By Andrew Wallenstein and Matthew Belloni
Hollywood is coming down with the Twitter jitters.
There’s a growing number of studio deals with new language aimed specifically at curbing usage of social-media outlets by actors, execs and other creatives. The goal: plugging leaks of disparaging or confidential information about productions via the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
A recent talent contract from Disney includes a new clause forbidding confidentiality breaches via “interactive media such as Facebook, Twitter, or any other interactive social network or personal blog.”
Over at DreamWorks, a writer’s deal cautions not to jump the gun on studio press releases via “a social networking site, blog or other Internet-type site.” An agent spotted a talent deal with a stricture that forbids bashing any element of a production with social media.
The crackdown comes as creatives on both sides of the camera have taken to the Web to share candid thoughts, at times circumventing traditional studio PR voiceboxes. Paula Abdul surprised Fox executives
by tweeting news of her parting ways with “American Idol.” Ryan Seacrest broke the news of Ben Silverman’s transition out of NBC on his Twitter feed.
The Twitter jitters are hardly confined to Hollywood. From professional sports leagues like the NFL to news media outlets like the Washington Post, industries are openly struggling with how to make sure social media doesn’t expose the inner workings of their operations.
While Hollywood recognizes the marketing value of social media, the backlash from business affairs execs is a testament to the leaks and potentially damaging misinformation these emerging technologies make possible — as well as the control studios like to maintain over their messaging to consumers.
Two weeks ago, Fox had a mini crisis on its hands when Hart Hanson, executive producer for the Fox series “Bones,” tweeted, “First time in ‘Bones’ history we are shut down from production. Damn swine flu!”
It was a joke that some news outlets misconstrued when a separate news item surfaced
reporting “Bones” star David Boreanaz also had the flu. An hour later, Hanson returned to Twitter to clarify that neither Boreanaz nor anyone on set had anything but the standard flu.
No wonder deal language has gone technophobe.
“This is just the beginning,” says a top talent lawyer. “Hollywood has a long history of controlling what talent says in the media. This is just a new area of media that hasn’t been controlled yet.”
Keeping stars from blabbing what they shouldn’t remains just as much a problem today as it was in the ‘30s. But until relatively recently, getting an ill-advised word out to the wider public required a TV camera or a gossip columnist; social media eliminates the middleman and enables an actor to broadcast to millions in an instant.
Most film and TV studios say their talent deals do not put any shackles on social media usage that doesn’t reveal confidential information. To the contrary, most studios, particularly in television, openly encourage the practice as a means of getting the buzz on current productions going.
ABC, for instance, has started displaying tweets by its talent on the net’s Web site. But it also circulatated “guidelines” for the practice. “Twittering is of course not mandatory, but if you have a Twitter account we would like you to tweet regularly,” the guidelines read, before listing seven specific no-nos, including revealing spoilers or making disparaging remarks about the show.
The Twitter backlash is reminiscent of the schizophrenic response YouTube generated from media companies a few years ago, where legal departments were wagging their finger at the site for distributing the very same videos the marketing departments were submitting.
Some legal eagles believe the new Twitter-targeted contract language isn’t necessary as existing standard confidentiality clauses are written so broadly that they were assumed to cover social media. But specifying Twitter and its ilk could come in handy when violations occur because studios can fire off breach of contract notices that zero in on the offending mode of communication.
And the new rules don’t just apply to talent. An executive deal at Viacom requires strict confidentiality for a year after the deal ends and includes all platforms, including “emails, blogs, Internet sites, chat or news rooms, podcasts or any online forum.”
Even studios that profess a laissez-faire approach to social media say they see drawbacks to unfettered usage. One studio exec said that while there is currently no new deal language in place, its business affairs department was studying the possibility.
With little clarity as to what kind of messages could be deemed negative or confidential, the town’s talent lawyers see the contractual clampdown as merely a means of chilling Twitter-happy creatives. The moves are not meant to ban social media outright, but legal consequences could at least make Twitterers more mindful about what they tweet.
“The real issue is, what are they gonna do?” asks one talent attorney. “They’re not going to fire you unless they already wanted to fire you. Practically, I’m not sure the language will make much of a difference.”