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The backlash was immediate.
Shortly after the San Sebastian film festival this week announced it would give the Donostia Award, its lifetime achievement honor, to disgraced actor Johnny Depp, the outrage machine kicked into gear.
Spain’s Association of Female Filmmakers and Audiovisual Media joined the online chorus condemning the decision, saying it was “very surprised” that Spain’s most prestigious cinema event would choose to honor a man accused (by ex-wife Amber Heard) of emotional and physical abuse.
Depp was forced to exit Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts franchise last year after he lost a libel case against British tabloid The Sun, which referred to the actor as a “wife-beater” in an article about Depp and Heard. (Mads Mikkelsen replaced Depp in the Fantastic Beasts sequel). The British court ruled in the paper’s favor, with the judge saying there was substantial evidence — including Heard’s restraining order against Depp — to suggest he had been abusive towards her and that she “feared for her life.” In the wake of the decision, MGM reportedly shelved the release of Depp’s new film Minamata. The movie, in which the actor plays the real-life American photographer who helped expose the devastating impact of mercury poisoning on coastal communities in Japan in the 1970s, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year but has yet to hit U.S. cinemas.
The president of the Spanish female filmmakers association, Cristina Andreu, told the Associated Press that San Sebastian honoring Depp in the midst of the Heard controversy “speaks very badly of the festival and its leadership and transmits a terrible message to the public: ‘It doesn’t matter if you are an abuser as long as you are a good actor.'”
But San Sebastian isn’t backing down.
“The role of a film festival is not to judge the conduct of members of the film industry. The role of a film festival is to select the most relevant and interesting films of the year and to extend recognition to those who have made an extraordinary contribution to the art of film,” San Sebastian’s festival director José Luis Rebordinos told The Hollywood Reporter shortly after confirming Depp as this year’s Donostia honoree.
In response to Andreu’s public accusations, Rebordinos doubled down. In a rebuke, issued on Friday, he wrote:
“The San Sebastian Festival has been accused of failing to display ethical behavior in regard to violence against women. In the first place, as the director of and person holding the highest responsibility for the Festival, I would like to repeat our commitment to fighting inequality, the abuse of power, and violence against women. As well as meeting the commitments acquired in the Charter for Parity and the Inclusion of Women in Cinema, the festival has consciously promoted the presence of female professionals at the head of its departments. By means of its September program and throughout the year it participates in the questioning of society from a critical and feminist point of view. We have also endeavored to create safe atmospheres for women in the festival places of work and sites and, in the event of inappropriate behavior, which has occurred, we have taken tough and rapid action.”
However, Rebordinos wrote, the festival’s ethical commitments “cannot only refer to the problems of women in a patriarchal society, despite the terrible nature of the situation in which we live, where hundreds of women are killed every year as the result of crimes by men.”
In the current climate, where, he notes, “lynching on social media is rife” the San Sebastian Film Festival will “always defend two basic principles which form part of our culture and of our body of laws: that of the presumption of innocence and that of the right to reintegration.”
Rebordinos points out that “according to the proven data which we have to hand” Depp has not been “arrested, charged nor convicted of any form of assault or violence against any woman. We repeat: he has not been charged by any authority in any jurisdiction, nor convicted of any form of violence against women. The rejection of all violent behavior and the presumption of innocence are and will always be our ethical principles.”
A day after San Sebastian announced it was honoring Depp, another major European festival, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, this week said it would also celebrate the Pirates of the Caribbean star, and “recognize and pay tribute to the acclaimed actor’s extensive career and lasting legacy on the film industry globally.”
Karlovy Vary’s executive director Krystof Mucha and the festival’s artistic director Karel Och said in a statement that they were “incredibly honored to welcome to the festival an icon of the contemporary cinema,” adding: “We’ve admired Mr. Depp for such a long time and are thrilled to bestow this honor on him.”
Karlovy Vary declined requests from THR to comment further on their decision.
Whatever the film festivals’ motives for honoring Depp — likely a combination of genuine admiration for his work and a calculation of the appeal his star status will bring to their regional events — the awards can also be seen as an attempt by Depp and his marketing team to refurbish the actor’s tarnished public image. After months of bad press and online trolling, could some fawning press coverage and a few red carpet photos of Depp in swanky European locales help the one-time box office champ negotiate his return to the fold?
“The PR strategy of using high-level awards like this is to allow the talent’s brand to bask in a perception that he continues to remain relevant, that he was a top practitioner of his art and one worthy of esteem,” says Eric Schiffer, chairman of Los Angeles-based Reputation Management Consultants, a company that specializes in restoring or refurbishing the public reputation of prominent Hollywood and sports figures. “The idea is to begin to create a different set of images in the minds of some who may have been affected by events with his former wife. It’s an effective strategy, it’s what I’d be advising him to do if he were my client.”
Depp, Schiffer notes, still commands an “extremely large, extremely loyal” global fan base, as evidenced by the fervent social media campaign by Johnny Depp supporters to get Amber Heard kicked off superhero sequel Aquaman 2. By appearing at international festivals and receiving prestigious awards, Depp may be looking to influence those outside that die-hard, core group of fans.
“Johnny Depp’s brand is in many ways the modern definition of a supernova because you have such deeply devoted fans that are not going to be influenced by occasional negative stories. Then you have another group of fans who appreciate his artistry but might be concerned about the recent things they have heard about him,” says Schiffer. “And so you want to try to create as many different sets of positive images as you can to shift the focus from the crisis, from the negative, in a more positive direction.”
The real audience for this Johnny Depp revival tour might not be the fans in San Sebastian or Karlovy Vary but studio executives back in Hollywood. Showing Depp on the festival red carpet, cheered on by an adoring public, or on stage receiving a trophy for his life’s work, could help provide cover for those within the industry eager to bring him back.
“The economics of his brand, the core foundation, his devoted army of loyal fans, is unlike almost any other brand out there today,” argues Schiffer. “That’s a power studio executives, behind the scenes, can’t and won’t disagree with. [The festival awards] give those executives some political cover and might help those who are on the cusp of deciding whether this is someone who is permanently canceled or someone who has put his crises behind him and is moving forward.”
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