean Girls or a film where Mel Gibson basically tricks a bunch of women into sleeping with him, and the audience is clearly there. The trend has yet to catch on in a major way – because god knows it takes something really special to compete with clips of a screaming hiker fending off a bear attack with his feet – but it’s gaining momentum. For all we know, five years from now, this might just be the way that we consume all media. God help us all.