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As the trial of the century nears its end, the outcome remains anyone's guess. And while there are tens of millions of dollars at stake, the ruling in the court of public opinion might count just as much, if not more, than the verdict in the courtroom.
After closing arguments Friday, it will be up to the jury to decide whether Amber Heard defamed her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, to the tune of $50 million when she wrote a 2018 Washington Post op-ed about being a survivor of sexual assault. While she did not name Depp in the article, his side maintains that references to him are clear and damaging.
While the jurors are bound by the legal definitions of defamation in reaching their decision, the millions of viewers around the world tuning in to watch the trial live-streamed from Fairfax County, Va., are free to reach their own conclusions. As public figures, and specifically as entertainers, both Depp and Heard's popularity and marketability are crucial for their career success. This is the foundation of Depp's lawsuit and Heard's $100 million countersuit; each is accusing the other of ruining their respective reputations, costing them millions in potential earnings.
So how have Depp and Heard performed in the court of public opinion so far, and what do they stand to gain or lose from that reception? EW separately interviewed two crisis PR experts with years of experience in Hollywood to help find out. Both spoke under the condition of anonymity so that they could speak freely.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial
First of all, why have people cared so much about this trial?
Before the accusations flew and the trial began, Depp's career seemed to be in a death spiral. A series of flops, combined with his shocking spending habits (revealed in yet another lawsuit against his former business managers), was threatening to financially ruin him. Heard meanwhile was comparatively unknown before her whirlwind romance with Depp on the set of The Rum Diary thrust her into the tabloids.
So why do people seem more interested in the duo on the courtroom live stream than on the big screen? "Here's why we're all excited to talk about it: It's trashy!" says our first industry source. "We all are seeing something that we should have no access or insight into; it's like the dirty gossip that is happening down the street, something that you really shouldn't see. And on top of that, it's juicy and with famous people, so everyone cares. And both sides have muddied the waters so much, that will do damage no matter what to both of their careers."
Why does Depp seem to be receiving so much public support?
Despite the heinous accusations against him, many of which a U.K. court previously found credible, a quick glance at your favorite social media platform will probably point to Depp as the winner of the battle for public support. The hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp alone has surpassed 10 billion views on TikTok, according to Wired. Why, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, has the public seemed to rally behind Depp and demonize Heard?
"Bringing people in like Kate Moss, who he was rumored to have hit, and have women standing up for him, that's hard to get," our first PR source says. "One of the reasons why I think he's getting a bit of a pass here is that he has a lot of people willing to stand up for him. And whether or not that's because of a power dynamic and this is Hollywood at its finest, or worst, that means something."
EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Kate Moss testifies on behalf of her ex-boyfriend in court during the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard legal battle.
"It truly proves that it kind of doesn't matter what happens in the court of law, it's what the public thinks," our second PR source says. "Depp has now re-proven his popularity. He's the Fonz, right?"
Heard, meanwhile, "doesn't have a lot of the vocal support she needed," the first source adds. "I really think [her team] thought they had much more of a slam dunk. And both lawyers are bulldogs about all of this. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but he's certainly winning the court of public opinion, and that does matter at the end of the day."
Given the apparent PR victory, was the trial worth Depp's time and money even if he loses the case?
Depp has told the court that no matter the verdict, he's grateful for the opportunity to tell his truth. But are there benefits to him getting his narrative into the public sphere besides his own dedication to truth-telling?
"I think this has at least given him space to paint her as questionable," says the first source. "I don't think he had anything to lose at that point, and people already knew him as a loose cannon, so anything he's doing is not something totally new."
"You're trying to ascribe a rational reasoning to someone who's clearly not rational," the second source says of divining Depp's motivations. "That's a personal decision he made and has to make, so it's hard to answer that because that's something that goes on in his mind, and a value he can judge and the rest of us can't."
EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Johnny Depp during his defamation trial against Amber Heard
Can they come back from this?
Depp's career was already in trouble before Heard levied her allegations, but Hollywood loves a comeback story. "Somebody's going to find a way to be in business with him somehow," our second source says. "It may be in Moldavia, but somebody's going to find a way to be in business with him. There's too much support. Look at those protests — those are spontaneous things outside the courthouse."
For many viewers, the second source says, Depp's swaggering, wisecracking performance in court has actually "reminded people of why they liked him." The source explains, "He came as full-on Johnny Depp, didn't he? It reminds all of us of the importance of authenticity."
Still, while Depp may find work somewhere, both experts agree that he has a long road back to mainstream Hollywood stardom. "I think for big studios, it's still a tough sell," says the first source. "The world has moved on [from #MeToo], but our industry still wants to prove a point. So I think there still is a place for him and he can work slowly to come back, smaller independents, have a few moments, and build in that way."
The second source adds, "Twenty years ago, it was a different thing. Right now, with their corporate ownerships, nobody wants to be in business with either of them, trust me. Nobody in big corporate America wants to be in business with either of them, but that's not to say that nobody wants to be in business with them, it's just nobody in big corporate America wants to answer for that. But other people certainly will."
STEVE HELBER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Amber Heard
How do you think each has done on the stand?
Between Depp's snide quips and Heard's emotional, sometimes fiery testimony, much has been made — and memed — about their performances on the stand. "I think her performance is less believable and now the cracks are showing," says the first source. "And for him, again, he's playing to a crowd. He certainly knows how to ham it up; he is still a movie star. But honestly, I don't think either of them is doing a great job."
Heard seems to have struggled the most with her messaging, both sources agree, as evidenced by her decision to switch crisis PR teams mid-trial. "You can clearly see what their teams are throwing back and forth at each other, and neither of them is very coordinated or strategic, but it does feel like there is much more of a controlling side for him than there is on her side," adds the first source. "You can tell she's had different people advising her on the crisis side. They needed to ingratiate her because she never ingratiated herself, period, ever. So that's a deficit to begin with, when you're up against a major movie star anyway, even if he might be a trash human being."
How would you have advised them differently?
"It's hard because we could all Monday-morning-quarterback this stuff," the first source concedes. "His side probably did the job, but her side did not do the 'court of public opinion' job and I think they kind of counted on the courtroom doing that for them, and it didn't, so now they don't have either. And I don't know who wins in the end, but in our business, the court of public opinion is the only one that matters."
As for what Heard could have done differently, the first source says seemingly avoidable mistakes, like Heard's failure to donate her divorce settlement money to charity as promised, have been costly: "Things like the donations, the fact that she didn't donate, there are things like that she could've easily done to clean up her side of the street before this." (Heard blamed Depp's lawsuits for her inability to make the payment but said she intends to fulfill her promise when she's able.)
"I would say to Johnny, whatever happens in the trial, you gotta play what you're winning, which is in the public," says the second source, adding, "You may have to leave this country and go to a different country where they kind of don't care about these things so much."
John Phillips/getty Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in 2011
What steps do they each need to take to stage a comeback?
"If you have a long game and a strategic approach, I think anyone in our business can rebuild themselves," says the first source. "But I think it would almost benefit Johnny, if he won, to be like, 'There were still things I did wrong, and I'm sorry.' That's what you have to do in our business. You have to recognize what you did wrong, you have to say you're sorry, you have to give no other context for that, and you have to learn and show back up. But if any of that isn't authentic or real, then it won't work."
And in a world that's been forced to live without blockbusters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences seem to be craving the symmetrical-faced escapism only true movie stars can provide. "We're in this time where we have a Tom Cruise [resurgence], people are excited about movie stars again. For a minute, people weren't as excited at all. Johnny can sit down and do one amazing, easy softball interview after this and plant the seed he wants to come back."
As for Heard, the second source says, "I think Amber is a lot more dependent on the outcome of the trial. If she wins the trial, I think she's pretty much vindicated and it's going to be hard not to hire her. At the same time, it's not like anyone is saying, 'I want to be in the Amber Heard business.' Nobody's saying that right now."