Need to Sell a Movie or a Message or Make Money? Instagram Is the New ... Everything

Instagram for Everything Illo - P 2015
Illustration by: Mark Matcho

Instagram for Everything Illo - P 2015

For many stars, the social media platform has become the latest way to earn big bucks promoting products as movie studios and networks use it to publicize upcoming projects: "Let's be honest, it's a great way to make money."

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Instagram isn't just a place for stars to post pictures of their new hairdos anymore (looks fabulous, by the way). For many celebrities, it has become a cottage industry, the latest way to earn big bucks promoting products, while for movie studios and networks — along with directors and producers — it's now a platform on which to market and publicize upcoming projects.

Studios are custom-cutting trailers just for Instagram (with a square 1-to-1 aspect ratio). Last year, the first snippet of the Fifty Shades of Grey trailer, featuring Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," was introduced to the world via the singer's Instagram (generating nearly half a million likes and 87,000 comments), while in late February, Dwayne Johnson took to the app to release an exclusive video teaser promoting his upcoming San Andreas disaster film. That same month, Bryan Singer revealed on Instagram that Kodi Smit-McPhee will play Nightcrawler in X-Men: Apocalypse. These days, even studios are buying ads on Instagram, such as Disney's 15-second autoplay for Big Hero 6.

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More and more, Instagram also is replacing Twitter as the go-to place to respond to news and gossip. In 2014, Kevin Hart used the mobile photo- and video-sharing network to comment on a leaked Sony email calling him "a whore" ("I'm able to brush ignorance off my shoulders," he posted in a text image). One filmmaker has even seen the app help save a troubled project: Chappie director Neill Blomkamp kicked off 2015 by posting a striking rendering of a new installment of Alien, which Fox had been cooling on, with a comment that he "was working on this. Don't think I am anymore." Once the post went viral, Fox finally gave Blomkamp the job — something he announced, yes, on Instagram. (Fox didn't respond to a request for comment.)

It makes sense, of course, that the most visually driven social media outlet on the Internet would be embraced by the most visually driven city on the planet. But it's obviously not just Hollywood flocking to the platform. In December, the San Francisco-based Instagram (bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion) surpassed Twitter in total worldwide users, with 300 million compared with Twitter's 284 million.

Instagrammers tend to be young, with 53 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Internet users on the platform, according to Pew Research. And they are highly engaged, according to Grey Munford, vp communications at CBS Films. In February, he and vp digital marketing Matt Gilhooley ran an online campaign for the film The DUFF that put an extra focus on Instagram, working closely with talent Bella Thorne and Robbie Amell to post exclusive photos. "On other platforms, there are so many ads and autoplay videos that it's like driving down the Sunset Strip," says Gilhooley. "With Instagram, it's just you and that one photo in that moment, which makes it a really great place to promote a movie." The two are convinced Instagram played a key part in the film outperforming tracking by $2 million to $4 million with an $11 million opening.

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For a lot of stars, Instagram has become a personal PR machine, a way to curate a public persona without making time for interviews or photo shoots or having their assistant compose 140-character tweets. "For celebrities, it's great — that's where their fans are," says Instagram's partnerships lead Charles Porch. When Madonna took a tumble at the Brit Awards in February, she didn't need to issue a press release; she just posted a picture of her faulty cape and explained what happened directly to her fans. The app opens a window into the lives of the famous that at least feels more genuine than anything else online or off (after all, you can't have your assistant fake a picture of you — though you still can have them Photoshop it).

The platform also has the potential to be hugely profitable for stars. It turns out that when you're a celebrity with a hefty following, there's almost certainly a company selling razor blades or detox tea that's willing to write big checks in exchange for a mention. "Everyone is using [Instagram] to make money," says one agent. "And it's so easy — you don't even have to leave your house."

FTC rules require that a sponsored post be clearly identified as such. Some celebs follow that rule: Julianne Hough, a dancer turned actress, tagged her January post (to her 1.3 million Insta followers) about Gillette's Venus razor with "#ad." But most don't, which makes it difficult to tell if, say, Beyonce was expressing genuine enthusiasm for the Lorraine Schwartz bling she pictured in a post after the Oscars or if she was cashing in. ("This is not a commercial platform," insists Beyonce's rep.)

"Let's be honest — it's a great way to make money," says modelactress Emily Ratajkowski (2 million followers), who says she's often approached for endorsements. "But I turn down a lot. There was a detox tea that offered me plenty, but I said no. That's not who I am."

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How much money are stars raking in from social media? Few stars are willing to talk about their social media deals (just as celebs aren't wild about discussing the money they make from appearance fees)."It ranges from a few hundred dollars up to six- or seven-figure deals for a series of posts," says Alex Dahan, founder of Instabrand, which connects brands with coveted "influencers." "Brands are ramping up deals, including multiplatform deals for talent." Fees generally are based on followers and engagement (measured by likes and comments).

Until recently, advertisers couldn't be sure how many legit followers a celebrity had; some stars were cheating with spam fans. But in December, Instagram purged millions of fake accounts, with Justin Bieber losing 3.5 million followers in an instant. He's down to 23.7 million.

Of course, the Insta queen is Kim Kardashian, who has a record 27.9 million followers. In May, when she married Kanye West, she didn't sell the wedding photo to People — as celebrities did in the old, unsocial-media days. She posted it on her Instagram (People picked up paparazzi shots instead). It became the most popular photo in the app's history, with 2.4 million "likes." But Kardashian, whose empire includes many endorsement deals, insists she never posts for money, at least not on IG. "My husband certainly wasn't going to sell a photo of us, so why not Instagram it?" she tells THR. "That way, everyone would see it. But I never include Instagram in my contracts. My Instagram is more intimate; it's my personal life rather than my business."

Who knew there was a difference?