Not everything on social media is as it seems, and a new documentary attempts to show how easily an online personality can catapult to Instagram fame.
“Fake Famous” is by writer, director and producer Nick Bilton, a former technology reporter for the New York Times and correspondent for Vanity Fair. He attempts to show the “vast unintended consequences to these (social media) platforms” by giving three everyday people in Los Angeles exactly what they want: thousands of Instagram followers.
“We want to do an experiment to see if we can take some random people with a tiny following online and make them into famous influencers,” Bilton says in the film.
INFLUENCERS DISCUSS RACISM: ‘I need to talk about this’: Arizona’s Black Instagrammers get real about systemic racism
To find its would-be influencers, the documentary’s creators put out a casting call in Los Angeles that asked, “Do you want to be famous?”
More than 4,000 people responded.
The film’s three subjects — all fit, conventionally attractive, able-bodied people in their 20s — are selected for their lack of discernable talent. People with exceptional skills to display are more likely to become famous, Bilton explains.
Enter retail worker and aspiring actor Dominique Druckman (@dominiquedruckman), personal assistant Wylie Heiner (@wylezzz) and songwriter and designer Chris Bailey (@chrisvsmyself), all relative newcomers to Los Angeles.
Druckman has not had much luck in the film industry. She has been told she would be a stronger candidate if she had more than her 1,000 Instagram followers. Heiner hopes fame will be the solution to his uninspiring lifestyle in L.A., where he runs errands for a Beverly Hills real estate agent.
Bailey, who says he applies graphics to secondhand clothing, felt he was not sufficiently recognized for his musical and artistic talents in “too small” Tucson, where he grew up. “I feel like I deserve to” be famous, he says in his audition.
“If you want to be something, if you want to be somebody, then you’ve got to get the (expletive) out of Tucson, Arizona, at all costs necessary, bro,” Bailey says. “I was so down on myself.”
All three see Instagram fame as a solution to their problems.
The documentary, which assumes that the viewer regularly uses Instagram, effortlessly sets up how easily social media fame can be manipulated.
Bilton purchases 7,500 new followers and 2,500 likes for each subject for about $360. Each newly minted influencer has a low-budget photo shoot, during which they use toilet seats, kiddie pools and chopped wood to simulate experiences such as flying on a plane, receiving a spa treatment and going camping.
Influencing is all about faking it until you make it: If influencers appear to be partaking in these experiences regularly, they are more likely to receive free offers and partnerships from brands seeking publicity.
It takes just three months for the effects of the experiment to become evident. After multiple photo shoots and an ever-increasing number of fake likes and followers, the influencers start receiving free products and experiences in exchange for name dropping those who provide them.
But not all of them are enjoying the ride.
Chris Bailey, the designer from Tucson, seems to decide early on how he feels about the experiment.
“I believe I’m an influential person, Instagram or not,” he tells Bilton on the set of a private jet interior that they rent for $50 per hour. “I don’t need to do any more fake private jets.”
Though the fake influencers’ photo-shoot antics are amusing, the time spent detailing them in the film could have been better utilized.
“Fake Famous” opens with a three-minute scene about one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, the famous pink wall on the Paul Smith building in West Hollywood. But — and this is said lovingly as an LA native — the film does not take full advantage of the multitudes LA has to offer in terms of promotional events, locations, opportunities and other fame-seeking people.
The phenomenon goes far beyond the pink wall; there are many experiences and events created solely for the purpose of being shown on Instagram. To give fuller context than the drone footage of the city interspersed throughout the film, Bilton could have included a montage of people making (or faking) their own experiences at the city’s beaches, rooftop bars and murals.
Meanwhile, too little attention is given to the true experience of being a self-employed influencer, which includes negotiating rates and contracts, engaging with your (real, non-bot) audience, editing photos and videos, dealing with harassment, scheduling content and networking.
Liz Eswein, who has more than 1.6 million followers on her @newyorkcity account, has some of the most insightful commentary in the film, including the ways she herself has defrauded her followers. For example, she reveals that she moved to Los Angeles for a year while continuing to post content about New York City.
The film could have benefitted from interviewing more people like Eswein — people whose entire income depends on their social media presence.
Also among the documentary’s weaknesses are that topics abruptly cut into the film seemingly for the sake of checking them off a list, such as Russian bots influencing elections and social media negatively impacting our mental health. There isn’t adequate time to address such major issues.
The film succeeds in part due to Bilton’s willingness to follow his three subjects no matter their decisions. Unlike reality television producers, he does not seem interested in molding the influencers to fit his image.
If they want to stop posting, they can stop posting. If they want to delete the fake comments he spends thousands of dollars purchasing, they can do so.
The movie has some haunting imagery. Some standouts included Heiner sitting in his car and refreshing his Instagram notifications for more than half an hour and Druckman sitting in a dark Las Vegas party bus full of women vacantly staring at their glowing screens as strobe lights played across their faces.
Druckman, Heiner and Bailey have full character arcs. Though they each draw their own conclusions about whether they are well suited to a job of influencing, they are no longer naive about the work it entails.
In “Fake Famous,” Bilton questions what fame means in the social media age. If his intention is to make you think twice about the content you see while scrolling, he has done that.
But if “Fake Famous” seeks to dissuade people from wanting to become influencers, it falls short by failing to show the full scope of the less glamorous day-to-day realities of the job.
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Director: Nick Bilton.
Cast: Nick Bilton, Chris Bailey, Dominique Druckman, Wylie Heiner.
Rating: Unrated; some profanity used.
Note: Premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.