Are celebrity social media posts becoming more important than film critics?

A positive review from a big celeb like Drake is worth a lot to Canadian movie marketers, but not if they have to pay for it


During the Toronto International Film Festival, Drake posted a pic from The Florida Project on Instagram and touted director Sean Baker’s film as “the best movie you’ll see this year.”

Some fans immediately assumed Drizzy’s account was hacked. Others thought maybe he’d been bought. Many responded like commenter @_zakiriya_ : “Bitch wtf is this?”

How often do major celebrity influencers go to bat for an indie gem very few heard of, from a filmmaker whose previous film was shot on iPhones? 300K likes and thousands of comments later, the team at Elevation Pictures, the film’s Canadian distributor, are calling that post “a homerun.”

It’s the kind of publicity money can’t buy, but the marketing machine is always ready and waiting to nurture.

Drake actually saw the movie before TIFF at a screening arranged by U.S. distributor A24 when the Canadian rapper’s team expressed interest in the film. Executives may have been hoping for a social media high five, but couldn’t count on it.

During TIFF, distributors like Elevation Pictures or eOne are always ready to provide premiere tickets not just for a star, but the whole entourage as a hospitality.

Elevation’s SVP of marketing and acquisitions Adrian Love says these arrangements aren’t made with any expectations. This year, Elevation gave tickets to James Franco and Rachel McAdams, who were both keen to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. To date, neither actor has posted about the movie, though there is still time before its release.

Landing a celebrity endorsement on social media is just one effort movie marketing teams are making in a shifting environment. A Forbes article published two years ago, How Hollywood Monitors Social Media To Help Movies Make Money, points to agencies such as Fizziology that study social posts to measure audience interest in movies and stars, and report back to studios in an effort to shape product accordingly.

While social media help gauge interest, studios are also looking for different ways to find and activate audiences.

“As you know, a lot of the more traditional media outlets are falling by the way side,” says Natalie Petozzi, director of publicity and promotions at eOne Films, noting the decline in readers and audiences for print and cable. “How do you get into other channels that people are active on?”

Buying ads on platforms like Facebook and Instagram are an option, as are paid celebrity posts, which Canadian distributors aren’t splurging on yet.

Why? Most celebrity influencers charge big money. Even a quote from a Canadian like YouTube star Lily Singh is comparable to a TV spot. And the thing about influencers such as Drake or Singh is their followers are worldwide – only a small percentage are Canadian. Local distributors can’t justify that cost and leave paying for celebrity posts up to their American counterparts.

Major U.S. studios also make sly efforts to curate online conversation around a movie. You might have heard the word embargo – an agreement studios increasingly ask critics to abide by in order to prevent reviews from publishing before a preferred date.

More and more, we’re seeing different embargo dates for social media posts and critics’s reviews. The social embargo lifts earlier, often after an enthusiastic room full of tastemakers have screened the film. The goal is to create positive Twitter buzz and word of mouth that sparks a news cycle dubbed “early reactions.”

Before Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice got clobbered by critics, it was praised on social media as “amazing,” “awesome” and “the best superhero movie ever” – reactions news sites immediately picked up.

“It’s almost a reaction to Rotten Tomatoes,” explains Love, pointing to big studio attempts to steer online conversation. “[Distributors] might turn to social media to amplify the voices of the crowd instead of the critics. There are sometimes TV spots that quote social media handles.”

Toronto writer Jesse Hawken expertly trolled the “early reaction” cycle for the heavily embargoed Blade Runner 2049, tweeting predictable praise for the film he hadn’t yet seen, singling out cinematographer Roger Deakins’s visuals with an accompanying image from a Steven Seagal movie.

His tweet, with the image of Seagal grimacing from a skyscraper, was rounded up in the news coverage of early Blade Runner 2049 praise.

Celebrity posts also spur their own news cycles, much like this article is doing with Drake’s Florida Project endorsement. But in this instance, Drake and Rotten Tomatoes are in agreement.

Despite the rapper’s praise, Elevation has stuck to running glowing quotes from critics in ads for The Florida Project. “Hopefully people who never heard of it see the post, look up the movie and see that it’s the real deal,” says Love.

A mix of social media and critical acclaim is what helped keep Oscar winner Moonlight in theatres for months. Genuine word-of-mouth from influential voices is key, which is why they often try to match influencers to specific films.

For Moonlight, Elevation sought out cultural critics. For Deepwater Horizon, they courted the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Raptors. For Ai Wei Wei’s upcoming refugee documentary, Human Flow, they invited Toronto mayor John Tory’s office.

For Bad Moms, eOne orchestrated a special screening event for mommy bloggers and influencers. For the military-dog drama Meghan Leavey, Elevation hosted a premiere with Canada Pooch inviting dog influencers to grace the red carpet, some rolling up in kiddie cars, before enjoying their own screening of the film.

Did I lose you with the mention of dog influencers?

Defining an influencer is tricky business. Celebrities sure, but there’s are also the self-stylized social media influencer who rack up followers with regular and trendy posts or pics and infinite hashtags. It’s an industry. Their followers are the market. Some have blogs, or fashion lines, or other wares for sale.

Alias Grace star Sarah Gadon traces the celebrity influencer trend back to Gwyneth Paltrow and the lifestyle brand she launched in 2008, Goop.

“It was a newsletter. It became a blog, which became a book, which became a store, which became a line, which became a commodities empire,” she says. “People really responded to the way that she used products in terms of her brand.”

Gadon discovered her influencer status accidentally.

“I was cleaning my apartment and I tweeted something about how much I liked my Dyson vacuum and Dyson sent me another vacuum to thank me for tweeting about it.”

While working as an actor is her bread and butter, Gadon embraces her own influencer status as the “icing-on-top.” Like most celebrities, she welcomes brands that want to outfit her while she’s promoting her work, which tends to be its own job without compensation. As for the lifestyle stuff, they have to be right.

“I’ve always used my social media in a personal way,” says Gadon. “If a brand will reach out to me and they fit in with what I like and what I use in my lifestyle then I support them.”

Finding that genuine connection between a brand and an influencer is tricky. There’s a difference between compensated influencers that make content look natural versus others who are more obviously shilling. And then there is the issue of fake followers and bots.

“You have an Instagram influencer with a huge number of followers and they want to be compensated for that number,” says Claire Peace-McConnell, VP publicity at VVS Films.

“Ultimately, it could just be two per cent of their followers that are relevant to us, once we peel away markets where we don’t have rights to the film and followers who are inactive or fake.

“I’d rather have someone that maybe doesn’t have the highest number of followers but they have a very real, engaged and trusting group of followers,” she continues. “I truly believe that everybody on the internet is an influencer in some way.”

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