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Hollywood's new high-stakes negotiating tool: Twitter

 Hollywood's new high-stakes negotiating tool: Twitter
Harry Shearer got a quick response when he went on Twitter saying his “Simpsons” role was over. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times; Fox)

Twitter has long been part of the Hollywood swirl. Celebrities routinely use the messaging service as a marketing device. Then there are the VIPs who sometimes make news by tweeting out a random thought that proves offensive — Ashton Kutcher, we're looking at you.

But now Hollywood talent is finding an innovative new use for Twitter: as a tool in high-stakes negotiations. In particular, it can serve as a way for an aggrieved actor or director to take his or her case directly to the fans for the purpose of teasing out some more leverage in talks with a powerful studio.

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Recent examples include director David Lynch telling his "Twitter friends" that he would not, after all, be returning to reboot his classic TV mystery "Twin Peaks" for Showtime.

"After one year and four months of negotiations, I left because not enough money was offered to do the script the way I felt it needed to be done," he tweeted in April. (In fact, a series of tweets arrived after Lynch had first raised questions about his involvement in the reboot during public appearances in Australia.)

Not long after, Harry Shearer shocked fans by tweeting that he would not return for fresh episodes of Fox's animated hit "The Simpsons," where for more than 25 years he has voiced characters such as Ned Flanders and Mr. Burns.

Just as Lynch had done, Shearer hinted at a deal gone awry, quoting a message he said he had received from his boss' lawyer indicating he would not be a part of the new season for "The Simpsons."

What happened next says a lot about the current state of deal-making — and marketing — in Hollywood.

After the media coverage died down in the Lynch and Shearer cases, the talks went on.

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FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article said that James L. Brooks is a co-creator of "The Simpsons." He is the show's executive producer.

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James L. Brooks, the executive producer of "The Simpsons," signaled that the deal was still alive by tweeting to Shearer (and everyone else in the world): "We're still trying. Harry, no kidding, let's talk."

Within weeks, resolutions were announced that brought Lynch back to direct "Twin Peaks" on Showtime and Shearer back for more vocal work on "The Simpsons."

"Twin Peaks" is now on track to start production next year for a 2017 premiere. Shearer is returning for Season 27 that starts this fall.

Twitter is "fairly modern technology, but it's being put to use in a way that's very, very familiar," said Seth Freeman, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at NYU's Stern School of Business and Columbia University. "There are lots of examples of making moves away from the table to strengthen your bargaining position at the table."

For years, trade magazines, gossip columns and talk shows served as a conduit for actors and directors trying to plead their case. Suzanne Somers said in interviews, for instance, that "very chauvinistic" producers were responsible for her exit from the TV comedy "Three's Company" in 1980, when she tried and failed to get a pay raise in line with that of her costar, John Ritter.

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"It's an age-old strategy," said Tom Nunan, a film and TV producer and former network president who now teaches at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. "Go into the public, airing out your concerns if you consider yourself being treated unfairly, or if you seem to be like the little guy, and you know that are beloved, and the big corporation is treating you in a shabby manner."

But now Twitter gives performers the opportunity to fashion an appeal directly to their public without media interference. And the fans can and do react in real time.

"The power of Harry Shearer to reach his fan base instantly and produce an almost overnight response is far different than, say, Cary Grant or Hedy Lamarr were able to do back in their day," Freeman said. "They could plant something with Walter Winchell, but it might not be as fast or as powerful."

There's also an added advantage in that such spats generate heavy media coverage and keep both the celebrity and his or her pet project in the public eye at a time when a glut of TV shows is making it increasingly difficult to grab viewers' attention.

"You wonder sometimes whether these things, if not pre-planned, are kind of 'wink and nods' because they get publicity for the show too," said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and former executive at Lifetime.

But experts caution that these types of maneuvers aren't for everyone. A stray thought on Twitter can trigger unwanted blowback, as Kutcher discovered in 2011 when he sent out a tweet expressing outrage over the firing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. The "Two and a Half Men" star — apparently unaware of a child-sex scandal then engulfing one of Paterno's former assistant coaches — later apologized and said he would turn over his Twitter account to his handlers.

Trying to negotiate over Twitter can be even trickier.

"Public negotiating is dangerous because it can be hard to back down," said Freeman, the negotiation expert at NYU. "Harry Shearer, I think, rightly read how his fans were going to react.

But "some up-and-coming Hollywood starlet sees this and says, 'I'm going to do the same thing,' she could get her head handed to her," Freeman added. "Not just by her director or producer, but also the fans who turn on her and say, 'Who do you think you are?'"

But industry watchers expect more negotiation to happen on social media, at least for those artists brave enough to go down that road.

"It requires someone who's got the chutzpah to take on these institutions and realize that they just may lose this bet," Nunan said. "Most talent doesn't have that kind of nerve, or the leverage to take such a risk."

Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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