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