NEW YORK — She knew they were waiting to hear from her — Channing Tatum's millions of fans.
It had been more than an hour since LaQuishe Wright had posted a photo of the actor on his Twitter account, dressed in a suit "Headed to the Zeigfield." Now she and Tatum had arrived at the "White House Down" premiere, and Wright needed to give his followers another update.
So as he began walking down the red carpet, posing for photographs and greeting reporters, she stayed close by. Glued to her iPhone, she was barely noticeable among the melee, a diminutive 38-year-old in an airy halter dress flanked by hulking bodyguards, publicists, studio handlers. But Wright was one of the most important members of Tatum's entourage that evening: His social media manager, paid to make sure his fans (8.2 million on Facebook, 5.3 million on Twitter and 2.6 million on Instagram) are aware of what he's up to on a near-hourly basis.
As studio executives and casting directors increasingly factor in a celebrity's digital fan base, maintaining a healthy online presence has become vital for Hollywood stars. That's where Wright and a generation of her tech-savvy peers come in, helping to amplify and control the reputations of public figures via social media.
For social media buffs, it sounds like a dream job: Tweeting for a living. But Wright — whose client roster includes Zac Efron, Paul Walker, Nicholas Sparks and movie studios like Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox — is constantly on-guard, making sure her clients sustain an appropriate tone and share the right content. She strategizes the best times to post so as to attract the most eyeballs and uses search engine optimization tricks to further maximize views. And, much to the dismay of her husband and two sons, she is always within reach of a mobile device in the event important news breaks.
"A lot of celebrities have an aversion to Twitter, and I get it — they're scheduled every four minutes of their life, and they don't want to have to worry about it," said Wright, who goes by "Q." "But if you have a great social presence, that is a 100% benefit. Fans are more prone to go see Channing Tatum's movie if he's telling them about it — not a studio. And Hollywood is paying attention to that now."
That's partly because any tool that tracks online sentiment about a movie is important to studios. In recent months, traditional pre-release audience surveys intended to help predict a film's box office opening have often proven to be unreliable. When one of Wright's client's projects is generating a lot of buzz online — as was the case for Tatum's "Dear John" and "Magic Mike," she clues studios in.
"As a studio, if we see a fan base tweeting about our movies leading up to a release, we get excited — and often that's the result of someone like Q helping to engage people online by giving them an inside view," said Liz Jones, senior vice president of digital marketing at Relativity Media, which hired Wright to run the social media campaign for its February release "Safe Haven."
Many studios have their own in-house digital teams but will hire consultants like Wright to work on specific projects. The messages she sends out are conversational in tone — encouraging fans to check out a behind-the-scenes photo or sending out good wishes on certain holidays.
Even if there's an anodyne way to approach social media, there are plenty of Twitter holdouts — mostly high-profile stars like George Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Jennifer Lawrence who for reasons of privacy or mystery have chosen to stay out of the digital limelight. That can prove frustrating to executives like Jones, who says "it'd be a dream for all of our actors to have a big social media following."
"Honestly, though, I do think it's really hard for a celebrity to run all of their accounts by themselves," she added. "The smart ones understand they need someone to help."
That was the realization that Tatum had early on after his mother, Kay, stumbled across "Channing Tatum Unwrapped," a fan site Wright had created.
It was 2006, and Wright was dealing with personal struggles. Her son had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and one day, after months of stressful doctor's appointments, she decided to take an afternoon for herself.
She headed to a local multiplex near her home in Katy, Texas, and bought a ticket to "Step Up," Tatum's lighthearted dance flick. At the time, she had never heard of the then-fledgling actor. But she was taken with his performance and rushed home to scour the Internet to learn more about him.
"He had a really great spirit, and I thought, 'What other movies is this going to be in?'" she said.
Wright had never followed Hollywood closely. After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in computer science, she worked for an airline's information technology department, running her own Web consultant agency on the side.
So when she was unable to find much information about Tatum online, she decided to put her Web design skills to use and founded "Channing Tatum Unwrapped." Within a month, 30,000 visitors had visited the fan site — one of them was Tatum's mom.
"As a mother, you're interested in what's being said about your son, so I started noticing her site," recalled Kay Tatum. "She had updates and news that others didn't, and I thought it was well done, so I mentioned it to Chan."
Soon, Channing Tatum sent an email to Wright saying how appreciative he was of the site, even attaching a picture of himself sitting at his home computer to prove his identity. He asked if Wright's fan page could become his official site, and two months later he invited her to the set of his movie "Fighting" to hash out the details.
"I couldn't believe it — obviously, I could have just been a crazed fan. But he has a good gut," Wright said. "Being on that set in New York, waiting to meet someone I'd been writing about forever. But he walked up to me and tickled me in the ribs and broke the ice right away."
Now it's business
Six years after founding Tatum's site, Wright's passion project has turned into a full-blown business, Q Social Media, Ltd. She has five employees who mostly work remotely, reporting to her at her home base in Texas, though Wright makes at least a dozen trips to L.A. a year. For celebrity clients, her rates vary from $500 to $6,000 per month — but studios typically pony up at least double that, according to a source close to one distribution company.
Sparks, the bestselling novelist who has seen eight of his books adapted into films such as "The Notebook" and "Dear John," said that before working with Wright, he struggled to understand the purpose of Twitter.
"Before Q, there was a random quality to my tweets," he said. "I never would have thought to come up with a six-week-long Twitter plan in advance of one of my books. But Q did a wonderful job of explaining that this was my media platform — a chance to control the information I was releasing and the image I put out into the world."
Many of Sparks' tweets are self-generated — this week, for example, he wished "Notebook" star Gosling a happy birthday. But for other clients, Wright will sometimes tweet on an individual's behalf — marking the message with "Team Z," for example, on Zac Efron's account. Typically, the "team" tweets tend to be more promotional than personal — giving followers information about movie release dates or trailers.
The delineation is meant to provide clarity for fans, who have been bamboozled by misleading accounts. In June, George Takei angered many after a journalist said he had been writing $10 jokes for the "Star Trek" actor's Facebook page. (Takei denied the claim, saying he had help with technical logistics but provided all his own commentary.)
Among Wright's clients, Efron has recently come under scrutiny after tabloid reports surfaced in September that the actor had been to rehab for a drug problem. The first thing the "High School Musical" star did after the rumors broke? Post a picture of himself on Instagram at Machu Picchu, saying he had just returned from "an incredible trip to Peru" and "wanted to thank you all for your support these past few weeks." Wright would not comment on the post.
It's a job that requires an immense amount of trust — which is why some celebrities feel most comfortable hiring their longtime fans to do it. Leigh Lewallen, a 28-year-old who runs Michelle Rodriguez's official website, Facebook and YouTube accounts, said she believes the actress reached out to her years ago because "I was always very supportive of her. I saw the human being behind the celebrity."
Few know that better than Miley Cyrus, who has made headlines this year for shedding her Disney Channel roots and embracing a far more provocative image. When Cyrus noticed a particularly popular Twitter fan account popping up in her feed, she sent a direct message to the person behind it — Olivia Rudensky, a 17-year-old from Long Island. Soon, the high school senior was having lunch with Cyrus' mother, Tish, sharing tips on how she should announce her new single and get it to start trending on Twitter.
This past summer, Rudensky even flew to L.A. for a week, visiting Cyrus at her Toluca Lake home. While Cyrus keeps up her own individual Twitter account, Rudensky is now one of the heads of her @mileyofficial team page. She doesn't get paid but views it as an internship with great perks; last month, she got to go to "Saturday Night Live" when Cyrus hosted.
"I'm applying to colleges now and my whole essay is about this weird double life," said Rudensky. "How I started out as 'Hannah Montana' fan and have ended up working for her."
Even Wright — who was never much of a fangirl — says as recently as last summer, she still found it surreal to be flown to the set of Tatum's "22 Jump Street." The actor, once a self-described technology Luddite, has only recently become more comfortable hopping onto his social media accounts himself. In the past, if he wanted to share something with his fans — a photo from the Super Bowl, or a message about his wife — he'd send it to Wright to post.
"I'm excited he's getting more involved," she said. "I tell him — like all my clients — you can tweet whatever you want, but here's my advice on what you should probably stick to. If you tweet it and it ends up on 'E! News,' I can't do anything."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun