Can I have your selfie-graph? Cell­phones put au­to­graphs on en­dan­gered-species list

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - TARA DESCHAMPS SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

If you take a peek at Ser­ena Tung’s In­sta­gram ac­count any time over the first few weeks of Septem­ber, her feed is a sea of fa­mous faces.

You’ll find shots of her lean­ing over a bar­ri­cade to pose with An­gelina Jolie, grin­ning as Shia LaBeouf holds up devil horns be­side her, and ham­ming it up with Jes­sica Chas­tain, Ar­mie Ham­mer, Colin Far­rell and a sun­glasses-sport­ing Idris Elba.

While the celeb spot­ter and sales worker has met hun­dreds of stars in her 10 years of at­tend­ing the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, she’s rarely whipped out a Sharpie and re­quested an au­to­graph. “I don’t think hav­ing some­one’s au­to­graph on a piece of pa­per or a photo is that mem­o­rable,” she says. “I think hav­ing a photo is more mem­o­rable be­cause it trig­gers the story be­hind it, like ‘Oh, I waited for this per­son for seven hours out­side a ho­tel.’ ” Un­like a decade ago, when red car­pets were filled with fans wildly com­pet­ing for celeb scrawls, now most are like Tung, camp­ing out in hopes of snap­ping a photo with their favourite stars. It’s a phe­nom­e­non that’s rais­ing ques­tions of whether the rise of the smart­phone has sent the au­to­graph spi­ralling to­ward obliv­ion.

Many who claim the medium is in de­cline point to an opin­ion piece in 2014 in the Wall Street Jour­nal by pop su­per­star Tay­lor Swift, where she wrote: “I haven’t been asked for an au­to­graph since the in­ven­tion of the iPhone with a front-fac­ing cam­era. The only me­mento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie.”

It hasn’t stopped au­to­graph deal­ers, who could fre­quently be seen this week hov­er­ing near the El­gin and Win­ter Gar­den the­atres, a side en­trance of the TIFF Bell Light­box — where stars en­ter for press con­fer­ences — and at nightlife hot spots such as By­b­los and Soho House.

Most gripped file fold­ers or courier ser­vice en­velopes stuffed with 8.5 x 11’s of var­i­ous stars. If you eaves­dropped, you could hear some talk about be­ing stiffed by mother!’ s Jennifer Lawrence af­ter wait­ing for hours, or chat­ter about the best strat­egy to land a sig­na­ture from The Cur­rent War’s Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch.

John, the owner of Van­cou­ver­based au­to­graph dealer Canada­graphs, re­fused to give his last name, claim­ing that it could af­fect the fu­ture of his busi­ness if he de­cided to sell it, but ad­mit­ted tech­nol­ogy has sig­nif­i­cantly shaken up his in­dus­try.

He’s been deal­ing au­to­graphs for 27 years and says he used to break even within a few days of a trip to TIFF. Now it takes weeks or longer.

“It isn’t like it used to be,” he says, adding the “selfie gen­er­a­tion” and pub­li­cists are largely to blame.

“Peo­ple don’t care who they are meet­ing. They just want a selfie with them for their ‘likes’ and shares,” he says. “Then some pub­li­cists are not let­ting the stars sign. They want the stars to have so­cial me­dia ‘likes’ in­stead.”

Although Swift’s ob­ser­va­tion “is not en­tirely wrong,” he ad­mits, it’s largely based on au­di­ence de­mo­graph­ics.

“If you talk to your aver­age Tay­lor Swift fan, they would covet a selfie far more than an au­to­graph,” he says. “An adult is about 50-50. Half want an au­to­graph, half a photo and some want both.”

Self­ies with celebri­ties are at­trac­tive be­cause there’s lit­tle ques­tion of au­then­tic­ity, one of the au­to­graph in­dus­try’s big­gest chal­lenges.

Some sell­ers of­fer pho­tos and vid- eos on their sites of au­to­graphs be­ing signed to prove that they’re real, but even those don’t nec­es­sar­ily ver­ify an au­to­graph’s le­git­i­macy.

Self­ies with celebri­ties don’t face the same scru­tiny, in part be­cause they are rarely bought or sold so their value is emo­tional rather than mone­tary.

“They are cap­tured mem­o­ries . . . net­worked ob­jects . . . com­mod­i­fied sta­tus,” says Greg Elmer, a pro­fes­sor of pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity.

And stars, in­clud­ing Canada’s prime min­is­ter, aren’t blind to its power.

“Justin Trudeau is the master of that. He knows that (tak­ing a selfie) is one of the most im­por­tant mo­ments for that per­son, but that that pic­ture will be seen by hun­dreds of their friends,” Elmer says.

Be­cause self­ies are “easy to cap­ture, share and dis­sem­i­nate” and some­times “in­cred­i­bly cu­rated,” stars at­tend­ing TIFF and other high-pro­file events have caught on to how they can be used to try to en­gage a con­tem­po­rary film au­di­ence, Elmer says.

“The reach of a selfie of you next to Ge­orge Clooney would be greater than the reach of an au­to­graph.”

And self­ies mean pub­li­cists and stars don’t have to worry about fake deal­ers scam­ming fans or try­ing to profit off them, as was the case this week when Char­lie Hun­nam con­fronted some deal­ers at TIFF in a video cir­cu­lat­ing on­line.

“I’ve signed like 10 for you al­ready, so I won’t sign any­more for you, if that’s al­right with you, so I have time with ev­ery­one else,” the Papil­lon ac­tor says in the clip.

He takes off down King St. only to be trailed by a man, who man­ages to get the star to oblige to a quick re­quest: a selfie.

But with seem­ingly fewer peo­ple ask­ing for sig­na­tures, it can mean a de­crease in sup­ply, though there are al­ways some celebri­ties for whom the au­to­graph will reign supreme, says Al Wit­tnebert, trea­surer of the Uni­ver­sal Au­to­graph Col­lec­tor’s Club.

“No one can get a selfie of Al­bert Ein­stein or Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe,” he teases in an email to the Star.

How­ever, he ad­mits those look­ing for an au­to­graph from more con­tem­po­rary stars “will get a scrib­ble in­stead of a sig­na­ture.”

“Not sure if they even know how to write any­more.”

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s au­to­graph was a huge get in its time. To­day, she’d be asked for a selfie.

EVAN AGOTINI/IN­VI­SION/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An­gelina Jolie takes a selfie with fans. Self­ies mean pub­li­cists and stars don’t have to worry about fake deal­ers scam­ming fans.

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