Jake and Logan Paul, Lele Pons, King Bach, and Amanda Cerny — if you can name them, this Canadian born director has worked with them. Stro Galang To, 28, known on Instagram as DirectedbyStro, is the silent mastermind behind trending Instagram comedies and Youtube music videos, and he has some key pieces of advice on how he does it all.
To is originally from Ottawa, Ontario, the capital city of Canada. He kick-started his career at the early age of 18 while attending Lisgar High School. At Lisgar, he was surrounded by humorous friends and drew inspiration for his videos from their daily interactions. “I picked up a camera and started filming them and called it ‘The To Show.’ It was a compilation of all the skits we would do together, being goofy, and my friends free running,” To said to HonestlyAnnette. These skits would help grow and strengthen his film skills; so much so a friend would then ask To to film his music video. That friend would be Ottawa artist, City Fidelia. “He was the driving force for me to master music videos, after which I fell into commercials,” To explained. His first ever commercial was for Bauer Sporting Company — he would go on to make promotional videos for Dolce & Gabbana, Skin Condoms, T-Mobile, and more. But as his experience and love for production grew, To found himself in constant loneliness while in Ottawa.
“I had such a passion for filmmaking and since it was such a small town, there were not enough resources to collaborate and work with a lot of people. I’m sure by now the community of directors and filmmakers have grown, but back then there were only two big production companies,” To said. In Ottawa, he felt there was a lack of community where Ottawans could film and learn from each other, and grow their skills and experiences together. “In Los Angeles, one out of ten people know how to film, know an actor, or know someone in the industry. That is why I moved here.” Not to mention the additional great weather. To continued, “People are reliable in LA because these are their full-time jobs. In Ottawa, no one really knew how to act or perform, and they weren’t reliable because it wasn’t a serious thing for them.” The loneliness transferred into boredom and it was then, To said, he reached a higher potential in his career.
“What developed my skill was being bored and not having those resources. If I needed a special FX guy, if I wanted an audio guy, I didn’t have that. So what grew me was learning everything myself off of Google. I am all self-taught.”
With his skills in check and his suitcase filled with dreams, To moved to LA — where he has currently resided for two years. He left his family and friends behind with only $2,000 Canadian dollars to his name. Though two months away from his diploma, he dropped out at the time and drove his car from Ottawa to the City of Angels. But the path to success was not easy.
It’s a gamble. It’s really a gamble. Especially when you first start off you don’t know who’s going to see it or who’s going to share it. – Stro Galang To
To had $2k Canadians dollars in a city where rent was $1k American dollars. Through Craigslist, he searched for living arrangements and ended up staying in the living room of a stranger. For work, he would drive to Las Vegas every weekend to work as a club promoter and earned $400 a weekend. He was so deep in his hustle, he did not get to film and had yet to make friends. The sinking feeling of loneliness was surely on the horizon and so he posted an advertisement on Craigslist and offered his services to direct a music video, and Steven Spence, a social media influencer, messaged him back. To fell in love with Spence’s music and it was the beginning of not only a great friendship, but a trend shattering partnership. Over time, Spence would change his focus as a musician to that of an actor. Spence and To decided to film some skits, which ended up going viral online. This was To’s link to the other social media influencers he works with today.
“It’s a gamble. It’s really a gamble. Especially when you first start off you don’t know who’s going to see it or who’s going to share it. The execution has to be right,” To explained. When talking about the key to a viral video, To says there isn’t one. “Even the biggest social media influencers haven’t figured it out. Things that go viral, you just can’t predict because there’s no science to it.” He recalls his first million viewed video with a petty sigh — for someone who has garnered much more, views that reach 24 million are worth praise. At the time, To used the million views he had earned to work with other influencers. “That’s the biggest tip I have for upcoming viners/influencers — grow yourself and get that respect. It has everything to do with content. Adam W [ an Instagram influencer] has [more than] 600k followers because everyone loves his content. Even if you have five million followers you still wanna work with him because his content is great,” To said.
On the business side, To says to focus on engagement. “I’ve worked with the top influencers in the world who all have great content, but engagement is also really important. If you have 10 million followers but the engagement is low — meaning you are only pulling in a hundred to a thousand views — your brand isn’t going to go that far.”
But things have changed; Instagrammers and Youtubers are pastime viners. These creatives had to learn to fit hours of shoot time into six seconds, whereas now the time frame is one minute on Instagram. “It was an easy transition. The trouble now is everyone’s mind is expanding and growing, and most are working with TV. We try to film a minute and it seeps into two minutes and three minutes because the ideas and possibilities are getting bigger.” You would imagine as the ideas grow so do the budgets, but that is not the case.
“I don’t get paid and the influencers don’t get paid. The money comes from brand deals and exposure, not from views on Instagram.” Through exposure to his work, To has worked with notable names that include Usher. “I’ve worked with skin condoms, T Mobile, and other high-level brands. This is all off exposure and engagement. Last month alone, with engagement, I reached two million accounts.”
Currently, To is directing a series for the new Zeus Network. A network created by Amanda Cerny, King Bach, and Dave Storm, is easily explained by To as the Netflix of social media. It is a hub where the world’s biggest influencers on Instagram, would be able to create various digital series. A launch To spoke excitedly about.
As he looks ahead, To’s biggest goal is to make a blockbuster film — a feat, surely not that far away. “I want to have people leave the theatre with their lives changed. I want it to be a film where people forgot about reality for a second like the movies ‘Inception’ or ‘Ready Player One.’”
Says To, “When I make a film, I want it to have moments where you’re dying of laughter and wondering what’s gonna happen next.”