clock menu more-arrow no yes

A Meme Is Born: How Internet Jokes Turned ‘A Star Is Born’ Into a Hit

And a possible Oscar contender to boot

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

A Star Is Born began playing in theaters only last Thursday, but it has somehow been on millions of peoples’ minds all summer. Since the trailer for Bradley Cooper’s remake of the classic musical drama debuted in early June, a contagious, unavoidable excitement for the movie has spread throughout clusters of pop culture enthusiasts in Hollywood, the media, and the internet at large. “I just cried throughout the trailer to the new A Star Is Born,” Fuller House producer Bryan Behar wrote that month. “God help me.” He later confessed that he and his staff had watched it “eleventy million times.” “I’ve seen the Star Is Born trailer more times than I’ve seen some members of my family,” David Sims, a movie critic at The Atlantic, tweeted in August. “The trailer for A Star Is Born is absolutely iconic,” a fan chimed in. “I hope the movie never comes out.”

With nothing to do but wait, the internet set to work crafting memes that both mocked and lionized the earnest romance between Jackson (Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga). The formats came naturally: One played with the sentimental, four-panel scene from the trailer where Jack rolls down his car window to “take another look” at Ally—a shtick that budding ASIB scholars later realized exists in every version of the film. Another seized upon Ally’s first moment onstage with Jack, during which she grabs the microphone and lets out a skin-prickling HAAAAAAA AH AH AH, AHHH. ASIB trailer junkies—including many Ringer staffers—recut the limited footage available into other iconic movie scenes, memes, or entirely original narratives. “As a team we look for trailers to meme-ify,” Ringer video producer Jason Gallagher told me. “And this one was just, like, super easy.” Lady Gaga’s vocals were dropped into a Simpsons episode and a clip of Lindsay Lohan dancing in Mykonos. One particularly ambitious podcaster pieced together footage from a handful of Muppets movies for a parody starring Kermit and Miss Piggy. Ellen DeGeneres spoofed it. Amid this craze, I suggested to a friend that one could determine a person’s age by the version of ASIB with which they were most familiar. “Mine is the one with Jigglypuff,” he replied. (Mine is the one with the sandwich-eating lady.) All of this happened before a single member of the general public had seen the film.

Movies and television shows have always been a rich source of meme material. It is, after all, an actor’s job to portray relatable emotion on screen, and a modern digital media company’s duty to package and distribute that expression for the public’s delight. But in the past few years, the nature of digital marketing and the ubiquity of social media have made content mined from new releases even harder to miss. The internet’s thirst for newness has ensured that even if you have no interest in these things—whether they come in the form of a meme, a GIFable scene, or a beloved character—you will inadvertently encounter them while browsing the internet. That’s why shirtless GIFs of Chris Hemsworth as a hippie in Bad Times at the El Royale resurface in some people’s feeds for no apparent reason other than to inspire feelings of lust or anger. It’s why I can tell you—thanks to a catchy viral song—that Zendaya is voicing an animated character named Meechee for an upcoming feature. (I do not know the movie’s title or plot, but am nonetheless positive her performance is award-worthy.) And it is why, when Gallagher—who has overseen between 13 and 15 spoofs of the ASIB trailer, not including personal projects —finally saw the actual, full-length A Star Is Born film, he felt nostalgic. “It was almost set up so that the first hour of the film was all meme content, and then after that there was a full movie that was actually really good,” he told me. “So it was a cumulative experience.”

Andrew Spena—a 30-year-old social producer who custom-ordered matching shirts to wear with his boyfriend on the movie’s opening night—said that endlessly memed “hey” moment from the trailer was by far the most anticipated moment in his showing.

“The whole room was cheering when it happened,” Spena, who is based in Brooklyn, told me. “It was a thing we were all excited to see for real in front of our eyes on the big screen, and you felt that all around you. It had context. There was this electricity.”

Depending on how we encounter them, pop culture–related memes can influence our feelings about a cinematic work. Recently, this concept has become foundational to major movie studios’ promotion strategies. In 2015, the marketing firm North Kingdom worked with Universal Pictures to create a meme generator for Straight Outta Compton that allowed people to modify the text in the movie title and place it over their image of choice. The result caused the film to trend on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, according to the firm’s managing director, Nina Amjadi. (As is the case with memes, it also inspired some questionable use of the logo.) North Kingdom also worked with Paramount on a similar project to promote Ghost in the Shell last year, but because of controversy over the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson in the film rather than an Asian female lead, people used the meme generator to communicate their frustration with the studio. In both instances, the online content took on a life and tone of its own. Even if this audience participation had nothing to do with the intended artistic intentions of the films, it nevertheless influenced what viewers thought of them.

“We’re definitely moving away from the traditional sense of marketing a movie, where it’s like: here’s a poster, here’s a trailer, and potentially a website,” Amjadi told me. “That’s not how consumers engage anymore. It’s about the little things, how to use movie characters to communicate between you and your [partner]. Or introducing a new meme format or GIF format. How do we find a way to relate the characters in this movie, or the stories in this movie, into day-to-day life? That’s how it becomes relevant.”

The viral boom of A Star Is Born was not, in this case, manufactured by a single marketing firm. But its earnest, emotional trailer elicited a level of pre-release exposure that, in some cases, surpassed that of similar blockbuster movies with comparable marketing budgets. At The Ringer’s request, the social listening firm Crimson Hexagon analyzed the volume of social media posts for six major 2018 movies—Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ocean’s 8, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Incredibles 2, and A Star Is Born—four weeks before each title’s release. With 771,935 posts, ASIB was the fourth-most-talked-about film of the bunch. And though it was much farther below a major superhero movie like Avengers: Infinity War (which came in first at 5,237,657 posts), it far surpassed more recognizable franchises like Jurassic World (334,160 posts) and Ocean’s 8 (201,452 posts). Crimson Hexagon also found that prior to the release of the ASIB trailer, the film averaged less than 1,000 mentions per day. But when the trailer dropped on June 6, 149,408 people posted about it the same day. That hype tracked in the box office. The movie made an estimated $41.25 million in its opening weekend, coming in second to Venom’s $80 million, and helped break the record for biggest October weekend movie earnings of all time.

“People’s attention spans are very short and just out of a trailer they can form a very strong opinion or perception about something,” Amjadi said. “So I think that’s something that we can all learn from.”

The Star Is Born trailer was, for many fans, a celebration of stereotypical movie devices that would usually push a dramatic pop star love story into the realm of camp. These fixations—which included Bradley Cooper’s toady voice and Floridian skin, Dave Chappelle’s context-less cameo, a cheesy moment between the two main characters, and Lady Gaga’s earworm wail—were ideal fodder for jokes. Especially given that, meanwhile, critics who had seen the film swore that it was Oscar-worthy. (Aside from the usual promotional social media from the actors and the studio, Crimson Hexagon found that many of the most popular ASIB posts were jokes and memes.) In reality, ASIB is a serious love story with an extremely playable soundtrack. But it was the suggestion of over-the-top acting that, in Spena’s mind, made it both an excellent meme and an Oscar-worthy movie.

“If anything it was kind of a fake-out,” he said. “I had gotten so excited about the jokeyness—this giddiness that the whole internet has whenever it receives new Star Is Born content—so it was a really nice surprise. This is a movie that wants to say something very earnest, and doesn’t really give itself over to the kind of stuff that made the internet obsessed with the trailer. It’s not this campy thing.”

Whether ASIB’s meme-dom can bolster it during awards season remains to be seen. Some evidence exists to suggest that even notoriously outdated awards shows may not be impervious to online influence. Last year, Shannon Purser received an Emmy nomination for her role as Barb in Stranger Things—a character that, despite minimal screen time, became an obsession among media outlets. According to one awards season publicist, standout movie trailer moments have been known to predict winners. “When the Fences trailer came out, people were talking about Viola Davis in the scene with the snot coming down from her nose,” the publicist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “They were proclaiming that she was going to win the Oscar without context, which she then ended up winning.”

ASIB has enjoyed both commercial and financial success with the help of online publicity, but its chance of winning an Oscar now depends on a set of Academy members who may not receive its campy trailer or legion of memes quite so zealously. At least one voting member who attended a packed screening of the film last week said he was “all set to hate it because of the trailer,” per The Hollywood Reporter. (He changed his mind after seeing the film.) Even with the Academy’s recent efforts to diversify, it’s possible that not one “Hey” meme has penetrated feeds of certain members.

“I think the question is, how many Academy members are paying attention to the internet in that sense?” the publicist said. “I’m not saying that there are none. There probably are plenty. Press is press and great press is even better. I’m just not sure how big of an impact it has on the awards race.”

Meanwhile, Spena already knows what film he wants to win Best Picture. ASIB has brought him at least five months of entertainment, via countless memes generated in anticipation for the film, and through the surprisingly compelling portrayal of an earnest love story.

“Fuck First Man,” he said. “I haven’t seen it. But A Star Is Born deserves everything.”

The Rewatchables

‘Old School’ With Bill Simmons, Chris Ryan, and Sean Fennessey

Villains

Bonus Episode: Chong Li Q&A

Movies

Mr. Parker Goes to Venice

View all stories in Movies