By Matthew Fleischer
8:00 AM EDT, May 2, 2013
In early April, while making the promotional rounds for "Oblivion," Morgan Freeman made an appearance on the “Ask Me Anything” section of the popular social news and entertainment website Reddit.
For those unfamiliar with “Ask Me Anything," or AMA, the conceit is quite simple: a poster announces their presence in a message board-like setting, and anonymous fans and curiosity seekers from across the Internet ask them questions -- or ignore them entirely -- as they see fit.
AMAs that catch on inevitably include some questions that are thoughtful and earnest, some that are rude and others just bizarre. A running joke on the site is to ask AMA posters, “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”
This may all sound needlessly silly. Why would someone of Freeman’s stature risk participating in such a venture -- given the kinds of questions that could inevitably surface in an anonymous online setting?
But Reddit’s AMA is no mid-1990s AOL message board. It is one of the most popular and influential features on the Internet, boasting 3 million users from around the world, a preponderance of whom are in the coveted 18-34 demographic.
The freewheeling nature of the forum often makes for great psychological study, which can translate to big news. Because the questions are so over the map, and the answers are written in real time, readers are given insight into the intellectual abilities and eccentricities of AMA subjects that many traditional interviews don’t deliver.
Not only can an AMA make for a great marketing boost on its own, but the ripple effect of writers scanning AMAs for material can create viral shock waves that tear across the entire Internet.
Even President Obama conducted an AMA during his 2012 presidential run.
The Hollywood publicity machine has begun to take notice, and stars promoting their films are becoming an increasingly common sight in the AMA world. Despite the feature’s popularity, however, Freeman is one of the bigger names to appear on the site and drew a particularly massive online crowd.
The voice of God, starring in a new sci-fi movie, talking to geeks on the Internet -- what could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, plenty. Within an hour of Freeman’s online arrival thousands of angry Reddit users stormed the Internet to accuse Freeman’s public relations team of conducting the interview without the actor present.
"I think this a PR rep answering and not really Morgan Freeman," wrote one user. "The answers are all bland and one lined. I don’t get the Morgan Freeman vibe.” "This stinks of insincerity," agreed another, as the negative comments kept rolling in. "The press agent vibe is strong with this one."
Freeman’s supposed description of working with Tom Cruise on “Oblivion” as being “awesome,” definitely raised some eyebrows. His user name “OblivionMovie,” instead of, say, Morgan Freeman, pushed Reddit over the edge.
“The Morgan Freeman thing was a debacle,” actor, director and avid Reddit user Zach Braff said in an interview with The Times. “I tuned in and immediately said: ‘This is bull—.' "
Freeman and his team insisted to Reddit administrators that the actor was answering the questions orally, while his publicity people transcribed what he said. By that point, however, it was too late. Once the hive mind sets its mind to something, it’s difficult to shift gears and the damage can linger.
Earlier this week, comedian Bo Burnham did an AMA in which he preceded the Q&A by announcing to all: “OBLIVION IS IN THEATERS NOW!"
Burnham also changed his user name to “BOblivionMovie.”
The inside jokes were a hit, and Burham’s AMA went well, including his efforts to plug his new MTV show -- all at Freeman’s expense.
There are, however, rewards for those who handle the format well. Braff, for instance, although he is a Reddit fan and has done two AMAs before, was savvy enough to steer clear of the section when he launched his controversial Kickstarter campaign to fund his film “Wish I Was Here” last week.
“I find that Reddit has zero appetite for being marketed to,” Braff said. “They smell BS a mile away. It’s like those people who go on Howard Stern and don’t want to answer any questions. It’s not going to go well for you.”
Though he didn’t conduct an AMA, Braff did, however, go on Reddit as a commenter to address critiques of his decision to solicit donations from fans to fund his film.
“That’s what's so cool about Reddit,” Braff said. “You can just go on there and be part of the conversation. I think it’s good to go on there and clear stuff up. On one of my AMAs someone tried to tell a story about how I left a crappy tip at a restaurant. That one pissed me off. I was a waiter myself. I’m not stiffing waiters. So I tracked the guy down and got him to admit he’d been telling that story for years, with no factual basis. You’ve got to deal with things like that.”
Other than damage control, Braff thinks there is publicity value to be had from doing an AMA, but it needs to be handled delicately. Despite its massive growth in recent years, Reddit is still a community with values of its own – sincerity paramount among them. As with traveling to a foreign country, it’s best to do some research before you touch down.
“Actors get put in there by their publicists, but if you’re not part of that community, they’ll sniff you out," Braff said.
Arguably the most infamous public relations failure in Internet history, not involving a sex tape, is the AMA that actor Woody Harrelson attempted last year while promoting his film "Rampart."
As with Freeman, an actor of Harrelson’s celebrity attracted huge interest. In turn, Harrelson was immediately greeted with a question about an alleged illicit liaison with a recent high school graduate.
The actor could have dealt with the question head-on, ignored it or even just laughed it off. He chose none of the above.
“First off, its [sic] not true, and second off, I don't want to answer questions about that. Lets focus on the film people.”
Harrelson then spent the rest of his time on the site refusing to answer any questions that didn’t have to do with “Rampart.”
“Ask me anything ... about Rampart” is still a running joke on the site. Six months after Harrelson’s AMA, director Kevin Smith of “Clerks” fame fielded questions in the section under the banner: “IAmA relic from the 90's named Fat Kev Smith. AMA about Rampart.”
Smith has done five AMAs and is a regular on the site, addressing such topics as comic books and his autoerotic habits. Though his film success has cooled since his heyday in the 1990s, Smith’s fluency with Reddit has arguably made him one of the most popular podcasters on the Internet -- a career turn that helped land him his television show “Comic Book Men” on AMC.
After years of cultivating a publicity machine designed to carefully and selectively restrict the flow of even the most trivial nuggets of information, Hollywood may need to come to terms with the fact that letting go is increasingly emerging as the formula for success in the brave new world of online publicity.
Publicity representatives for Smith, Braff and Burnham all say they had nothing to do with their clients’ AMAs -- all three are Reddit fans and tackle the medium of their own.
"I have nothing to do with AMAs," said one who did not want to speak for attribution about the platform. The client "lets me know what's happening and handles the whole thing himself."
“A lot of entertainers feel like doing an AMA is part of the job,” Braff said. “But I get pleasure out of it. Sure, you’re going to get negative comments and people trolling you. But this is 2013. If I got into the fetal position every time someone said something mean about me, I’d never leave my bed.”
Follow Matthew Fleischer on Twitter @Mattefleischer
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times