10.11.09

Hollywood's Twitter Economy

A new PR industry has sprouted up: harnessing, and twisting, social media for celebrities' gain. Nicole LaPorte on Pee-wee's first tweet, Diablo Cody's online ethics, and Oprah's slacker ways.

I’m back! Follow Pee-wee! Someone who RT’s this gets a phone call from me tonight!

When Pee-wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, re-entered the spotlight recently to announce a comeback—the 1980s kid’s TV icon has a theater show and a movie coming up—he made the de rigueur pit stop at The Jay Leno Show. Then, when he was finished taping, he bolted over, in full Pee-wee garb (gray plaid suit, red bow-tie), to the 140tc Twitter Conference to do something he’d never done before: tweet.

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Within 24 hours, Pee-wee—whose reputation was tarnished when he was arrested in 1991 for indecent exposure—had more than 40,000 followers on Twitter and had become a Trending Topic—i.e. one of the most talked-about subjects on the social-media site du jour.

Whereas once, aspiring actors were trained in poise, dance, and singing, now stars looking to make a mark are taught the valuable art of communicating in 140 characters or less. ID PR—which masterminded the Pee-wee media campaign—offers a presentation known euphemistically as Twitter boot camp to its roster of A-list clients, including Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman.

Led by Natalie Lent, ID PR’s self-described “digital strategy gal,” the tutorial covers everything from the vagaries of Wikipedia to the most effective way to re-tweet.

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As Web sites like Facebook, YouTube, and now Twitter have gained a foothold in Hollywood, a veritable cottage industry has sprung up around them, introducing new business models. A growing number of public-relations agencies now have individuals devoted to digital campaigns built around social-media Web sites, and entertainment law firms have attorneys devoted to trolling the Web for fake sites and stolen identities.

Not everyone is enamored of the practice of marrying social media with publicity. “Honestly, I think it’s a little disingenuous,” Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody told The Daily Beast. “As a Twitter fan, I think it violates the spirit of Twitter. Occasionally, I will actually get a request from people, saying, ‘When is your next project coming out?’ Then I’m happy to tweet something that’s a little whore-ish. But I think if you’re using Twitter strictly for self-promotion, it’s kind of lame.”

Another profession that has sprouted up in the Twitter Age is that of social-media director, i.e., someone who personally manages celebrities’ social-networking sites (Britney Spears and Kanye West both have them). And companies like Knowem.com are being hired by Hollywood talent agencies to conduct research on social-media Web sites for their clients and even register their names. (Mike Streko, co-founder of Knowem.com would not disclose how many agencies he is working for, but said, “We’re definitely helping the Hollywood community.”)

“The landscape is changing so much,” said Simon Halls, chief executive of the PR firm PMK/HBH. “Nowadays, you’re not providing a full-set PR if you’re not including the digital capability… It’s just another part of our job. Back in the day, you’d send out a press release and hope for some coverage. PR is completely different today.”

For the most part, sites like Facebook and Twitter have been a boon for publicists, offering incredible platforms for promotion that link directly to celebrities’ fan bases. But the uncontrollable nature of the Internet has also presented a darker, flip side. A spate of impostors—which, on Twitter, take the form of “Twitter Squatters” or “Twitterjackers”—have been a nightmare for stars’ representatives.

“Occasionally, I will actually get a request from people, saying, ‘When is your next project coming out?’ Then I’m happy to Tweet something that’s a little whore-ish,” said Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. “But I think if you’re using Twitter strictly for self-promotion, it’s kind of lame.”

Superbad actor Jonah Hill recently recounted to David Letterman how a “kid in Alaska” posing as Hill on Twitter, started an online feud with Iron Man director Jon Favreau. When Hill found this out, he was horrified, and said he emailed Favreau to explain.

Kanye West was less cordial about being Twitterjacked. “I don’t have a fucking Twitter…why would I use Twitter???,” he ranted on his blog.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said publicist Stan Rosenfield, whose clients include George Clooney and Robert DeNiro. “You hire an attorney to close [fake accounts] down—and attorneys aren’t cheap—they close it down, and 20 minutes later, another one is up and running.”

Rosenfield’s prestigious roster of clients aren’t really the status-updating types—“I would rather have a prostate exam on live television by a guy with very cold hands than have a Facebook page,” Clooney said at the Toronto Film Festival—but he nonetheless has to constantly prowl sites like Twitter and Facebook for faux stars.

He’s not the only one. Attorney Kevin Morris, of the heavy-hitting Hollywood firm Morris Yorn Barnes & Levine, said, “We take down stuff every day, several times a day, for all kinds of clients.”

Rather than rage, some stars have simply joined the party. Former non-tweeters Ben Stiller and Tina Fey were inspired to start their own Twitter accounts after discovering they had fakes.

Indeed, in a way, having an impostor is a kind of badge. “I did have a Facebook impostor for a time, and I was especially proud,” said Cody. “But not on Twitter. I guess nobody wants to be me. I’m not surprised a pariah like me does not have an impostor. Though I don’t think they could do anything to ruin my reputation.”

Hackers are another plague. Britney Spears’ Twitter account has been hacked twice. In one instance, the singer’s 3.4 million followers—accustomed to her chipper, digi-slang emissions: “Shopping b4 my show? Don’t DV8 from the clues IF U SEEK ME – esp. to Level 3. Front Row is on the floor!”—were instead greeted with a Tweet describing the alleged dimensions of her private anatomy. Hacker No. 2 declared Spears dead.

To deal with such debacles, virtually every publicist in Hollywood has a go-to person at Twitter—the equivalent these days of having an “in” with famed MGM publicity chiefs-cum-fixers Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“We’ve had a relationship with Twitter for quite some time,” said one. “We have contacts at most of the sites, so that they can help us out and give us quick tech support.”

(Perhaps journalists are shown less love? Twitter did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.)

Of course, having a connection to Hollywood helps Twitter, too: Tweeting celebs drive up the site’s traffic and publicity—and valuation. In April, Oprah Winfrey’s first, well-publicized tweet (“HI TWITTERS. THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21st CENTURY.”) created a Twitterstorm: The day the talk-show host joined the site, 37 percent of all visits to Twitter were from new users. (Despite all the fuss, Oprah’s proven to be a bit of a Twitter slacker: In June, she only posted four tweets. In July, there were five. In August: Three!)

In an effort to burnish Twitter’s symbiotic relationship with stars, over the summer, the site introduced a Verified Account feature, which lets users know—via a small blue circle with a check mark—whether the account of a famous person is the real deal. (The V.I.P. status isn’t limited to just celebs; about 40 New York Times staffers have verified accounts because they’re considered part of a major brand.)

The impostor situation is a sticky one for Twitter, which faced a lawsuit from St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa over the issue earlier this year. The suit was settled out of court.

One of the most intriguing questions going forward: Should tweeting stars be compensated for doing what are essentially marketing duties? (Not that the publicity always works, as tweetaholic Ashton Kutcher discovered with his last two movies.)

Says Nate Schreiber, president of PMK/HBH and head of the firm’s digital team: “There are opportunities to monetize the social networks of talent, there’s no question about it. But those models are still being defined. Everyone is kind of experimenting with different structures, but I think there are cases right now where people are being paid almost from a distribution standpoint, as far as, they’re delivering an audience.”

As far as the audience is concerned, however, the goods are being delivered, in the form of 140-character peeks behind the curtain of fame. The day that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Ben Stiller tweeted: “Was awoken this morning to my daughter telling me that I had no shot at ever winning the Nobel Peace Prize.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.