Spoiler Alert: How Hollywood Insiders Like Dwayne Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch Really Feel About Reveals, Leaks and Broken NDAs

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On the morning of June 23, just hours before Thor: Love and Thunder’s world premiere at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, Walt Disney Co. senior publicist Marshall Weinbaum tweeted a polite request for discretion to the first audience to take in Taika Waititi’s new Marvel Studios effort.

“Let’s please (please, please) be respectful in our tweets so fans can equally discover the movie themselves when it opens next month!” Then, like Thor, Weinbaum dropped the hammer. “As a reminder, I don’t work with outlets who post spoilers and leaks.”

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While the not-so-veiled threat was aimed at the Hollywood press and Twitterati, Weinbaum’s post signaled the tough stance some studios are taking to protect content. Ever since word of mouth migrated from water coolers and cineplex sidewalks to social media platforms, insiders have been forced to grapple with a foe worthy of its own cinematic universe — spoiler culture. The swirl is strongest when it centers on fare from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC because of the overwhelming sum of superhero fans, but with the rise in streaming wars and day-and-date drops, no plot point is safe anymore.

“It’s amazing to be online to share, talk about and experience something together,” says Thor: Love and Thunder co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. “But be present. Watch the movie, digest the movie and talk about it in person with your friends.” Then wait “at least three weeks, maybe a month” before engaging in dishy online conversations, advises Love and Thunder executive producer Brian Chapek. “You want to give people a chance to see it, and nothing beats seeing those big reveals in the theaters,” he says. “You want to protect that.”

It has become commonplace for industry invites (especially those sent to media) to include boilerplate requests similar to Weinbaum’s tweet. Most are a variation of this one, also from Disney: “In order to give audiences around the world the opportunity to enjoy our movies to the fullest and allow them to discover any surprises and plot twists, we respectfully ask that you as press refrain from revealing spoilers and detailed story points in your coverage, including on social media.”

But there’s no rule book for everyone else. Just ask Kim Kardashian.

Spider-Man: No Way Home hit theaters Dec. 17, and 10 days later, Kardashian took to Instagram, where she counts 322 million followers, to share snaps of the big screen in her home theater featuring the blockbuster’s worst kept secret: Tom Holland hugging fellow Spideys Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire as part of a multiverse storyline. Marvel fans, particularly those yet to experience the thrill of seeing three Peter Parkers, were none too pleased by Kardashian spoiling the reunion.

Some argue that the mere presence of surprises and the urge to discuss them online is organic marketing. Red Notice director Rawson Marshall Thurber said something similar to THR at his film premiere last year. “What’s great about endings that surprise people is that they drive conversation and [inspire] people to say to their friends, ‘You’ve got to go see this and we’ll talk,'” Thurber noted. “But not spoiling experiences is really important, whether its a TV series or a feature film. The Sixth Sense has one of the great endings of all time and I would’ve been terribly disappointed if somebody had told me before I saw it.”

Blockbuster vet Dwayne Johnson said he proceeds with caution in the same manner on every project. “Let’s assume the secret that we’re trying to keep — or the secrets, plural — is going to get out. If we assume that, then it sets us up to not be so greatly disappointed when it is revealed.”

In the absence of hard-and-fast rules, creatives pin hopes on “an honor code,” veteran producer Beau Flynn told THR, also at the Red Notice premiere. “I really trust the casts and crews we work with, but we work really hard at it,” Flynn said. “We make it very clear that you can’t post, ever, without approval from the producers and the studio. The crews we work with have been doing this long enough that they really help protect us.”

Still, leaks happen, and both Johnson and Flynn know that all too well. Flynn, a frequent Johnson collaborator, produced the superstar’s DC superhero debut in the upcoming Black Adam, a production that was forced to deal with leaked images from the set. “That was hard,” Flynn explained of images that were posted on Twitter and then circulated by fan sites and other movie blogs. “We had a lot of leaks on that set, and it wasn’t anyone in our crew. We shut down those accounts and were able to trace it back [to the source]. But it was really hard. The good news is that we were able to release the costume featuring Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam before it got out — but it was close.”

Other productions have worked to find the source of leaks, as well, with Marvel temporarily dismissing an extra suspected of leaking a surprise casting in one of its 2021 features. (The extra was welcomed later back to work after it was determined he was not behind the leak.)

Another strategy that has been employed by high-profile filmmakers is appealing to moviegoers’ moral compass. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho — a stylish thriller with a twist ending — had its world premiere in September 2021 at the Venice Film Festival, ahead of which the filmmaker posted a letter requesting that viewers “keep the secrets within so that others can discover them later.”

A few weeks later, Wright told THR at the film’s Los Angeles premiere in October that he was inspired to post the plea after seeing peers Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon Ho lead the way with letters of their own before festival premieres of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Parasite, respectively. “It seems like stating the obvious to say, ‘Don’t reveal the secrets,’ but you’re appealing to people’s better nature,” Wright explained. “It’s not like people are necessarily even doing it maliciously, sometimes it’s misplaced enthusiasm. People on the internet sometimes assume that everybody is seeing it at the same time.”

His Last Night in Soho writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns says no matter the source, “everyone needs to take responsibility” for unnecessary spoilers that ruin the theatrical experience for others. “I’m the kind of person who likes to go into a movie cold. I won’t watch trailers or read reviews. I just go right in because I want to have [a pure] experience but it’s so hard to exist online and not have that constantly in the ether,” she notes, adding that secrecy is ever more important during a pandemic, when some moviegoers are shy about rushing to the cineplex. “If you can be a good human being, please do.”

Even the best intentions can miss the mark. Immediately following the world premiere of Marvel’s The Eternals, two Variety journalists tweeted that Harry Styles popped up in the Chloé Zhao-directed film. Because the film was more than two weeks from its global launch, the respected reporters faced the wrath of MCU fans who would’ve preferred that they ignored the news value out of respect for a pure cinematic experience for others. [Styles appears as Eros during an end credits scene.]

In another buzzworthy Marvel end-credits cameo, Charlize Theron surprised legions of moviegoers as Clea opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. A month after that film’s May release, Theron pulled another shocker by turning up as a superhero in Amazon’s The Boys. In the opening moments of season three’s first episode, Theron plays Nazi villain Stormfront in a scene from the Dawn of the Seven superhero film.

Moments later, the action segues to one of the wildest TV scenes in recent memory with a truly jaw-dropping scene (spoiler alert: an exploding penis!). When THR encountered Theron a week later at her charity gala, the Oscar winner quickly recoiled at a question about that scene because she didn’t want to be spoiled. “No, no, don’t tell me,” she said with a laugh. “I haven’t seen it yet. I read about it in the press but I haven’t watched because I’ve been working.” (After THR posted a story featuring an interview with Theron about her superhero cameos, a reader fired off an angry email because while Doctor Strange had been in theaters for five weeks, it had not yet debuted on Disney+.)

The pressure and responsibility of tip-toeing around spoilers weigh most heavily on actors and filmmakers as they routinely find themselves in front of journalists thirsty for exclusives. Doctor Strange star Cumberbatch told THR last year that if he had it his way, “there would be another conversation when the film’s open so we can talk about the complete journey because that’s what a film is: a complete journey.”

He went on one journey without his Cloak of Levitation — and snagged an Oscar nomination for it — by teaming with Jane Campion in Netflix’s The Power of the Dog. The Western, based on the book by Thomas Savage, contained key spoilers, and Cumberbatch said, like his Marvel work, he wanted audiences to come in fresh. “It’s the thrill of the unknown and multiple shifts with four central characters in a psychological thriller. Why spoil that?”

When Holland appeared in front of a packed theater in Sherman Oaks to debut the No Way Home trailer in November 2021, he worked hard not to give away any Spidey secrets — even going so far as to joke about the threat of extreme punishment. “There is so much more in this movie,” Holland teased. “You’ll be screaming and it’s …” he said before abruptly changing course to avoid revealing too much (or slipping about that Spidey reunion). “I want to tell you everything, but I can’t. Someone over there will kill me.”

Holland was obviously joking about the murder part — though he later revealed that lying about Maguire and Garfield led to sleepless nights and a guilt-ridden phone call to his mother — but there could be ramifications to breaking one’s confidentiality agreement. However, one prominent entertainment attorney tells THR that in a town where talent relationships are more prized than a Point Dume address, it’s rare to see stars targeted for slips of the tongue. “No studio is going to sue an actor over accidentally spilling the beans,” he says. “People are more likely to honor terms of contracts that exist so it never hurts to include it, especially because it will be a strong motivator to encourage the desired behavior of keeping it secret.”

The attorney pointed out that confidentiality agreements are crucial in the unscripted space, particularly for competition shows like The Bachelor that rely on audiences staying invested for a full season with the promise of an ultimate reveal at the end. If a winner leaks ahead of time, the damage could impact ratings; hence, some contracts impose penalties upwards of $5 million. “If you already know who is going to win, you may just ignore the finale and turn on a Mad Men rerun,” he quips.

Jonathan Groff, who had to keep his character arc in The Matrix Resurrections a secret, joked that he doesn’t need a stiff penalty to keep his lips zipped. “Oh my God, I was in the closet for 23 years so compartmentalizing and keeping secrets, sadly, in some ways, comes very naturally to me.”

With contributions from Sydney Odman.

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