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Berlin Insider: The Pitfalls and Benefits of Film Festival Memes



When Warner Bros. premiered Don’t Worry Darling at the Venice Film Festival last year, the studio must have been hoping reports of production problems and on-set disputes for Olivia Wilde’s new film would be replaced with glossy glamor shots of the film’s A-list stars, Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, strutting the Lido’s red carpet.

Instead, they got #Spitgate.

A short video shot from the gallery during Don’t Worry‘s premiere, which, if you squint, purports to show Styles spitting on co-star Chris Pine just before he sits down next to him, became all anyone wanted to talk about. The video, viewed millions of times online, was given the Zapruder treatment. Instead of discussing Wilde’s stylish feminist thriller, Pugh’s performance or the shocking last-reel twist, the discussion focused on whether Harry did or didn’t gob on Chris, something Pine strongly denied.

“The buzz wasn’t about the film, it was all about the spitting,” says Tom Grievson, head of marketing and distribution at HanWay Films, and a film festival regular. “It was a disaster. No distributor, no sales agent would want that kind of attention.”

It’s what the studios, producers and publicists preparing for the Berlin Film Festival are dreading: becoming the next #Spitgate — that, after months of careful planning, your entire marketing strategy can be disrupted by a 20-second video shot by some lookie-loo at the premiere.

“It’s very easy now for anyone to take a moment, someone’s expression as they’re getting out of a car or reacting to something, clip it in a wrong or malicious way, and suddenly you’re screwed,” says Charles McDonald, a Veteran British publicist. “I tell talent: Every interview, every press conference, every time you get out of a car or walk down the street, that’s a potential meme moment.”

It’s not always bad. McDonald points to the (positive) online explosion that followed the red carpet moment for the Venice competition title Bones and Allwhen star Timothée Chalamet set Twitter alight with his premiere outfit: a bright red halter-neck pantsuit with kitten-heel boots.

“That was all Timothée,” says McDonald, who did international publicity for the film. “It was a huge bonus for us, of course.”

Timothée Chalamet garnered accolades for his red carpet look at the Venice premiere of Bones and All

Timothée Chalamet garnered accolades for his red carpet look at the Venice premiere of Bones and All

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Another Venice viral video moment — Brendan Fraser tearing up after the world premiere of The Whale — provided distributor A24 with loads of free publicity. The image of the emotional star also dovetailed nicely with A24’s positioning of the Darren Aronofsky-directed melodrama as a comeback movie for Fraser.

But those positive examples are rare. More common are the WTF memes that disrupt or derail. Think Shia LaBeouf wearing a paper bag over his head, scrawled with the words “I Am Not Famous Anymore” at the 2014 Berlinale premiere for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniacor von Trier’s “I sympathize with Adolf Hitler” quip at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia three years earlier. Actually, think of any festival moment involving LaBeouf or von Trier.

Shia LaBeouf at the 2014 Berlin premiere of Nymphomaniac

Shia LaBeouf at the 2014 Berlin premiere of Nymphomaniac

Target Press Agentur Gmbh/WireImage

“We media train our talent, but we don’t encourage them to do something that’s going to be ‘cool’ for social media,” notes Grievson, “because it can so easily backfire. Even if something does generate buzz around the film, there’s the danger of the movie getting overexposed too early. By the time distributors release it, people are sick of hearing about it.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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