You’ve seen the iconic snapshot: Rihanna in midnight shades and a coat with a mustard-colored fur lapel, seated next to Lupita Nyong’o, waring poindexter frames and a modest crewneck sweater. You’ve also doubtless heard the story that arose after it: In 2014, the photo surfaced on Tumblr, along with a movie concept; three years later, Black Twitter brainstormed the digital pitch into a caper film; now, that film is reportedly in development at Netflix with Rihanna, Nyong’o, director Ava DuVernay, and screenwriter Issa Rae attached.
Fan-casting has long been routine among comic book and YA readers whenever popular titles are adapted, but the Rih-pita film’s genesis is so far singular: a Twitter-sourced idea grown from the ether, from story to casting. It might not be the last, though; over the intervening months, Black Twitter has embraced its power to “make it happen” in terms of filmmaking. The internet has since pushed for Tracee Ellis Ross to play Miss Frizzle in a live-action version of The Magic School Bus (a role that Ross gladly encouraged), as well as turned an Essence cover into a remake for the ages:
At their core, these Twitter-generated film concepts evince a desire for representation beyond Hollywood’s limited, predominantly white imagination. But while Black Twitter continues to be an unprecedented vehicle for creativity—and, increasingly, a reliable form of audience focus-testing for Hollywood—can a viral fancasting phenomenon like this realistically change the industry’s status quo?
Social media campaigns aren’t likely to alter the system, but they can crack the code and, in small part, disrupt current power dynamics. “When you’re putting a project together, you’re ultimately putting it together for an audience to view,” says casting director Nancy Nayor (Proud Mary, Slender Man). “In the past, studios would make films and do this test-market research to see: do people like the story, do people like the characters, do people like the chemistry between the stars? But that was always after the fact. Now we have input from the future audience sooner than later. It’s not always going to dictate how projects are made, but if that input inspires a great combination of actors or stories, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Despite its insularity, Black Twitter is hugely influential as a driver of larger online humor and creativity. When ideas blow up, though, the individuals behind them remain uncompensated (black teen creatives in particular), instead settling for internet recognition (via retweets, essays, etc.) rather than monetary reward. In the past few years, copyright experts have had their hands full explaining this reality to lay users who rightfully wonder why no one is ponying up. “In the example of the proposed heist movie starring Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o, what was proposed was an idea—a genre of film and a casting choice,” says Dorna Mohagheg, an intellectual property lawyer at firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York. “It’s up to the studio, in this case Netflix, to engage a screenwriter and take that idea and flesh it out to create a protectable expression. The idea of doing a heist movie isn’t protectable. Heist movies are a genre and vary widely, from Ocean’s 11 to Baby Driver.”
IP law aside, exactly how an impromptu brainstorming session traveled from Twitter to Netflix remains unclear. Netflix allegedly acquired the project at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but there’s no official account of which party or parties brought the project to Netflix, or whether a creative at the company simply saw the idea online and pushed it along. When WIRED inquired, a Netflix representative would only state, via email, “We aren’t commenting on the status of that project.”
The project is only a draw with Rihanna and Nyong’o attached, of course, and that idea was only made possible by a photo, the virality of which only Twitter could create—through retweets. Still, if social media isn’t significant in terms of copyright—and if, in turn, movie producers have no obligation to it—then the Twitter users who helped the concept go viral likely won’t get paid. “The credit will probably come through articles and online discussions about the origin of the project,” says casting agent Nayor. “But I wouldn’t say it makes sense to give it a screen credit. Every project comes together in miraculous ways. It’s amazing that anything actually gets made because there are so many turning points where a project could fall apart.”
A representative for Issa Rae confirmed to Vanity Fair that the users would receive some unspecified credit. New York-based writer Mikelle Street, the Twitter user who first got a verbal commitment from Ava DuVernay, says most of the individuals who fueled the idea on Twitter are in communication, and have agreed to notify each other if any party is contacted about credit. (None of them have been contacted, to Street’s knowledge.) “The idea that people are in a group, talking crazy, and they come up with a movie concept—that has happened before. It hasn’t happened before using these platforms,” he says. “Now you have a record that you did it first. We have a log that it started here. There’s always the argument that those things don’t do well at the box office and we’ve seen countless times that that’s patently untrue. If this does well, it will be another point for people who argue for black leads and black talent.”
But points aren’t percentages. Even if it would be revolutionary for social media to play a major (and acknowledged) role in nominating an actor of color for a motion picture in development, Hollywood functions in such a closed loop that it’s hard to imagine such a thing happening. Copyrights and trademarks, in part, serve to make creators feel comfortable in their ownership—and explicitly guard against nebulous or crowdsourced ideas that might dilute intellectual ownership.
That may change in the future, given the hand-wringing over dwindling box-office performance in the streaming age. “Going viral has become a goal in and of itself,” says Lisa Davis, a partner in the entertainment group at Frankfurt Kurnit. “The question has shifted to figuring out how to credit an idea that has demonstrated its value through its popularity, but maybe hasn’t been developed to the point of warranting legal protection. It is in the interest of the entertainment industry to build goodwill with social media users so studios can continue to take advantage of great ideas with built-in buzz and fans, and social media users have an interest in seeing movie ideas that they are excited about become reality.” For now, creativity is the biggest currency—but compromise may soon join it.