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Hollywood's Twitter jitters

Pop stars have long had actors beat when it comes to the tweet. Are movie stars finally getting over their social-media anxiety?

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It’s no surprise the most followed celebrities on Twitter are walking memes/musicians Lady Gaga (31.8 million) and Justin Bieber (31 million). Or that TMI-prone TV stars Kim Kardashian (16.8 million) and Oprah Winfrey (15.1 million) are right behind them. But if you had to take a guess at the top movie star on Twitter — excluding multitaskers like Ashton Kutcher (13.2 million) and Jennifer Lopez (13.2 million) — would you believe it’s … Jim Carrey (9.5 million)?

The conventional wisdom that puts movie stars at the top of the showbiz pecking order is turned on its head across all social media. Taylor Lautner, whose tween fan base is currently helping The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 storm the box office, has an official Facebook page with 20.6 million likes. Not bad — until you notice that rapper Akon, who hasn’t had a hit since 2008, has more than twice that amount at 43.1 million. It gets weirder: Ben Affleck, a Best Director front-runner for Argo, has 136,000 followers for his Twitter account, where he’s been posting tidbits about his movie and charity projects every few days since June. That’s significantly less than Soleil Moon Frye, a.k.a. Punky Brewster (1.5 million).

Obviously, these numbers say little about actual box office muscle. (No one is arguing that Ashley Tisdale, with 8.3 million Twitter followers, can draw bigger crowds than Tom Cruise, at 3.5 million.) But they do point to a complicated relationship between movie stars and social media — one that is increasingly critical now that actors’ accounts on services like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have become key parts of the publicity machine. ”One of the basic questions that studios now ask actors early on is whether they are on social media, because if they are, then they want to figure out ways to cross-promote,” says Mara Buxbaum, a top-tier publicist whose clients include Sean Penn and Michelle Williams, both of whom have steered clear of social media. ”But it’s very tricky for an A-list dramatic actor to use the space successfully.”

So why don’t movie stars shine brighter online? According to Rick Sorkin, vice president of talent and strategy at WhoSay, a social-media platform and consultancy with clients like Rihanna (who has 63.3 million Facebook fans and 27 million Twitter subscribers following her near-daily updates), social media isn’t a simple popularity contest. Fans gravitate toward stars who post authentic, behind-the-scenes photos and videos. And that’s easier for musicians and TV stars than for movie actors, who are often contractually bound to secrecy. ”If an actor posts a picture of himself in character on set, the studio might freak out,” explains Sorkin. ”There’s this big block of time where actors can’t really talk about what they’re doing.” Movie actors might also be leery about posting too much about work because they don’t want any one job to define them, whereas musicians are inherently represented by their work — and aren’t shy about plugging it. ”Actors are always changing their characters on screen,” says Angelica Cob-Baehler, a longtime record-label exec who has worked closely with Twitter-savvy clients including Katy Perry (29.7 million). ”Whereas musicians just are who they are — and that’s easier for people to connect with online.” And then there might be some ineffable aspect of movie star-ness that makes fans reluctant to follow their big-screen gods down to the oversharing muck. Would Marilyn Monroe still be an icon if her fans had gotten daily Ke$ha-style updates like ”@MMonroeOfficial: OMG did NOT realize my dress would blow up like that! #oops :P”?

Of course, that hasn’t stopped some movie stars from diving in with gusto. ”I do not tweet things like ‘Hey, just having some soup on a rainy day,”’ says Tom Hanks, who has built an audience of 5.3 million on Twitter, where he often posts photos of himself working on set. ”I am more active when I have something to promote.” It’s telling that veterans such as Hanks, Cruise, Russell Crowe, and Ben Stiller have adopted Twitter enthusiastically, while many younger Hollywood stars are sitting out. (Just a sampling of A-listers like Anne Hathaway, Daniel Radcliffe, Ryan Gosling, Mila Kunis, and Emma Stone reveals either no Twitter account or a mostly inactive one.) ”Established actors have seen their contemporaries come and go,” says Sorkin. ”They’ve been in the business long enough to know how important it is to have a direct connection to their fan base, which can now be accomplished by sharing content online.” Even Web-shy stars are starting to come around. ”I have to put more thought into it,” says Lautner, who still has reservations about the revealing aspects of Twitter despite the popularity of his Facebook page. ”There is already so much of my life that is not private that I would have to seriously consider what I tweeted. But do I think Twitter is a bad thing? Not at all. I think it can be a very handy tool.” Bradley Cooper, who’s getting Oscar buzz for his role in Silver Linings Playbook, is similarly on the fence. ”It is a useful tool for marketing movies, especially smaller ones,” he says. ”It’s not that it doesn’t interest me — I just have never got around to doing it.”

Before long, actors may not even have the option of remaining offline. Sorkin says he’s seen contracts that require a certain number of tweets or Instagram photos from an actor, alongside the usual press junkets and Letterman appearances. Plus there’s a new generation coming up who treat Twitter as a matter of course. ”Everybody is growing up online,” says Buxbaum. ”There are unknown but soon-to-be-big stars who are already using social media.” They might even be following Jim Carrey right now.

(Additional reporting by Carrie Bell)