Feature: [Telegraph, The Wrap, Fortune, NYT]
The path to fame or obscurity can feel arbitrary–a lifelong battle to be at the right place at the right time. The right place for actors used to be endless casting calls and talent agency message boards. Now those seeking stardom look to the internet.
With increasing frequency, casting directors are foregoing traditional methods of finding talent, looking instead to the actor’s social media footprint as a benchmark. Film executives, in particular, are banking on hopes that large follower totals will translate to large turnouts come release day.
“There is no question that today if you have good numbers on social media, you have become a better choice to be cast,” says veteran Hollywood casting director Mike Fenton. “If it came down to two professional actors, one of whom had great visibility in social media and one who was barely recognizable, we’d go with the one who could get the numbers.”
This rush to cast social media stars, seen by many as a concession to court the fickle 13-25 year-old demographic, rubs some veteran actors the wrong way.
Academy Award and Tony winner Jeremy Irons said, "You know what they're doing now? If there are two young men who are up for a role and one has 1,000 Twitter followers and one has 100,000, the one with 100,000 will get the role. I just think it's madness. Absolute madness." When asked what would happen if his acting gigs were based on social
media (Irons does not have a personal Twitter account), he said that he’d “probably not get employed.”
Since the idea of using social media as a casting yardstick is still new, it is too early to tell whether casting based on one’s following is paying off in terms of quality content.
Emma Thompson doesn’t think so. Like Irons, the two-time Academy Award winner calls the trend a “disaster” and voices the growing mindset among the acting community that this push is merely a cash grab, using followers as a conduit for advertising and box office dollars.
Michael Caine feels similarly, claiming that the drive to pursue acting is no longer about honing one’s craft, but rather about being “rich and famous” and that those culled from social media “can’t really act.”
While the stabled acting crowd may oppose social media’s weight in casting, many young aspiring actors are using it as a channel to be discovered, and are hoping for the very outcome that Caine and Thompson fear.
Social media is unexplored territory and, for many casting directors, represents a vast pool of undiscovered talent. Young actors, who have grown up in the age of social media, can
harness it to their advantage. Some have been hired based on a single Tweet or Instagram post.
Kelly Oxford, a blogger and early Twitter adopter with more than 500,000 followers, was recently cast in the cult-favorite series Sharknado based solely on a tweet after the film’s initial release. And she’s not alone. Other Twitter notables such as Perez Hilton, Kelly Osbourne and Kurt Angle, all of whom have over 500,000 followers, were also cast, setting an unusual precedent for casting based solely on social media prowess.
Can they act? Who knows, and possibly, who cares? Oxford had no previous credits on IMDB prior to Sharknado, and her Twitter compatriots have resumes similarly lacking in substantial film roles. The studios court the metrics associated with the stars, and the objective popularity they can bring to a project.
The studios want their actors to talk about the film to their Twitter and Instagram followers. The more followers, the more buzz, and buzz means money.
Exploiting a celebrity’s following is nothing new. Studios have long used a star’s notoriety to their advantage, and many movies feature supermodels or musicians in lead roles instead of trained actors. What is new is the vast nature of the internet talent pool.
Although the internet makes it easier, in some ways, to cast new actors and actresses, it also shuts out anyone who lacks social media savvy. Those unable or unwilling to adapt may be
left behind. The studios seek key influencers, who can promote their project to a multitude of eager Twitter followers.
In 2012, 140 Proof, a social media advertising company, compiled data that showed no correlation between a movie’s social media presence and box office sales, findings which confounded studio execs. What did affect the box office was the amount of publicity from influential celebrities associated with the film.
It was a simple confusion of what attracts audiences. As Suranga Chandratillake, chief strategy officer at the video search engine blinkx said, “You can look at all tweets to know if your marketing is working, and you can look at influencer tweets to know if your product is working”.
Suranga Chandratillake. Credit: Source.
It’s a gamble for an industry which values marketing so highly, but studios are willing to risk Hollywood dollars if the outcome means more moviegoers come release day.