Twitter, Facebook have changed what 'word-of-mouth' really means.
If the world seems to turn faster with each passing month, then don’t be surprised that the weekend box office has now shrunk to a single day: Friday.
The rise of social networking, studio executives say, is driving a near-instantaneous word of mouth effect that is doing much to hyper-charge Hollywood’s multi-million-dollar marketing efforts…or to defeat them a lot faster than usual.
A movie like “Up,” for example, had Disney executives surprised at its opening weekend success, which outstripped projections and brought in $68 million domestically.
Studio tracking did not indicate that the movie would have strong appeal to adults without children, one executive said, but by Saturday exhibitors were noting that that exact demographic was going to the movie.
"It's a new phenomenon and we're really seeing it this summer,” said Dick Cook, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios. “Clearly there's a Twitter effect."
Instant messaging and Facebook has been around for some time, driving a social network effect on word of mouth on movies.
But the burgeoning popularity of Twitter has created an exponential effect on the movement, which one marketing expert — termed “marketing velocity” — that can especially hurt a movie that audiences don’t like.
“If you’re tweeting and people are catching that live and they’re out at drinks and were planning on seeing the movie tomorrow — that hurts,” said Gordon Paddison, a marketing consultant who specializes in technological change.
The speed of Twitter “has a direct effect on marketing velocity changes, which is not something people used to put in the mix,” he continued. “Twitter is real time. It’s like waves cresting on the shore. You need to be mindful of how word of mouth breaks, and as it starts to break, to be able to shape it, respond to it, or take advantage of it.”
The net effect, some studio executives say, is that a marketing spend that used to take a movie through the weekend now only really takes a studio through Friday evening, east coast time.
"If your movie is good, and has fantastic word of mouth, your formulas are obsolete,” said Cook. “If your movie is bad, it's instantaneous. You know it on
Friday."(For those who do not yet know, Twitter is a website that can also be accessed
through handheld devices on which users send out short, pithy messages – "tweets"- to friends who sign up to follow them. Some Twitterers have thousands of "followers.")
Some executives have been mindful of the lightning speed of word of mouth for some time, with moviegoers texting from inside movie theaters to their friends.
“Has the process of word of mouth become greatly accelerated through technology? Yes,” said Marc Shmuger, the chairman of Universal Pictures. “Does the acceleration of word of mouth alter the strategy of how a studio looks at marketing, once the cloak is off the picture? Yes, but we’ve been talking about this for some time.”
Still, the exponential nature of Twitter adds another layer to the marketing mix.
Peter Adee, president of worldwide marketing at Overture, took note of how Twitter was used to organize mass demonstrations in Iran, and saw the correlation to movie word of mouth.
“If a single person can have so many contacts and tell people to go to this place, if you extrapolate that to the movie business, someone may have 1,000 friends, and say, ‘I saw the movie — don’t bother,’ or ‘I saw the movie — it’s great,’” he said. “ The potential is there.”
Another movie that appears to have benefitted from this effect was “The Hangover,” the low-budget, star-free comedy that took Warner Bros by surprise on its opening weekend and beyond.
The movie took in an astonishing $45 million its opening weekend, apparently $3 million more than even optimistic tracking projections had predicted. (The word of mouth has continued to be strong, the film has now taken in $210 million domestically.)
Paddison pointed out that “Transformers 2” appears to be an exception to the Twitter effect, since audiences have continued flocking to the movie despite negative word of mouth (and bad reviews too, though it’s been a long time since critics could kill a blockbuster).
Still, Paddison observed that savvy marketing executives can also use social networking to combat negative word of mouth, by planning for it, and diverting attention to other tweetable and text-worthy news.
Say, a super-sexy picture of Megan Fox to accompany the movie’s release? In that case, Paddison said, timing is everything.
“It’s all about Thursday at midnight, you’d want to hit it Friday at daytime, and follow it up late evening. You need to staunch the blood flow Friday nite.”
Among movies that were probably hurt by Twitter’s rapid-fire spread of audience reaction is Sony’s “Year One,” which took in a disappointing $19 million opening weekend, and Universals’ big bust, “Land of the Lost,” which took in $18.8 million in its first weekend.
This weekend, the movie in the spotlight is a prime example of where social networking may have an impact. Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” is a movie that drives social networking buzz, and its box office may rise or fall as a result.
“Bruno is the great test,” said Adee. “What effect will Twitter have on Bruno? I haven’t seen it, but my guess you’re either gonna love it or hate it.”