Movie stars, social media, and a shifting balance of power

Feature Simon Brew
29 Feb 2016 - 05:18

Do the likes of The Rock, Vin Diesel and the Suicide Squad hold more clout than a movie marketing department now?

In the past week or two, the big screen take on Baywatch has gone before the cameras, whilst Vin Diesel has been busying himself filming a belated, third xXx movie, The Return Of Xander Cage. It’s anyone’s guess thus far how either of these projects will ultimately pan out, but there is a unifying factor between them: the fact that from day one, the two stars have been at the heart of the promotional campaign for the movies concerned. Already.

To an extent, this is nothing new. It’s a tradition as old as movie time for the stars and creatives behind a movie to offer themselves up for interview, in the hope of securing near-free publicity for the venture in question. In fact, it’s often written into the contracts of talent that they need to undertake a press tour. I distinctly remember when that doesn’t happen, too. Back in 1994, the relative failure of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner project A Perfect World was in part attributed to the fact that neither of its leads traveled the world to push the film.

Yet what’s different now is how much earlier in particular the acting and directorial talent come into the process. Even ten years ago, they’d generally be left to finish their movie first, before turning their attention to press duties. Now, though, the two processes are interwoven.

Disney, just over a week ago, released a start of production press release for the now-filming Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, but in truth, it didn’t contain too much that we didn’t know.

We knew that production was going to start soon as Zoe Saldana had posted on her social networking channels that she’s had a make-up test. Then Chris Pratt posted an image from the set. Writer-director James Gunn, meanwhile, has from day one been actively involved in the film’s fanbase, regularly holding Q&A sessions on his Twitter account in particular, before a frame of footage had even been shot.

Going back to Baywatch and xXx 3, both projects were basically announced in the first place by the two stars in question.

With Baywatch, Johnson has primarily used Instagram to confirm he’s involved with the film, to announce casting, to post the first picture from the table read, to confirm day one of shooting, and to post the first image of himself and Zac Efron on set. The film isn’t out until May 2017, so it’s a fair bet that The Rock has barely got started.

As for every film he’s involved with these days, Vin Diesel has been directly informing his fanbase of developments with his projects too, saving anyone in the PR department from having to issue a press release.

It works, too.

The same outlets (such as this one) report the news anyway, and Diesel controls the flow of news and information directly to the people he’s regularly engaged with.

Studios are more than happy to harness this. In fact, if anything, they seem to be encouraging it. For Warner Bros, it arranged for every cast member of this August’s Suicide Squad movie to post their own character poster on their social media accounts, each using the same ‘Worst. Heroes. Ever’ tagline. This, an insider explained to us, is a “social roadblock”. It virtually guarantees that the film gets trending, and seizes the attention of the active social media audience at that time. And then, of course, the posters were picked up over the subsequent hours to become part of the movie news cycle.

Even before that, Suicide Squad director David Ayer had been posting updates from the set, and Bryan Singer too uploaded image after image from the X-Men: Apocalypse shoot. Every one of those images that he uploaded became a news story somewhere.

The social drive goes still further. Empire magazine now knows that not only does it get a great exclusive when it secures early access and covers for the likes of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, but the stars themselves will Tweet the covers as well. The studio, the magazine and the film all win there. Meanwhile, Megan Fox and Stephen Amell were teasing the Superbowl spot for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows before it landed, and that’s part and parcel of the growing trend in using talent to tease impending trailers.

Only occasionally does all of this backfire. It’s an oft-quoted example already, but director Josh Trank going off-piste with his veiled criticism of his Fantastic Four movie prior to release fanned negative flames, and was regarded as having damaged the film’s ultimate box office take. But more often than not, social media support is increasing the exposure of a movie in a way that even a television advert would struggle to match. The movie trailer is still seen as the keystone of a marketing campaign, but loud social media chatter is wrapped into that. Integral, even. When was the last major movie trailer that didn’t come with a hashtag somewhere?

To examine just how impactful social media support for big movies is, Twitter and Crimson Hexagon undertook research across 33 of 2015’s bigger releases. It deliberately resisted the very biggest blockbusters, that it determined would already be surefire hits (the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Age Of Ultron), and instead selected the still-big films that needed an extra lift.

The headline finding there was that films regarded as box office hits that were judged to have overperformed tended to have 150% more Tweets sent about them by the talent involved than those that didn’t. As Variety reported, “movies that had talent who were active on Twitter saw a 326% boost in average daily volume of conversation on the service”.

Granted, the fact that Twitter was involved in a survey that concluded how important Twitter was deserves to be approached with some caution, but still, it does tally with a general feeling within the industry of the importance of social media. The implied conclusion of the study is that movie stars who are active and supportive on Twitter can dramatically increase the exposure of a film. Trainwreck and Straight Outta Compton were pronounced examples in the survey. It’s hard to argue with those.

Individuals > Studios?


It’s not tricky to see either why the studios are keep to harness the social networking power of movie stars.

In an era where star power is seen as less pivotal as it once was, it does seem to be growing in slightly different ways. Paramount Pictures is set to distribute xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, and the studio has a powerful and established social media presence. At the time of penning this article, Paramount’s Facebook page has nearly 8.8 million likes. In terms of getting a message out, that’s a powerful tool.

However, Vin Diesel has nearly 100 million.

When it comes to social media reach, there’s not a movie studio on the planet that can touch that. If Diesel posts an update of note – or even of trivia – on Fast & Furious 8, Riddick 4 or xXx 3, there’s no way on this earth it’s not going to get noticed.

As for Johnson, Instagram is his main weapon of choice, and with over 44 million followers on the service, and counting, it’s not surprising.

There’s arguably something quite refreshing about the fact that a famous individual has more clout than a big company when it comes to social media. And that is very much the way it works.

Where, though, is the balance of power here? In the case of Suicide Squad, Warner Bros clearly had everyone in line, pushing out the same message, at coordinated times. As our industry insider told us, social media support now tends to be negotiated as part of a movie star’s contract, up front from day one. That in amongst the, say, ten days of publicity support they’ll give a project, they’ll commit to using their personal social media outlets to push the film in question as well.

Does the studio control the message, then? It inevitably depends. Those who have sat through the videos that Vin Diesel posts to Facebook, for instance, are unlikely to find that the messages coming across are anyone but Diesel’s. Given that he tends to be a producer on most of the films he’s involved with now, it’s no surprise that he’s hands on (how that differs, say, from someone like Bruce Willis on a Die Hard sequel set having his say is up for debate).

But also, when Shailene Woodley is giving you a heads up about another Divergent trailer, or the stars of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice are adding images at useful times, there’s a phone call that’s gone on somewhere down the line.

There’s nothing radical or untoward about the thinking here. Instead, it suggests that the power of the movie star has been changing and growing again, just in slightly different ways. Studios used to stump up $20m for Jim Carrey to give them the best possible shot at a huge opening weekend. Now? They don’t pay as much up front and they want the promotional work to start a lot earlier.

Every sign suggests it’s working thus far. If it stops? Be sure that someone will Tweet about it. Vin, probably…

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