Johnny Depp Won in Court, But That Only Gets Him So Far

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Johnny Depp and Amber Heard spent the better part of their defamation trial slinging mud. And while Depp may have been handed a sweeping legal victory on June 1, that win can’t undo years of a deteriorating public image amid an acrimonious divorce from Heard. The question is whether the verdict wiped off enough dirt for any studio to roll the dice on casting him.

After six weeks of trial revealing salacious text messages and audio recordings of violent altercations, a Virginia jury sided with Depp on claims that he was defamed when Heard wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which she called herself a domestic abuse survivor. Although Heard won on one of her counterclaims concerning allegations — via Depp’s former attorney Adam Waldman — that her abuse claims were a hoax, she was awarded just $2 million compared to Depp’s $15 million (later reduced to $10.35 million in accordance with the state’s statutory cap on punitive damages).

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The proceedings garnered a massive amount of international attention from traditional news outlets and social media. Numerous Hollywood insiders testified in the defamation trial, peeling back some secrecy on industry decision-making. Attorneys for both legal teams explored how the battle and the events that precipitated the defamation duel impacted their careers.

Depp claimed that he was passed over for another sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, which his agent testified would have paid the actor $22.5 million, and that he was blacklisted from Hollywood when the op-ed surfaced at the height of the #MeToo movement. Heard, backed by her agent Jessica Kovacevic, claimed that Warner Bros. slashed her role in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and sidelined her in promoting The Stand because of bad press associated with her ex-husband publicly accusing her of lying about her abuse claims.

Now that the trial is over, several Hollywood insiders noted that neither Depp nor Heard is immediately castable. Their appearances come with more public relations liability that puts limits on the promotion of potential projects. All insiders who talked to The Hollywood Reporter add that the trial and its media coverage will have a greater impact on Heard’s career moving forward than Depp’s.

“It’s easier for a man to redeem himself than a woman,” says one agent, noting that Kevin Spacey, who will soon be facing sexual assault charges in Britain, was able to shoot a film that was then available at the 2022 Cannes Film Market. “People will say it’s because Hollywood is sexist. Our culture is sexist. Our business is emblematic of that culture.”

A survey of 600 people in the U.S. conducted from April 28 to June 2 by risk insurance startup Spotted Media indicated that Depp emerged from the trial in a much more favorable light than Heard. Of respondents aware of the lawsuit, 86 percent thought that Depp should not be dropped from future productions, while 64 percent thought that Heard should be.

Spotted Media chief Janet Comenos says there’s been healthy interest in reassessing the appetite to cast Depp and Heard. “We’ve never seen an example before of a celebrity like Johnny Depp improving his standing to this degree,” Comenos notes, adding, “and we’ve never seen a star like Amber Heard experience such a precipitous drop following a scandal.”

Also affecting Heard is that, heading into the trial, she was not the same type of star as Depp, who has led billion-dollar film franchises. “I think people will wrongly try to accuse the trial of causing her to miss out on roles,” one producer notes. (During the trial, DC Films president Walter Hamada claimed that Heard’s role in the Aquaman sequel, hitting theaters in March 2023, was not reduced due to the trial but rather due to a lack of chemistry with star Jason Momoa.)

As for the types of projects that could possibly employ Depp, several sources note that while a studio likely won’t touch him, he will find opportunities in the independently financed movie space — the types of projects that see bygone or disgraced big-name stars (think Mel Gibson) show up to set for a couple of days earning a base fee in the low millions. Says one agency partner, “There is plenty of opportunity for him in the independent space. He could make upwards of $15 million a year on those select movies.”

The agent also notes: “Say what you will about Johnny, he has shown to have a massive fan base.” Throughout the course of the trial, supposed Depp fans took to TikTok and YouTube with pro-Depp videos. Before that, the Depp-fronted Minamata, which was released on a handful of screens in the U.S. and grossed only $1.7 million at the box office, became the No. 3 pick for the fan-favorite Oscar, receiving more Twitter votes than blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home.

This fan base remains attractive to financier-producers that trade in certain kinds of indie productions. But the box office tells a different story about Depp’s pull with the general audiences. From a stretch from 2012 to 2015 before Heard published her op-ed, the four movies Depp headlined — Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and Mordecai — collectively grossed just $199 million domestically on a total budget of $525 million. Three had budgets in the nine figures that failed to break even at the box office. He followed up in 2016 with Alice Through the Looking Glass, which earned just $300 million worldwide and cost Disney hundreds of millions, after its predecessor topped $1 billion at the box office.

Questions also linger about Depp’s professionalism and behavior on set. His former agent, UTA’s Tracey Jacobs, testified in the trial that “people were talking” about his substance abuse as he continued to show up late to set and had to start wearing an earpiece to have his lines fed to him. “His star had dimmed due to it getting harder to get him jobs given the reputation he had acquired due to his lateness and other things,” Jacobs said, adding that it made “people reluctant to use him.”

Depp is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by a crewmember on the feature City of Lies alleging that the actor punched him twice in a drunken tirade. Depp allegedly took drugs on set and reeked of alcohol during the incident. The movie was yanked from theaters one month before its release, shortly after Depp settled a lawsuit against his former business managers, avoiding another high-profile trial.

Depp’s defamation suit against Heard revealed more unsavory behavior from the actor, including a long history of substance abuse and threats of violence. “Because of the way the trial worked out, you saw a lot of dark sides to Johnny Depp,” says Juda Engelmayer, a crisis management expert whose clients include Harvey Weinstein. “You saw the drinking issues. You saw the anger issues. He may not get a leading man role again in a family film.”

Depp and Heard will likely have to wait until appeals in their case are worked out to learn their standings in Hollywood. Heard says she plans to appeal the verdict, pointing to media hysteria over the trial as evidence that the jury was improperly influenced to vote against her.

Mia Galuppo and Borys Kit contributed to this report.

A version of this story appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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