Film festival news conferences are generally friendly affairs, giving a movie's stars and director the chance to take a public victory lap. But when the cast of Jason Reitman's drama "Men, Women & Children" gathered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the promotional event took on an edgier tone.
The film explores the way the Internet is shaping (and warping) our lives — and its themes incited a surprisingly sharp intergenerational debate about the virtues and evils of social media.
Ansel Elgort, at 20 one of the film's youngest stars, boasted that his 2 million Twitter followers gave him the ability to become his own news platform, while the movie's older cast members — Jennifer Garner, 42, Adam Sandler, 48, and Rosemarie DeWitt, 39 — looked on with expressions of befuddlement, if not horror.
"Is it Tinder or Tumblr that everyone's on?" Garner wondered aloud, echoing a confusion many non-millennials may feel. "I don't know the difference."
Weeks later, DeWitt was still struggling to understand Elgort's point of view. "It was an eye-opener," the actress said recently. "The younger people see [social media] as an opportunity to express themselves and connect. They've never known a world without it. But for the older adults in the room, we were just sitting there with our jaws on the ground. We just don't know what it is."
Social media is viewed both as a way to foster genuine connection while also fueling feelings of alienation, a way of amplifying communication and narcissism. Since the advent of social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — few of which existed when today's young movie audience was born — the duality of social media has bedeviled academics, artists and everyday people alike, as long-held social norms established in an analog world have rapidly given way to a new age of selfies, likes and status updates.
Dave Eggers' 2013 novel, "The Circle," gave the world of social media an Orwellian spin. Comedian Louis C.K. ranted on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" last year about how smartphones were ruining our ability to be alone with ourselves ("I go, 'Oh, I'm getting sad, gotta get the phone and write "hi" to, like, 50 people.'") In the Chainsmokers' recent song "#Selfie," the DJ duo sings about getting only "10 likes in the last five minutes" on an Instagram photo.
Now Hollywood is joining the conversation. "Men, Women & Children" is one of a number of recent films, including "Chef," "Boyhood" and "Birdman," that show filmmakers grappling with the same anxieties about this new reality as many of the rest of us — and finding it just as hard to come up with a consensus on what it all means.
Many actors, meanwhile, are struggling with how much to share with their fans — which, as a widespread nude photo leak recently demonstrated, is a choice that may no longer even be in their own hands. The same tools that can be used to aid a star's rise to fame can just as easily tear an actor down.
Stars are now routinely asked whether they're on Twitter and Facebook, with the assumption being that the answer reveals something essential about their character or even their level of stardom — you have to be pretty confident of your box-office appeal to pull the plug on social media.
"I think we've hit a tipping point where people accept that social media is not going away, so you have to figure out what your relationship to it is going to be," said Jon Favreau, who starred in this summer's comedy "Chef" (which he also wrote and directed) as a cook whose career is derailed when he accidentally starts a Twitter war with a food critic. "It can affect your career and your personal life. The stakes are quite high, and the culture is quite nuanced."
It's a topic that's hit the national nerve — and not surprisingly, it's one that's attracted filmmakers.
"All the rules are changing," Reitman said. "There's an interesting step we've made societally, as the Internet has brought our hidden desires to the surface. You can't help feel all this stuff happening and want to address it."
Shift in attitude
In the 1990s, it wasn't uncommon to hear of agents and studio executives who avoided using computers and would have their assistants print out their emails. In those early days of the Internet, films dealing with the emerging digital technology, such as "The Net," "Strange Days" and "Enemy of the State," were riddled with paranoia.
Nowadays, audiences are accustomed to seeing on-screen text messages and tweets integrated into plot lines — a sort of literary and visual shortcut that quickly defines a character (He's hip! She's desperate! They're cute!).
But that's just the starting point. For today's filmmakers, capturing how people relate to one another digitally often involves a lot of messiness, confusion and ambiguity. "Chef" shows social media in both negative and positive lights — after initially being burned by Twitter, Favreau's character learns to harness it as a tool to build up a new business and connect with his young son.
"Men, Women & Children," on the other hand, offers a far bleaker vision. Despite their constant efforts to connect digitally — or because of them — the film's characters, whether a parent and child or a married couple, end up only more detached from each other.
Though many have criticized the film for presenting a one-sided and rather heavy-handed view of the perils of the Digital Age (Times critic Betsy Sharkey called it "an anti-Internet screed"), Reitman insists he isn't out to make any moral judgments.
"To say the Internet is good or bad is like saying the printing press is good or bad — it's a nonsensical argument," he said. "It's exposing the light and the darkness, the good and the bad. You get the 'Arab Spring' and you get the [nude celebrity] photo leak silliness."
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's new dark comedy, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," highlights the undercurrent of insecurity over social standing that often ripples just beneath the surface of Twitter and Facebook. In one scene, a fading movie star (played by Michael Keaton) is berated by his daughter (Emma Stone) for taking a haughty, standoffish attitude toward social media.
"You want to feel relevant again," Stone's character yells. "Well, guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant, and you act like it doesn't exist. You hate bloggers, you mock Twitter, you don't even have a Facebook page — you're the one who doesn't exist!"
That sentiment reflects the stance most of Hollywood's younger stars take toward social media. Computer literate from an early age, many stars are happy to maintain active presences online, seeing it as an empowering, often rewarding way to connect with their audience — and a way to stay part of the cultural conversation. "My outreach is stronger than any publication's outreach," Elgort said at the "Men, Women & Children" news conference.
Many actors, like many nonactors, feel uncomfortable with social media, though. Just because someone can be emotionally (or even physically) naked on the screen doesn't mean that person wants to share innermost thoughts and opinions with a bunch of strangers on Facebook or Twitter.
And those who do, Stone argues, aren't necessarily being authentic. "Because of social media, everyone I know now has a kind of curated online life, Instagram or Twitter or whatever it is," said Stone, 25, who stays off social media." "It becomes a kind of keeping up with the Joneses."
Stone and a handful of her contemporaries who have attained a certain level of fame — Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson — may be able to get away with not having Twitter accounts because they're so in-demand. But social media engagement has become an increasingly important metric for measuring stardom within the film and TV industries.
Studios now routinely factor an actor's Twitter followers and Facebook fans into casting decisions, and celebrities are expected to use their social media platforms to promote their projects as a matter of course.
"I have friends who are on TV shows and whatnot who say they're approached by the powers-that-be to be on Twitter, to promote the show, to have fans," said DeWitt. "I'm very passionate about the things that I do, but I have nothing in me that wants to be out there like, 'Hey, hey!' It's like a totally different version of prostituting yourself: being forced to go on Twitter."
Though it's often the older actors and filmmakers who betray the deepest concerns, attitudes toward social media don't always fall along strict generational lines. Favreau, who is 47, has been on Twitter for five years and has nearly 2 million followers, while 20-year-old "Boyhood" star Ellar Coltrane expressed his own antipathy toward the superficiality of Facebook in a memorable rant in the film.
Even a savvy digital native like Nev Schulman, star of the documentary "Catfish" (which has since been adapted into an MTV series), expresses misgivings about his own digitally mediated life. "Many times, I feel disgust with myself in the way that I use the Internet and my addiction to social media. There are a lot of bad things happening as a result of our obsessive tendencies."
There are neurologists who fear that constantly being online is messing with our brain wiring, social scientists who fear that our "connected" world leads to a greater sense of isolation.
That may be, but Favreau, for one, is trying not to fight the future. "Things ain't going the other way, so we might as well contend with it. The encouraging thing is, once you peel back the veneer, it's really people talking to each other, sharing who they are or what they like. Something that feels very digital and very artificial is actually very human."