Over the last few years, emojis have become a ubiquitous form of communication. The tiny digital icons, found on your smartphone keyboard and elsewhere, connect users and have become their own language. The original emojis, designed by Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo and released in 1999, were even recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Clearly, we're obsessed.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has taken note. Exclusive emojis now accompany film releases and TV show premieres as part of studio and network marketing campaigns, and an emoji movie is scheduled for release by Sony Pictures Animation in the summer.
"As storytellers, we're always trying to tell stories that really connect with people," said Tony Leondis, director and co-writer of "The Emoji Movie." "For millions of people, emojis are how we do that now in our daily lives. We have this immediate connection to these little yellow guys that we send out as versions of ourselves. Billions of emojis are sent every day to share their love, their frustrations, their happiness, their lives with each other. It seemed like such a perfect landscape to tell a story."
It also helps that no one owns the rights to them. Because emojis are considered a font or a language, that means that anyone, including movie studios, can use them for any purpose at any time (MoMA acquired DoCoMo's emojis through a licensing agreement) — as long as they don't directly copy pre-existing ones. "You don't have to get the rights to emojis," Leondis said. "You just have to create your own version of emojis."
"The Emoji Movie" will be Leondis' breakout (previously, he directed the animated short "Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters"). For the director, the movie is an opportunity to capitalize on our interest in these icons. He even enlisted James Corden to voice one of the characters, Hi-5, alongside T.J. Miller and Ilana Glazer, which is fitting as Corden's talk show, "The Late Late Show," has a recurring segment called "Emoji News," which recaps headlines using emojis for comedic effect.
Many people are familiar with the emojis included in Apple's iPhone keyboard, but other tech companies and phone providers also have their own. Twitter, in particular, continually partners with movie studios and TV networks on exclusive emojis that are activated with specific hashtags. For "Rogue One," the "Star Wars" picture released by Lucasfilm and Disney on Dec. 16, a "Star Wars" Twitter emoji automatically appeared when you tweeted any of the following: #RogueOne, #DeathStar, #StarWars and #StarWarsRogueOne.
"We know there's a massive, engaged audience of movie fans on Twitter who are tweeting about upcoming films," said Jennifer Prince, who deals with media and entertainment at Twitter. "Studios that recognize that opportunity leverage Twitter during the film promotion process — it has become a core part of studios' playbooks, whether it is with a custom emoji, exclusive trailer or cast Q&A. Emojis are a new way for people to connect and express their excitement and passion for films with a community of fans."
Twitter has worked on more than 50 exclusive emojis for films since its first campaign in April 2015 for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." A "Bad Moms" emoji was tweeted more than 103,000 times, according to Prince, and "Suicide Squad" appeared in 1 million tweets between March 1 and May 26, thanks to a Joker Twitter emoji with the hashtag #JokerWasHere."
Skype debuted its own set of icons, dubbed Emoticons by the brand, although they are similar to traditional emojis, around the November release of Marvel's "Doctor Strange." The digital communication app had created similar partnerships for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy."
"Our fans are extremely engaged, so we try to provide them with as much content as possible for them to express their fandom," said Mindy Hamilton, senior vice president of global partnerships for Marvel Entertainment. "Skype's 'Doctor Strange' emoticons provided users with exclusive content to add personality and their love for pop culture and Marvel's 'Doctor Strange' to their Skype chats. Anything that can bring people closer to our characters and our universe is key, especially if it's something as fun and creative as what Skype did here."
Cartoon Network's Adult Swim released its own emoji keyboard over the summer; it includes 150 custom emojis themed around characters from popular shows like "Rick and Morty" and "Robot Chicken." The free keyboard has been installed 320,000 times and the included emojis used 2.6 million times, said Jim Babcock, vice president of consumer marketing at Adult Swim. The Cartoon Network offshoot will soon roll out more animated emojis for iOS 10.
"We want to give our fans a way to drop an Adult Swim GIF, sound clip or sticker into a conversation with a friend that will make them laugh or question the course their life has taken," Babcock said. "It's less about a transaction and more about engaging and sharing a joke. We're thinking about emoji for every show and for any sentiment where we think we can add something funny or weird."
The emojis, although generally for entertainment and fun communication, can also make a statement. Around the theatrical release of "Loving," the real-life story of a couple's historic legal fight to have their interracial marriage recognized by the state of Virginia, Focus Features unveiled its own set of icons via the Love-Moji app.
"It came about through social insight," said Josh Kornblit, senior vice president of digital marketing and media at Focus. "In August 2016, Apple announced they were planning to add more gender-diverse emoji in iOS 10, something that was done in response to negative social feedback they had received. But we noticed that interracial couples were still absent from the update. The [app] helped fill a void for something that wasn't previously available, and people got behind it in a big way.
"It was great to see how excited people were to see themselves represented that way. It's meaningful — which is why it took off so quickly."