The press agent was in a dour mood. “Once upon a time this was the hot season,” she told me. “The town came to life.”
I understood her nostalgia. A-list parties this year are sparse, and the concept of an A-list itself seems lost in the debris of the metaverse.
As the awards season limps toward conclusion, industry veterans remember the moment when a power Rolodex could create celebrity heat for a contender. But the definition of celebrity also seems cloudy today.
A publicist like Peggy Siegel could deliver a Denzel or a Damon for a screening, thus offering the media some star bait. Now, however, plucking a Charli D’Amelio from the TikTok landscape (she has 133 million followers) or recruiting a Jung Hoyeon from the Squid Game battlefield arguably carries greater clout for a project.
In the same vein, while the Academy ponders a new Oscar host, its producers might salivate over a 25-year-old Tom Holland even as they eagerly recruited a 75-year-old Bob Hope 50 years ago. And Holland’s friend, Zendaya, may be a better “get” than Whoopi.
I don’t possess the algorithmic ammunition to compare the culture clout of today’s influencers with that of, say, Tom Hanks, but Forbes reports that D’Amelio danced to a payday of $17.5 million on TikTok last year and Dunkin’ Donuts even named a drink after her. Scarlett Johansson may have won her PR shootout with Disney, but Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t seem to notice.
The awards season likely will reflect these phenomena. Squid Game became the first non-English-language series to nail an ensemble cast award from the Screen Actors Guild, its players attracting a glitzier gaze than those in West Side Story.
Watching Spider Man: No Way Home hurtle past the billion-dollar mark this week, insiders again debated whether its name star was Marvel, a brand, or Holland, an actor (Spidey spandex once adorned Tobey Maguire, now 46). Adam McKay was thrilled to sign Leonardo DiCaprio for Don’t Look Up, but social media gurus pointed out that he boasts only 50 million Instagram followers compared to 284 million for Ariana Grande, whose presence in the film seemed evanescent.
“Hollywood will always lean on stars when the industry gets nervous about its wandering audience,” Jeanine Basinger, a Hollywood historian, reminds us. While this is undeniably true, the studios now puzzle more than ever about what to pay them and how to play them.
Graydon Carter, in his final days at Vanity Fair, pointed out that movie-star covers no longer sell magazines. Still, at awards time, editors continue to assign feature articles about stars, leading journalists to struggle for new angles. Their problem: Most stars have become paranoid about social media, and hence more secretive about their opinions and personal lives. They want to help their cause, without making their case.
A New York Times article last week reported on the strategies of their celebrity interviewers in trying to break through the barriers. Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who writes interviews for the Times magazine, said she warns celebrities when questions are “getting into rougher territory,” advising them “to do some breathing exercises.” She adds, “I’m being funny, but it helps.”
Joe Coscarelli, who regularly interviews rappers, says “it’s important to break through their ‘carnival barker façade.’” His device: frame a question that encourages them to consider how others are affected by their actions.
In my own stint as a New York Times reporter some years ago, I would agree to a celebrity interview provided I could learn their primary “mission” first. This hopefully would avoid the banal “How do I prepare for my role” rhetoric.
The missions often were somewhat surprising: Sean Connery wanted me to explain that he felt exploited in his Bond movies and hence was demanding a major revenue share from the merchandising. Cary Grant urgently wanted my Times readers to understand why he valued his LSD experiments — he was a loyal user of the mood-altering drug and felt it helped him retain his equilibrium. Natalie Wood wanted me to convey the fact that, though once a child star, she had now become serious about her education and her art collection.
I felt these were messages that warranted explanation. But I doubt they would travel well on TikTok, especially during a lukewarm “hot season.”
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