Trump and The Emoji Movie

Sony Pictures Animation
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In my forthcoming book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, I look closely at America’s modern invention of and unequalled immersion in show business, from the make-believe concoctions of P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill to those of Walt Disney and the WWE character/reality show star/insult comic now in the Oval Office.

I don’t blame The Emoji Movie, and its success since opening last week, on President Trump. But both are quintessentially 21st-century entertainment phenomena, both are jaw-dropping symptoms of American decline—and they share a fundamental marketing strategy.

The Emoji Movie was about as negatively reviewed by professional critics as a movie can be. Its percentage of positive notices, according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, is 7 percent. The other big bad movies this summer, such as Baywatch and Transformers: The Last Knight, completely tanked, some people think, because Rotten Tomatoes now enables everyone to know an extremely negative consensus with precision before movies open.

So why did The Emoji Movie have a successful opening weekend, unlike those bombs? As The Hollywood Reporter explained on Wednesday, it’s in part because Sony forbade reviews from being published until hours before the movie opened. Sony’s president of marketing was proud of the trick he pulled off, winning with a product the elite despised: “What other wide release with a [Rotten Tomatoes] score under 8 percent has opened north of $20 million? I don’t think there is one.”

Does that not sound a lot like Trump or a spokesperson of his gloating about how the mainstream haters thought he could never win the nomination or the presidency? And was the studio’s press strategy not akin to the Trump administration’s move of excluding cameras from press briefings?

Rotten Tomatoes also measures audience reaction. Only 7 percent of critics liked The Emoji Movie, but it has an “audience score” of 44 percent—strikingly similar to Trump’s approval ratings among the professionals and civilians, respectively. We'll find out if The Emoji Movie develops a sufficiently devoted fan base to make its sequels profitable. Trump, like a show-business impresario, is playing exclusively to his most devoted fans, ignoring the haters and everyone else, hoping that he can somehow stay afloat with only a passionate plurality of supporters. We’ll see if that works, too.