A Look at Skinamarink: The Viral Horror Taking Over TikTok
Brand Insights in 3 Sentences: With box office receipts lagging behind pre-COVID levels and a short supply of theatrical releases, there’s room for new types of movies to fill the void. On TikTok, niche communities build buzz around even the most polarizing and controversial titles, and such discussion is immensely powerful as word-of-mouth marketing. Independent horror release Skinamarink is a perfect example of how a movie can offer a challenge to TikTok audiences which translates directly into box office success.
For the past year, the biggest story in film has been the industry’s ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. From production delays to safety concerns to direct-to-streaming titles, it’s been a long road back to the movie theater for audiences across the globe.
But 2022 saw several tentpole features bring the box office back to life. Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion, and Avatar: The Way of Water accounted for over four billion USD in revenue alone. Then again, there’s still a concerning lack of product in theaters, and box office numbers remain 35% off pre-pandemic figures. Viewing habits are also changing rapidly, with some surprise bombs like Lightyear, Morbius, Babylon, and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore all losing big money on big budgets.
As the landscape of feature film continues to evolve in wake of COVID-19 and streaming, there are new types of titles that offer new avenues of profit. One example: the viral TikTok horror.
TikTok has completely changed the way films get heard and talked about. Just as #BookTok rearranged the publishing industry, #FilmTok has allowed movies to gather buzz in novel ways. Hashtags for movie reviews garner billions of views and provide an alternative marketing channel for feature films. Genre communities form to debate the hottest new releases and make recommendations for fellow superfans.
That said, these recommendations aren’t always mainstream, and sometimes center around the strange and horrific. Recently, one such horror movie found itself a niche on the app that helped it gain traction beyond the filmmaker’s wildest imagination.
Skinamarink Goes Viral
Skinamarink is a 2022 horror feature directed by first-time filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball. Its $15,000 budget was mostly crowdfunded, and it was filmed with equipment borrowed from the non-profit Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta. After a well-received screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival in July 2022, the movie got accepted into a few more festivals for at-home, online screenings.
Normally, this is where a micro-budget horror movie would see its lifecycle end. With no star-talent or studio investment, a theatrical distribution for a movie like this would be highly unlikely.
However, a pirated copy of Skinamarink found its way into horror circles online. A few viewers snowballed into hundreds, then the internet stepped in to turn this experimental horror feature into a viral sensation.
Search numbers show the film’s meteoric rise, but Google didn’t build this movie’s buzz — TikTok was the true force behind Skinamarink’s sudden popularity. Just as search interest spiked in mid-to-late November, viral TikToks were dropping left and right telling fans just how scary the film was:
The three TikToks above were all released within the same two week period in November, but still combined for more than 4.2 million views. And these videos reflect only a small fraction of the hundreds made that review and react to Skinamarink on the app — the #Skinamarink has more than 24 million views in total.
That’s a lot of attention on a movie made for the price of a used car.
Ultimately, all the buzz and word-of-mouth marketing on TikTok secured this slow, experimental horror a theatrical release on January 13th. What’s more, the movie has already grossed close to one million USD in just a single weekend — more than 50 times the film’s original budget.
Put simply, TikTok turned Skinamarink from a festival darling into a sleeper hit almost overnight.
So what did this cheaply-made, minimalistic horror do that caught the attention of so many on TikTok? More importantly, what insights does the movie provide on TikTok’s potential for marketing and selling feature films?
What is the Discourse Around Skinamarink?
We already mentioned some of the viral TikToks recommending Skinamarink to massive audiences on TikTok. But the film’s virality on the platform and its financial success in theaters aren’t the result of universal praise or acclaim.
In fact, many users found the movie boring, alienating, and — worst of all — not very scary.
Skinamarink’s slow, experimental style makes it quite divisive among fans. When opinions range from “boring” to “horrifying”, it’s hard to build a critical consensus. Our results from Sphere reflect this stark division in reaction to the film:
Although the movie has been equally celebrated and derided on TikTok, its popularity on the app hasn’t been tempered. In fact, the opposite may be true — that the controversy and disagreement around Skinamarink generates even more interest in the film.
It is an intuitive dynamic on a social network. Even though TikTok is built around short-form video content, it is ultimately still an arena for users to respond to each other’s ideas. When an movie is as polarizing as Skinamarink, there is even more discourse to be had.
This wouldn’t be without precedent on TikTok either. Previously, the controversial Megan is Missing went viral on the app despite being described as “traumatizing” by users and banned by entire countries. On TikTok, disagreement and objection over the film were responsible for much of its renewed popularity.
With both Megan is Missing and Skinamarink, there is also an element of challenge being posed to TikTok audiences. While the former promises to traumatize its viewers, TikToks about Skinamarink often question whether the film is the “scariest movie” ever made. No matter where people came down on the film’s status in horror history, they no doubt referred to this high standard as central to their reason for watching:
Sphere found that the number one phrase in all TikTok captions about Skinamarink was “scariest movie”, and as the film became more popular, more creators felt the need to address this accusation from a level-headed perspective:
What Makes a Viral TikTok Film?
Skinamarink’s alienating, controversial style — alongside its claim to being the scariest film ever — helped the movie go viral and secure an unexpected theatrical release. So why is it that sparking disagreement and controversy can bring a film so much attention?
Well, it might be because disagreement and discussion allows people to express themselves and their personal opinions on a film. When everyone feels exactly the same way about a movie, there’s less point in providing your own take for the #filmtok community.
Nearly every video with tagged with #Skinamarink included the user’s own face — either offering their review or recommending the movie. Many used the app’s “green screen” effect, so that they could include themselves alongside the movie’s poster or other video from the film.
Our Culture AI data reflects this too. Sphere shows us that many of the leading subcultures and aesthetics detected in TikToks about Skinamarink are devoted to self-expression through the internet:
TikTok users clearly enjoy an opportunity to share themselves and their personal thoughts in a discussion rife with difference. However, the lesson to be learned isn’t that a viral TikTok film has to be polarizing or controversial. Rather, a viral TikTok film is one that evokes reactions across the spectrum and challenges viewers to offer their own perspective.
The film industry is often focused on movies that can appeal to a broad audience. Of course, this is for good reason, because a movie with a big audience means big money at the box office.
However, a surprise success like Skinamarink shows that there is room for other types of films. Niche communities on social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter can make even the strangest new titles into box office darlings overnight. For filmmakers, it is a sign not to fear the novel or the strange. For studios, it’s an indication that even small-budget, single-quadrant films can be box office successes. And for brands, it’s a demonstration of the power that social media has in building financial success around a cultural product.
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