“I had been quite snobby before. I thought: ‘I won’t jump on TikTok because I want to be a serious filmmaker’. When I look back, it was so silly of me to think that.’’ How Ella Watkins found global success — and fresh inspiration — thanks to social media.
Ella Watkins was hesitant about creating a TikTok account.
The 27-year-old had always considered herself to be a serious filmmaker and she didn’t think the hugely-popular social media platform – which was designed for creating, sharing and watching short videos and has more than one billion users worldwide – would be the best fit for her career trajectory.
But, during a lull in filmmaking gigs in May 2021, Watkins pushed her concerns aside and decided to make a few videos for fun. After all, the majority of TikTok users are aged under 25, and she didn’t expect anyone she knew, or anyone she wanted to impress in the world of filmmaking, would see any of the content she created.
But Watkins had no idea she was about to become an internet sensation and would soon be partnering with some of the biggest brands in the world. Or that TikTok would enable her to earn a lucrative full-time wage making videos.
“For the first nine days (of posting videos on TikTok account @ella.whatkins) I was just playing around, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, or what direction I wanted my videos to go in,’’ recalls Watkins, who talks fast and enthusiastically about her work.
“But on the 10th day I made a video … and it completely blew up. It got four million views and I got 170,000 followers from that one video.
“It was shared everywhere.
“My friends were contacting me, saying: ‘It popped up in my Reddit thread’ or: ‘I saw you on Twitter’, and all these celebrities were commenting.’
“Two weeks later a brand reached out and said they wanted to work with me.’’
She quickly realised TikTok was an effective way to share her filmmaking with a massive audience she would never have otherwise have been able to reach.
“I had been quite snobby before,’’ Watkins laughs.
“I thought: ‘I won’t jump on TikTok because I want to be a serious filmmaker’. But now all these other opportunities have come out of it.
“When I look back, it was so silly of me to think that.’’
Capitalising on the success of her viral video by pumping out more content, Watkins watched as her TikTok following quickly grew. By September 2021, she hit one million followers, and that figure doubled by January 2022. Now she has 2.8 million followers on TikTok, 327,000 followers on Instagram, and 129,000 subscribers on YouTube. Content creation is now her full-time job and she also employs a small team of staff to help with various projects.
She is working with brands including Uno/Mattel, Samsung, Amazon Prime, Paramount Plus and Netflix and regularly flies to Los Angeles for work commitments.
Watkins has also attracted the attention of entities like Screen Australia and YouTube, picking up a series of grants to work on new projects she’s excitedly preparing to launch in coming weeks.
Earlier this year Watkins was awarded a $150,000 grant as part of the Skip Ahead initiative to produce a five-part comedy/musical series – You May Think I’m Joking – for her YouTube channel. Each five-minute episode explores Watkins’ personal experiences of being an autistic, queer woman with body image struggles, and tells the story of Ella, an autistic influencer, who is trying to find her voice in an online world that enshrines curated “perfect” personalities with perfect bodies. She’s currently in the writing stage of this project.
Watkins has also teamed up with friend and actor Naarah, attracting about $100,000 in funding and support from Screen Australia, TikTok, Screen Tasmania and Tourism Tasmania, to create a quirky and chaotic travel series called Bad Locals, which will showcase Tasmania to the world on TikTok.
Both women grew up in Tasmania but confess they are “bad locals” as they have travelled widely interstate and overseas, and yet there are still many parts of their home state that they have never explored.
The 10-episode series was filmed in April and will launch in August.
Each episode is only a minute long and sees the pair tick off some of the things they’ve always wanted to do – including abseiling at Cradle Mountain, visiting Saffire, flying into the remote South-West wilderness, ghost hunting in Willow Court and working on a dairy farm at Bream Creek – all from the unique perspective of two young women with diverse voices. Some have likened Bad Locals to a modern-day version of 2003 reality TV series The Simple Life, featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.
Naarah, an Indigneous Australian actor and musician known for her role in Prime Video’s new TV series Deadloch, which was filmed in Tasmania, says Bad Locals – which she describes as a “fast-paced, bubbly and comedic series”– aims to amplify First Nations voices.
“We want to change the conversation and create an open and accessible conversation around
Indigenous culture,” she says.
“We want to talk about words – using kunanyi instead of Mt Wellington – and the meaning and stories behind them.”
Meanwhile Watkins, who identifies as bisexual and is also autistic, is excited to be showcasing her own unique perspective on the world. The duo grew up together in and around Hobart before pursuing pathways and big dreams internationally.
They have been friends since they were six years old, after Naarah’s parents moved from Western Australia to Hobart.
One of the reasons they moved was to consult Ella’s father, now retired fertility specialist Dr Bill Watkins.
“We grew up together,” Watkins explains.
“Dad helped Naarah’s parents conceive and then after that our parents became friends.
“Naarah’s dad helped my parents build their house.”
Naarah accompanied her builder dad and was captivated by fun-loving Ella.
And they have been firm friends ever since.
So when Naarah sent Watkins a text at 3am one day last year, suggesting they collaborate and apply for a grant together for a new project, Watkins didn’t hesitate to say yes.
They only had two days until applications closed, so they quickly started brainstorming over a Zoom call, and soon came up with the idea for Bad Locals.
“We’d actually both grown up here, we’d both travelled all over the world for work or whatnot, and whenever you travel people are always so interested in Tasmania,’’ Watkins explains.
“But we both realised that even though we grew up in Tasmania, there was still a lot about the state that we didn’t know and there were a lot of places we hadn’t been to.’’
Watkins says it was the simple things, like milking a cow and eating honey fresh from a hive, that she loved most while filming Bad Locals.
As well as showcasing her home state to the world, Watkins says the series has been a great opportunity for her to reflect on her own journey in life and the way she has grown and changed as a person, and that includes a new-found respect for her home state.
“Often when you grow up, it takes time to separate yourself from who you are and where you grow up, to really appreciate that,’’ she explains.
“I grew up in Tasmania and I just wanted to get out and leave Tasmania as quickly as I could.
“It took that separation, that time apart, for me to come back and appreciate how beautiful home is.”
And she says the same is true when it comes to her new-found self-acceptance, after being diagnosed with autism about 18 months ago.
“I grew up very insecure, I judged myself so harshly and I didn’t really like who I was,’’ Watkins reveals.
“And it took that level of separation to come back and realise I’m great the way I am, and that a lot of qualities that I possess are what make me, me.
“I just think it’s really important that we tell our stories.’’
‘’I’m queer and autistic and I think it’s great for people to see themselves represented on screen.’’
Watkins says since learning that she’s autistic, social media has been a great tool for learning from others with autism, as well as sharing her own journey and experiences.
Her diagnosis has made her more accepting of herself.
“Acquiring this knowledge has completely changed the way I run my life,’’ Watkins says.
“I no longer force myself to be in situations that my brain doesn’t like being in. I see when situations are bad for me before I get to a breaking point. I’m a lot more forgiving of myself. And I also celebrate who I am and all the little quirks.’’
Watkins says social media has also helped her find greater acceptance of her own sexuality, and has helped many of her followers who identify as neurodivergent and/or queer.
Watkins has been living in Melbourne since November, “flitting back and forth” to Hobart regularly, and also travelling to LA regularly for business meetings and filming at Uno head office. But she plans to move back to Tasmania in November this year and says her autism diagnosis is one of the main reasons for the return home.
“I guess I never really asked myself what makes me happy,’’ she says.
“I’ve spent quite a bit of time in LA for work, and I’ve realised when I’m in Australia I should be where I feel comfortable and safe, and that for me is Hobart.
“I love Hobart.
“And with social media you can travel anywhere at any point, you don’t need to be in a big city to do it. Videos (made in Hobart) have every chance of blowing up and doing as well as videos made anywhere else.’’
Another benefit of being in Hobart is being closer to her mum (artist and dermatologist Dr Frances Watkins), her dad and her older sister.
Her parents still live in the West Hobart house Watkins grew up in.
She says her parents are proud and “extremely supportive” of her achievements, despite her following a less conventional career path. Always a creative child, Watkins wrote and illustrated a best-selling children’s book, Henry’s Holiday – about an “enthusiastic but bumbling goat” – at just 13 years old, when she was a grade 7 student at St Michael’s Collegiate.
It was followed by a sequel, Henry The Goat, a couple of years later.
Watkins was also a keen actor and director as a teen, with the budding filmmaker starring in the MyState Financial Student Film Festival and Tropfest.
“I’ve always loved storytelling and I think the reason I got into filmmaking was because I loved performing,’’ Watkins says.
Although she didn’t know she had autism as a child, Watkins now thinks that this is what led her to performing. She says she had a fear of interacting with people, because she didn’t understand social cues and norms, but when she was on stage, playing a character, all that fear disappeared.
“I could just play and connect with people,’’ she says.
She loved writing and directing as well as performing and was very focused on a career in the arts.
“Over the next few years people advised me that I needed to choose one – they said: ‘You can’t write, direct and act, you need to choose one’.’’
“So I stopped writing and directing to focus on acting, and in hindsight that wasn’t the right choice for me.
“I love telling stories. I’ve always felt like my calling is telling stories, I love making people feel something.’’
Watkins – who has had acting roles in TV shows including Rosehaven, Halifax Retribution, and Playing For Keeps – has since built a name for herself as a writer and director.
Watkins has worked on various projects, including YouTube miniseries Mia Culpa in late 2020. Early last year, Watkins won $25,000 in Screen Forever’s Got A Minute? competition, enabling her to produce 10-part series The Down Under, in which she plays the roles of multiple demons in a post-death processing department. That series is in post-production and will be released later this year.
She also appears in a new comedic web series, Mainlanders, about the thought-provoking phenomenon of mainlanders relocating to Tasmania, which can be viewed at mainlanders.com.au. But, despite the wealth of online gigs, Watkins had no idea she’d be so successful on TikTok.
While some might find the short-form video platform restrictive, Watkins says she actually finds the restricted 60-second timeframe fuels her creativity.
“I always find having some kind of strict parameter on your creativity allows you to be more creative,’’ Watkins explains.
“You have to condense things into such a small space, it forces you to cut out all the unnecessary stuff, and problem solve on how to get to places faster.’’
Watkins says it has certainly exceeded all expectations.
“I think when I started it, I definitely didn’t think it was going to do anything for me financially or for my number of followers or anything like that,’’ she says.
“I only did it because I had a six-month lull (in filmmaking commitments), and I wanted to get back into something creative that was low pressure.
“I thought: ‘I’ll just do TikTok, no one will see it’. I thought I’d just make something for myself, I want to have a giggle, I wanted to create, I love creating.’’
Being a content creator has been her full-time job for more than a year, and Watkins says she couldn’t be happier – or more blown away – by the way things have turned out. She has even been able to employ a few of her friends, who also work within the film industry, building a creative team to support Watkins in her endeavours.
“I love it, I love the whole thing,’’ Watkins enthuses of content creating.
“It still crazes me that it’s my job.”•