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TikTok’s viral movie clips are changing how I watch films

It’s the most chaotic ‘streaming service’ possible

Tom Hanks in Sully, talking into his phone with his tie askew, set against an illustration including TikTok’s logo. Graphic: Ariel Davis/Matt Patches/Polygon | Source Images: Warner Bros. Pictures/Everett Collection

When I settle in at the end of the day — or during the middle of it, honestly — for a calming bout of girlrotting, and open up TikTok, I usually don’t have to spend that long on my For You Page before I come across a movie clip which I simply have to stop and watch.

Fifteen years ago at the very dawn of the smartphone era, David Lynch expressed withering contempt for people who dared to watch movies on their phones. “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone you will never in a trillion years experience the film, you’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated,” he said, in footage from the special edition DVD for Inland Empire. “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone.” But he changed his tune somewhat when it came time to release Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017, even giving advice on the size of the screen and the quality of the image and the sound. But he still assumed that you’d be watching the whole thing at one time.

Sorry to David Lynch, but TikTok has changed even that. When it comes to watching movies on TikTok, it’s like taking whatever is left of the platonic ideal of a film and completely deconstructing it to suit the current attention-lacking age. No longer are we bound to outmoded norms such as the linear progression of plot and story. A clip of a scene from the middle of a movie will pop up on my FYP, and immediately my scroll will be arrested, as I’m sucked in. I watched a characterful moment from the movie Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris like this — now deleted from TikTok — specifically, the scene where she triumphs over some snooty French people to get into a fashion show.

This isn’t a microtrend or isolated phenomenon. TikTok accounts dedicated to just sharing clips of movies have followers in the hundreds of thousands, or even more. Clips seem to be saturating everyone’s FYP, regardless of individual taste — or perhaps because of it. In an anecdotal poll of friends, one person reported that he was getting lots of “scenes where someone wins an argument” and Moneyball clips, and another told me she was getting excerpts of animated films like Toy Story 4 and Turning Red.

Sometimes a movie surpasses the individual algorithm to become an app-wide phenomenon. There was the time clips from the climactic scenes of Sully took over everyone’s FYPs, posted piecemeal, spawning a microtrend of Sully-related content on the platform; then there were the debates over 12 Angry Men between thousands of teens seeing it for the first time.

Oftentimes the accounts posting films in parts will wait between posting one scene and posting the next bite, invoking on a micro scale the kind of serialized anticipation offered by Twitter threads and Wattpad fanfics. The cliffhanger ending for this clip from M. Night Shyamalan’s campy flop The Happening that ended up on my FYP is probably what helped it rack up over 25 million views.

The account that shared the video, called THE WILD WOLVES, posts movies in 2-minute clips. Instead of just letting the clip play with black bars above and beneath it, the TikToker drops it into a template of a darkened theater, including a moving, living audience in their seats below the screen. Another account called Happy Movie posts TV clips as well, and also layers in weird and bad suspenseful stock music over them, for some reason.

Most of these accounts aren’t posting the entire movie or episode — they’re just clipping out particularly good bits and scenes that will likely perform well, like Amy Adams’ most compelling turns in Arrival. The serialized format rarely allows viewers to catch the entire film on the app — much less watch the whole thing uninterrupted — instead narrowing it down to 10 minutes’ worth of action-packed highlights.

A lot of the clips that I had bookmarked during my research for this story were taken down in the time it took me to write it, presumably due to copyright strikes on the part of the studios, which makes sense. It’s freebooting, pure and simple — good old content farming, the sort that happens on any other platform that allows video.

But TikTok is different from these other platforms, because it’s fostered totally novel social interactions. You can flick your finger up to open a TikTok’s comment section to read or contribute to it while the clip keeps playing in the background. It’s sort of like Hollywood’s ideal for “second-screen” content — film and TV designed for viewers who are on their phone while it’s playing — in action, all inside one device. This is the future that the executives behind Quibi (RIP) probably peered through the veil to see, but couldn’t quite get a handle on.

Of course, the obvious question is “why not just go sit down and stream the whole movie?” But that’s not the point. Watching a movie on your own, in a traditional 90-plus minute widescreen format, does not allow for the kind of participatory jubilee occurring around and on top of these clips. My favorites are the confident comments on clips of murder and devastation from horror movies that basically amount to “if i was at chernobyl i wouldv stopped it” — but so many clips feature a delightful smorgasbord of playful commentary, serious discussion, and reminiscences about people’s first time seeing the movie.

Though, a fair amount of the time, the comments are thousands of versions of the same phrase: “name of the movie?” Because that’s another thing about these accounts — much of the time, these creators don’t even give the title of the movie or TV show they’re posting. This is clear engagement bait. The lack of contextual information in these TikToks, and their serialized nature, make comments which demand updates or the next part of the story practically unavoidable.

And of course, there’s also the serendipitous nature of the algorithm that brings you a movie or TV clip. Half the time if I’m offered up a TikTok video that’s longer than 30 seconds, I’ll usually flick past it: I’m on the app for high-speed stimulation, not lectures. But a movie clip has the effect of deactivating that instinct — something about the narrative presentation has an instant gripping effect, and I’m sucked in. And sometimes, it can even be enough to get me to close the app when it’s over.

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