Now that the Depp-Heard show is lurching to a close, with the trial in its jury-deliberation phase, it’s hard to imagine what the celebrity-industrial complex, and the media industry in general, will find to replace it.
Since April 11, when the defamation trial—which pits 58-year-old Hollywood mainstay Johnny Depp against his ex-wife, 36-year-old actor Amber Heard—began in a courtroom in Fairfax, Virginia, it’s been an all-consuming fixture of our collective media consciousness. And it’s stood out for being strangely unavoidable.
(To quickly review what’s at stake: In John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard, Depp is suing Heard for $50 million in damages because he claims a December 18, 2018 Washington Post op-ed that carried her byline* defamed him. In the piece, titled “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” she never specifically mentioned Depp, but his argument is that what she indirectly said about his behavior during their brief marriage amounted to career-damaging defamation. Heard is countersuing for $100 million.)
Usually, with a little concerted effort, it’s possible for media consumers who just do not care about famous people to stay contentedly out of the loop about any given celebrity drama. But Depp-Heard is different. From Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to TikTok, it has taken over social media. It’s infiltrated the front pages of everything from Reddit to old-school newspapers. It’s been the subject of exhaustive tabloid coverage as well as think pieces in the likes of The Atlantic and The New Yorker. It’s been broadcast and streamed in its entirety, live from the courtroom, to millions of rapt viewers of the Law & Crime Network and Court TV—and tens of millions more have seen various scenes from the trial thanks to obsessive coverage by the cable news networks and broadcast newscasts. The trial was even lampooned in the cold open of a May episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
Us Weekly, on a recent cover, declared it to be “Hollywood’s Trial of the Century”—though what’s missing from that possibly hyperbolic (but maybe not) declaration is “So Far.”
Because surely a spectacle this compelling, with this much consumer interest, this much scale, can’t just be a one-off. Depp-Heard has become its own content economy, a massive media machine unto itself.
OK, maybe not “Pirates of the Caribbean”-level massive, but there’s enough about this dark ride, with its often jaw-dropping twists and turns, and mutual claims of operatic spousal abuse, to continue to fuel interest for years to come.
In other words, Depp-Heard, in one form or another, is here to stay.
A few thoughts about how we got here—and what we’ve learned so far: