At the premiere of Warner Bros. don’t worry darling At Venice Film Festival last year, the studio was to hope that reports of production issues and on-set arguments over Olivia Wilde’s new film would be replaced by glistening glamor shots of the film’s stars, Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, strutting on the Lido red carpet.
Instead, they got #Spitgate.
A short video shot from the gallery during Don’t worryThe premiere of, which if you squint, purports to show Styles spitting on co-star Chris Pine just before he sat down next to him, became everything everyone wanted to talk about. The video, viewed millions of times online, has received the Zapruder treatment. Instead of discussing Wilde’s stylish feminist thriller, Pugh’s performance, or the shocking twist on the last reel, the discussion focused on whether or not Harry gobbled up Chris, which Pine firmly said. denied.
“The buzz wasn’t about the film, it was about the spitting,” says Tom Grievson, marketing and distribution manager at HanWay Films, and a regular at film festivals. “It was a disaster. No distributor, no sales agent would want that kind of attention.
This is what studios, producers and publicists are preparing for the Berlin Film Festival dread: becoming the next #Spitgate – that after months of careful planning, your entire marketing strategy may be disrupted by a 20-second video shot by a lookie-loo at the premiere.
“It’s now very easy for anyone to take a moment, someone’s expression as they get out of a car or react to something, cut it off in a misguided or malicious way, and suddenly you’re screwed,” says Charles McDonald, a veteran British publicist. “I say to talent: every interview, every press conference, every time you get out of a car or walk down the street, it’s a potential meme moment.”
It’s not always bad. McDonald’s highlights the (positive) online outburst that followed the red carpet moment for the Venice competition title bones and allwhen star Timothée Chalamet set Twitter on fire with his first outfit: a bright red pantsuit with low-heeled boots.
“It was all Timothy,” says McDonald, who made international advertisement for the film. “It was a huge bonus for us, of course.”
Another viral video moment from Venice – Brendan Fraser tears up after the world premiere of The whale — provided the A24 distributor with many free advertisements. The image of the emotional star also dovetailed nicely with A24’s positioning of the Darren Aronofsky-directed melodrama as a comeback film for Fraser.
But such positive examples are rare. More common are WTF memes that disrupt or derail. Think of Shia LaBeouf wearing a paper bag over her head, scrawled with the words “I’m not famous anymore” at the 2014 Berlinale premiere for Lars von Trier Nymphomaniacor the quip “I sympathize with Adolf Hitler” by von Trier during the Cannes press conference for Melancholy three years earlier. In fact, think of any festival moment involving LaBeouf or von Trier.
“We train our media talent, but we don’t encourage them to do something that’s going to be ‘cool’ for social media,” notes Grievson, “because it can very easily backfire. Even if something generates buzz around the film, there is the danger that the film will be overexposed too soon. By the time distributors release it, people are tired of hearing about it.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.