Johnny Depp can probably thank his lawyers and PR for suddenly having a shot at a dramatic public image resurrection, but the question remains whether Hollywood will soon restore him to the big screen he used to dominate.
In the wake of his dramatic win in the defamation case against his ex-wife and fellow star Amber Heard – though Heard herself also won on one count against her former husband’s agent – speculation is now rife that Depp may go back to movies, despite his own claims that he has no interest in returning to the franchise blockbusters that supplied his fortune.
For at least some of that second chance, Depp can thank Matthew Hiltzik, a New York-based public relations manager with a long record in crisis PR. Unlike Depp’s trial attorneys, Ben Chew and Camille Vasquez, who have this week made joint talkshow appearances following the conclusion of the trial, Hiltzik, 50, has remained, strategically, out of sight.
“If a PR strategy is by definition to manage relationships with the public, then any PR strategy Depp had cannot be untangled from the legal strategy,” said Amber Melville-Brown, head of the US media and reputation team at Withers, a top law firm. “The legal victory in the US libel court is the tool by which he could reclaim his reputation, reanimate the love of any flagging fans, recharge him within his industry, and rehabilitate in the world.”
With the defamation case now resolved, it is up to Hiltzik to continue the process of rehabilitating Depp’s image to the point that Hollywood’s studio bosses and big directors can no longer deny that his commercial potential as an actor outweighs lingering concerns about reputation – and the many Heard fans still loudly proclaiming their anger online.
Hiltzik, whose father is a Hollywood entertainment attorney, started his career in PR at Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax after working on a listening tour that kicked off Hillary Clinton’s successful run for US Senate. He launched Freud Communications in the US before starting Hiltzik Strategies in 2008, where his celebrities-in-crisis clients have included Alec Baldwin (thrown off an American Airlines flight), Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte (falsely reported being robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro), , Brad Pitt after his split from Angelina Jolie and “the crying conservative” TV host Glenn Beck.
Two of Hiltzik’s proteges, Hope Hicks and Josh Raffel, became key White House confidants of President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Hiltzik’s PR approach is to be ideologically detached from the client’s bidding.
Depp’s legal and PR teams, working hand in glove, probably recognized that Depp fans, who had gone quiet after Heard’s initial domestic abuse allegations in 2016, started chiming in after Depp’s US defamation lawsuit was filed three years later.
“Depp’s had a natural fanbase and the trial reinvigorated it, reinforced it, and brought in other people who were on the fence when they realized it was OK to support Johnny Depp,” said Juda Engelmayer at Herald PR, a friend of Hiltzik’s.
Throughout the trial, and during a week-long intermission, the PRs for both parties continued press outreach efforts in an effort to mix testimony with positive “sources close-to” spin. Heard, unhappy with her initial representation, switched out her press team early in the case.
“People were initially reluctant to get behind the man in a case like this, because you don’t want to be the one attacked on social media for supporting the ‘abuser’,” said Engelmayer. “Until the fans realized they had a support base among each other, and the trial allowed for that, you didn’t see that much support. Then it snowballed.”
But despite the trial being over, some of the faultlines that were put so brutally on public display remain. In the days since the verdict for Depp, both sides have continued their respective campaigns: something that could still make a Hollywood studio nervous. Depp went on tour with Jeff Beck; joined TikTok to say he was “moving on”; and allowed his legal teamed to signal on Good Morning America that Depp may not hold Heard to the court’s $10.35m judgment.
At each turn, Heard’s lawyers and PR team have sought to return the issue to the #MeToo movement. “As Johnny Depp says he’s ‘moving forward’, women’s rights are moving backward,” a Heard spokesperson said last week.
Depp’s star attorney Vasquez countered on Friday in an interview with People magazine: “We all believe that women should, and victims – regardless of gender – should come forward and have their day in court … domestic violence doesn’t have a gender.”
But there is a discernible shift in mood. At trial, Depp’s legal and PR teams appeared careful to not dwell on #MeToo or cancellation. It was left to Richard Marks, the Hollywood deal negotiator, to spell it out. An actor’s reputation, he said, is synonymous with the product. “You want a reputation that supports the value that you spent on creating that product, especially in the last five years, with the #MeToo movement, you wouldn’t want negativity hiring an actor who, quote-unquote, had been canceled.”
But the media and entertainment businesses does appear to be re-evaluating Depp and weighing a possible comeback. Since the verdict, actors and models, including Zoe Saldana, Emma Roberts, Patti Smith, Bella Hadid, Helena Christensen and Jennifer Aniston have “liked” Depp’s post-verdict statement to his 25 million Instagram followers saying he was “truly humbled”.
Thomas Doherty, author of Show Trial, about the 50s Hollywood blacklist and the “red scare”, says Depp’s trial could be seen as akin to those of Fatty Arbuckle – accused and later cleared on rape and murder charges – or Charlie Chaplin – accused of communist sympathies and questioned for his involvement in a paternity suit.
“It’s difficult to get your reputation back, and that’s maybe one of the reasons the Depp case has such resonance,” Doherty said. “That fan letter might be a tipping point where you can feel the culture shift.”
But while Hollywood weighs its options, another lucrative industry is already reaching out: fashion.
The French luxury brand Dior never dropped Depp as the face of its Sauvage fragrance, and sales are reportedly up. The interjection of supermodel Kate Moss into the trial in support of Depp signaled that the fashion world often takes a different approach.
“Fashion can’t really afford to exile people for very long, because it’s about the constant recirculating and refashioning of ideas, images, people, tropes and also pushing boundaries of good taste and propriety,” said New York fashion marketing consultant Bonnie Morrison.
Hollywood, many anticipate, may also soon come round when the weight of public support evident on social media during the case and now, allows for an opportunity to test Depp before a film audience. In some ways, Depp’s behavior at the trial itself was even a kind of audition. “He was being humorous, aloof, making comments or doing things that reminded people of why they love him. He was pretty much being Jack Sparrow and his fans saw that,” said Engelmeyer.
And, of course, in the end what really matters to Hollywood is the potential bottom line. Los Angeles lawyer Allison Hope Weiner said: “Hollywood isn’t about politics. It’s about business and making money. They want to make a product that appeals to the largest audience.”