It’s a tale as old as time: Bright young things arrive in Los Angeles by the busload, waiting to be discovered by someone powerful enough to — if they’re really, really, lucky! — make them famous.
The 2020s version of this tale reads somewhat differently: Bright young things arrive in Los Angeles having already become famous, wondering what they’re supposed to do next.
For some, the answer is Brat TV. Launched in 2017, the studio takes teenagers who built sizable followings online and casts them in serialized, cheap-to-produce TV shows that air on (where else?) YouTube. The tone is somewhere between Disney Channel and Degrassi; in the studio’s most popular series, Chicken Girls, characters deal with dating, dance team tryouts, and the perils of middle school, while older TikTokers like Dixie D’Amelio, Madi Monroe, and Griffin Johnson have made appearances on shows like Attaway General, which takes place in the same universe and is centered on a group of volunteers at the local hospital.
“When we started the company, the impetus was that there’s all this amazing talent blowing up online who didn’t have the resources or wherewithal to turn that into intellectual property,” co-founder Rob Fishman explains when I meet him at the Brat TV studio, located in an unassuming loft across the street from CBS’s Television City. They’re in the middle of shooting an episode of Sip or Spill, a new podcast on YouTube hosted by TikTokers Tati Mitchell and Louis Levanti. Today’s guest is Brooklynne Webb, a 17-year-old body positivity creator who recently released a (possibly?) satirical song directed at her haters. (The moment where I feel the most ancient is when none of them can remember the name of the TV show Little House on the Prairie. Those of us in the room who were born in the 20th century step in to help out.)
The podcast is part of Past Your Bedtime, a spinoff of the Brat TV universe catering to the age group most typically associated with TikTokers: late teens and early 20s. Brat’s branching out of the tween segment is in part a reflection on the maturity of the creator economy. A few years ago, says Fishman, film and TV execs barely paid attention to the influencers coming out of YouTube or TikTok. At that point, they may have been right to ignore them — the earliest digital influencers had a difficult time breaking into the traditional entertainment industry; most who found financial success did so by launching products, podcasts, or their own businesses instead.
But since TikTok launched in 2018, all the major talent agencies like WME, UTA, and CAA have built departments dedicated to representing influencers. Still, “If you talk to people in the industry, most of them are still fairly skeptical when it comes to digital talent,” Fishman says. “This town is built on the assumption that the people here know best and they’re going to create Oscar-winning movies, so I do think there’s something existentially threatening about people becoming famous on their phone in whatever state they’re in.”
That’s how Tati Mitchell and Louis Levanti, the Sip or Spill podcast hosts, got here. Two years ago, Mitchell worked two full-time jobs, one monitoring patients under medical care and another in the kitchen at a hospital in Detroit, in addition to running her own desserts business. During her breaks, she’d post funny reactions to cringey or self-serious POV TikTokers and quickly became a pandemic sensation. “As soon as I hit a million on TikTok, I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m famous now!’” she says, laughing. Once she was making more money off of brand sponsorships than she was at her two jobs, she quit and moved to LA. In December, Brat reached out to her about hosting a podcast, which was convenient, she says, because “a podcast was on my 2022 vision board.”
Fishman sees influencers working with Brat as something like a first stop in the industry. “It brings them to a place where they can start having conversations with the platforms, with the advertisers and industry folks that lets them build businesses beyond posting short-form content every day — which is great, but it’s an incredible amount of work.” User-generated content, he says, is cheap and accessible but “there’s something missing from the media ecosystem, which is digestible entertainment that’s professionally produced.”
If this pitch sounds familiar, you may recall Quibi, the short-form video platform that charged users $5 per month to watch sub-10-minute TV episodes and failed spectacularly within six months (the difference here is that Brat’s shows are free to watch on platforms everyone already uses). Quibi isn’t the only platform to which Brat TV has been compared: Every few years, it seems, there is a flurry of studio-slash-incubators combining up-and-coming (read: inexpensive) digital talent with professional film crews and marketing departments. In the earliest age of YouTube influencers, multi-channel networks like Next New Networks and Maker Studios brought together various established channels and took on the administrative work associated with content creation in exchange for a percentage of the ad revenue. Studios like Fullscreen and Awesomeness TV also acted as bridges between the worlds of influencers and producers, while during the news media’s “pivot to video” in the mid-2010s, newsrooms relied on the journalists they already employed to act as on-camera talent. A studio called Creator+ announced last spring that it had raised $12 million to finance feature-length films produced and starring big-name influencers.
After selling his company, Niche, which connected influencers and advertisers, to Twitter in 2015, Fishman and co-founder Darren Lachtman raised a $2.5 million seed round to launch Brat TV. Since then, they’ve raised millions more from investors like Anchorage Capital, Goldman Sachs, and New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye. The company currently employs 45 full-time employees (actors and crew are paid per project) and owns the IP of each show. After making a reported $15 million in revenue in 2020, he says they nearly doubled that amount in 2021.
For creators like Mitchell, working with Brat TV is a welcome break from the tedium of posting endless TikToks, which many creators have said has left them with crushing burnout and imposter syndrome. “I don’t post as much as I used to,” she says. “I think I’m going to start, but then I just get so caught up in my mind about my [video] views and whether everyone’s going to forget about me.” Both she and Levanti hope to use their TikTok platform as an entrée into more lucrative worlds, whether that’s launching their own tequila brands, capitalizing on Web3 technology, TV hosting, or advocating for causes that are personal to them — the rights of young black women and the LGBTQ community, respectively.
They offer a glimpse of the future of microcelebrity, where the endgame isn’t necessarily getting cast in an Emmy-winning series or becoming the world’s biggest pop star; it’s monetizing as many disparate parts of yourself as you can so as never to be tied to a single platform or industry. That’s not to say Brat TV isn’t hoping to churn out superstars. When Fishman watches new Netflix shows targeting teenagers, he says, he often wonders why he recognizes certain actors. And then it hits him: He’d previously cast them on Brat.
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