Now that the Depp-Heard show is lurching to a close, with the trial in its jury-deliberation phase, it’s hard to imagine what the celebrity-industrial complex, and the media industry in general, will find to replace it.
Since April 11, when the defamation trial—which pits 58-year-old Hollywood mainstay Johnny Depp against his ex-wife, 36-year-old actor Amber Heard—began in a courtroom in Fairfax, Virginia, it’s been an all-consuming fixture of our collective media consciousness. And it’s stood out for being strangely unavoidable.
(To quickly review what’s at stake: In John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard, Depp is suing Heard for $50 million in damages because he claims a December 18, 2018 Washington Post op-ed that carried her byline* defamed him. In the piece, titled “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” she never specifically mentioned Depp, but his argument is that what she indirectly said about his behavior during their brief marriage amounted to career-damaging defamation. Heard is countersuing for $100 million.)
Usually, with a little concerted effort, it’s possible for media consumers who just do not care about famous people to stay contentedly out of the loop about any given celebrity drama. But Depp-Heard is different. From Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to TikTok, it has taken over social media. It’s infiltrated the front pages of everything from Reddit to old-school newspapers. It’s been the subject of exhaustive tabloid coverage as well as think pieces in the likes of The Atlantic and The New Yorker. It’s been broadcast and streamed in its entirety, live from the courtroom, to millions of rapt viewers of the Law & Crime Network and Court TV—and tens of millions more have seen various scenes from the trial thanks to obsessive coverage by the cable news networks and broadcast newscasts. The trial was even lampooned in the cold open of a May episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
Us Weekly, on a recent cover, declared it to be “Hollywood’s Trial of the Century”—though what’s missing from that possibly hyperbolic (but maybe not) declaration is “So Far.”
Because surely a spectacle this compelling, with this much consumer interest, this much scale, can’t just be a one-off. Depp-Heard has become its own content economy, a massive media machine unto itself.
OK, maybe not “Pirates of the Caribbean”-level massive, but there’s enough about this dark ride, with its often jaw-dropping twists and turns, and mutual claims of operatic spousal abuse, to continue to fuel interest for years to come.
In other words, Depp-Heard, in one form or another, is here to stay.
A few thoughts about how we got here—and what we’ve learned so far:
The Johnny Depp brand advantage can’t be overstated
Back in 2018—just as Johnny Depp’s troubles were about to torpedo his career—Forbes reported that his movies had grossed a cumulative $10.03 billion at the box office, putting him in the rarefied company of Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr., Vin Diesel and Harrison Ford.
As a Hollywood icon, Depp is also unusual in that he has pronounced multigenerational appeal. Boomers and Gen X knew him as an ’80s TV star (“21 Jump Street”) whose movie career ignited in 1990 thanks to his starring role in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”—and those fans’ Gen Y and Gen Z children know Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Heard, meanwhile, had mostly supporting roles in film and TV through much of the 2000s and 2010s, only landing her first major role in a big-budget studio film—playing Mera in DC’s 2018 “Aquaman”—relatively recently. And unfortunately for Heard, the trial has cast the relative hotness of her career in doubt. As Variety reported, “The president of DC Films testified ... that the studio considered replacing Amber Heard for ‘Aquaman 2’ out of concern that she lacked chemistry with star Jason Momoa.” (Meanwhile, per The Hollywood Reporter: “Johnny Depp Testifies He Helped Amber Heard Land ‘Aquaman’ Role.”)
The disparity between Depp’s and Heard’s relative popularity/fame is also starkly evident on social media. On Instagram, for instance, Depp far outdraws Heard. A spokesman for influencer marketing platform CreatorIQ told Ad Age that Depp’s following on Instagram has surged during the trial—he went from 12 million followers in March to 18.3 million by the end of May—even though he posts only infrequently (a total of 20 times total across the two years he’s been on the platform). Depp has racked up an average of 2.3 million likes per post.
Heard, in contrast, went from 4.2 million followers at the end of March to 4.6 million at the end of May, according to CreatorIQ data. She’s relatively prolific—she’s posted 1,154 times since joining the platform—and yet averages just 129,800 likes per post, which is 5% of Depp’s like rate.
In a way, the Depp-Heard trial is, for better or worse, a referendum on celebrity popularity. What’s missing from the raw data, though, is to the extent to which the type of “engagement” Heard draws is often scathing. The level of disapproval that Heard draws on Twitter, for instance, even became a subject of courtroom testimony on Day 19 of the trial:
IRL, meanwhile, Heard has drawn boos outside the Fairfax courtroom—whereas Depp frequently draws crowd of adoring fans:
#MeToo is on trial too
Beyond Depp’s and Heard’s relative levels of fame and fandom, there’s a sociopolitical subtext at play here too: the #MeToo movement, and the backlash to it—particularly the “Believe women” slogan that grew out of it.
Amber Heard says Johnny Depp abused her. Johnny Depp says Amber Heard abused him. Who do you believe?
Pro-Depp/anti-Heard forces think that they have a smoking gun in a recording of something Heard said to Depp during their marriage. As the Associated Press reported in April, “Jurors heard an audio clip of a conversation between Depp and Heard in which she seems to taunt him and suggests he won’t be believed or respected if he were to publicly cast her as an abuser. ‘Tell them, I, Johnny Depp, I’m a victim of domestic abuse ... and see how many people believe or side with you,’ Heard says on the recording.”
In the same report about that particular day in court, the AP also noted that, “In other clips, Depp loudly shouts vulgarities at his wife, calling her a degrading name and yelling, ‘You stupid f—-’ at her.” On other days of the trial, meanwhile, similarly damning evidence and testimony about Heard’s behavior emerged.
Of course, two actors—i.e., professional fakers—are facing off here. But for the pro-Depp/anti-Heard crowd, Heard’s “see how many people believe you or side with you” taunt is all they need to know to decide which actor is telling the truth and which is just performing.
TikTok has radically changed the equation for the Depp-Heard trial
Nowhere is the Depp-Heard disparity more pronounced than on TikTok. According to data from the platform through May 26, videos with the hashtag #justiceforamberheard have been viewed 54.3 million times on TikTok. Videos with the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp, though, have been viewed 16.2 billion—billion with a “b”—times.
One of the top users of the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag is the TikTok account .johnnydepp1, which has racked up nearly 50 million likes, and more than 646,000 followers, by posting trial clips like this:
It’d be easy to dismiss this sort of memeification as a pop-cultural folly—a logical extension of the tabloidization of the American legal system that began with the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995—except for the fact that tens of millions of media consumers are absorbing the Depp-Heard courtroom reality through the filter of TikTok.
In the court of public opinion, the meme kings and queens of TikTok are all-powerful—deciding which evidence to allow, which objections to sustain or overrule, and exactly what the jury (the collective “we”) should hear.
The Depp-Heard trial is the killer app for the Law & Crime Network
For those seeking an unfiltered take on Depp-Heard, there are TV and streaming options—most notably from the Law & Crime Network and Court TV.
Court TV, which first launched as a cable channel in 1991, had its defining moment a long time ago—the aforementioned O.J. Simpson trial—and then it faded to black in 2008 when it was rebranded as TruTV with a change in focus to reality TV fare. In 2019 it was reborn when Katz Networks, part of The E.W. Scripps Co,, acquired Court TV’s assets from Turner Broadcasting and relaunched it as a digital broadcast network that also appears on streaming services including YouTube TV.
The Depp-Heard trial has certainly been useful for reminding media consumers that Court TV still exists (or, well, exists again).
But the breakout winner of the Depp-Heard trial has been the Law & Crime Network, a cable and OTT network created by Dan Abrams, the ABC News chief legal analyst and serial media entrepreneur (Mediaite, Gossip Cop, etc.), with backing from A+E Networks.
Its YouTube channel in particular became a go-to destination for livestreams of Depp-Heard, with the number of simultaneous viewers typically exceeding 1 million throughout testimony, day-in and day-out, during the trial’s final weeks. A spokesperson for Tubular, the social video analytics platform, told Ad Age that Law & Crime YouTube subscribers skyrocketed during Depp-Heard. Pre-trial, in March, L&C was averaging YouTube subscriber growth of about 7,000 per week. In contrast, during the week of April 25-May 1, when Depp-Heard was in full swing, L&C added more than 510,000 subscribers.
A recent news report claimed that Abrams’ production company, Abrams Media—the parent of Law & Crime Network—was doubling its Manhattan office space partially due to consumer demand for coverage of Depp-Heard. Dan Abrams told Ad Age that, in fact, “Law & Crime had been growing well before the Depp-Heard trial and the new office space was part of an expansion project that started about a year ago. ... But the Depp-Heard trial is certainly our biggest live trial to date. We are approaching 1 billion total views of our trial livestream just on our YouTube channel. We’ve also seen about a six-fold increase in viewership on our cable/OTT network as well.”
Court TV grew at a slower clip on YouTube during Depp-Heard. As of this writing, it has 468,000 YouTube channel subscribers—vs. 2.65 million for Law & Crime, per YouTube data.
(Of note: Early in his career, Dan Abrams worked as a reporter for Court TV, for which he covered the O.J. Simpson trial.)
A circus is a circus is a circus
Whether you wanted your Depp-Heard content unfiltered or memeified, it’s not inaccurate to state that many aspects of the trial itself were, in and of themselves, entertaining. Yes, in the way that a train wreck is entertaining—but entertaining still the same.
The circus seemed so circus-like because it was, in fact, a circus.
It’s worth noting that the most upvoted comment on the above-mentioned “SNL” cold open on YouTube is “I can’t believe the actual trial is funnier than the scripted SNL skit.”
Even if you somehow watched none of the trial, you were still likely strafed now and again by double-take-inducing headlines in your news feed, such as:
“‘This baby is yours!’ Johnny Depp trial takes even stranger turn when fan holds up her child and tells Pirates of the Caribbean actor claiming he’s the FATHER” (Daily Mail)
“Amber Heard admitted the poop in her shared bed with Johnny Depp was ‘a horrible practical joke,’ a security guard testified” (Insider)
We could go on and on and on. But we won’t.
Celebrity dysfunction beats celebrity worship circa 2022
To put the Depp-Heard saga in proper perspective, it’s helpful to review some pop-cultural history.
Once upon a time, stars lived at a remove from us common folk—insulated from close scrutiny thanks to phalanxes of powerful publicists who could keep media gatekeepers in line. (You want access to Celebrity X? You better play ball—and play nice.) Across the past half-century or so of celebrity culture, there’s been a throughline from the rock-god hagiography of Rolling Stone starting in the late ’60s, to the folksy, friendly coverage of People magazine from the ’70s onward, to the American-royalty reverence of Vanity Fair beginning in the ’90s.
Everything started to change in the 2000s, though, thanks in part to the rise of reality TV, which turbocharged the disposable-celebrity phenomenon, à la the Warholian declaration that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”—a notorious line that, perhaps inevitably, was sourly referenced during the Depp-Heard trial.
Media attitudes toward fame itself shifted in the new century, too. The bumper crop of celebrities—supplied not only by reality TV, but by the rise of social media platforms that created a whole new class of the suddenly famous—meant that media companies no longer needed to be as reflexively deferential to get access. (See Us Weekly’s “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!,” an approach to paparazzi photography grounded in the prosaic: celebrities as shopping-cart-pushing, Starbucks-toting schlubs.)
What sells now is not celebrity worship but celebrity dysfunction. The more dysfunctional the better, actually.
Depp is old enough to have lived through, and personally experienced, this deconstruction and reconfiguration of the fame machine. Case in point: He enjoyed glowing coverage from People for decades, and was named its 2003 and 2009 “Sexiest Man Alive.” (“Part-time pirate, full-time family man,” the magazine gushed in 2009, “the sexy star joins an elite club of two-time SMA winners.”)
The June 13, 2016 cover of People, though, was headlined “Johnny Depp & Amber Heard: Inside Their Toxic Marriage” and featured a snapshot of Heard captioned “A friend of Heard’s took this photo, which shows injuries allegedly inflicted by Depp last December.” (Those alleged injuries have been the subject of much attention and debate during the trial.)
And over at Rolling Stone, Depp landed the cover nearly a dozen times over the years; he counted founder/editor Jann Wenner as a personal friend. But in 2018, Rolling Stone published Stephen Rodrick’s “The Trouble With Johnny Depp” (subtitled “Multimillion-dollar lawsuits, a haze of booze and hash, a marriage gone very wrong and a lifestyle he can’t afford”). Depp called the story a “sham,” expressing his disappointment to British GQ: “I trusted Jann Wenner ... I trusted what the magazine stood for, or what it used to stand for. I wanted Jann to see if he could write, to see if a piece could be written ... to put things in perspective. That’s all, just to put things in perspective.”
It was as if the ground rules of the game had changed, but nobody told Depp.
Fast-forward to 2022: Johnny Depp is attempting to rehabilitate his image with a very public, literal shit show (that bed-poop incident inspired not only “SNL” comedy, but the #AmberTurd hashtag on social media). The key elements of the rehabilitation campaign: grotesque behavior and outright cruelty—from both Depp and Heard—laid bare for all to see.
Pity the jury of “peers”—as if there were such a thing in this case—that has to sort this all out.
*Here’s a twist: “??The ACLU Says It Wrote Amber Heard’s Domestic Violence Op-Ed and Timed It to Her Film Release,” as Jezebel reported.