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The Twitter Effect Isn’t What Hollywood Thought

The social media platform has become useful to movie marketers, but not in the way that everybody expected after ”Bruno“

The Twitter Effect.

The term entered the lexicon last summer after Universal’s Sacha Baron Cohen comedy “Bruno” tumbled more than 36 percent in its first 24 hours in theaters.

One year later, the social media trend that was going to revolutionize word-of-mouth hasn't demonstrably done so. There are few movies this summer where you can point to Twitter causing a huge box office bump, or drop. Unlike 2009. Last year produced a number of huge opening-Friday-to-Saturday dips and spikes, including Warner's "The Blind Side" (up nearly 25 percent).

And studio executives that were scrambling to catch up with the phenomenon have instead decided that it’s easier to put their money where the tweets might be — and buy “trending terms” on the service.

Meanwhile it's social media as a whole, rather than one little blue bird, that is changing the way Hollywood sells its films.

Marketing pros who fervently believe in the power of social media say Twitter was prematurely labeled a paradigm-shifter last year.

“A bad film is a bad film,” said Gordon Paddison, a former New Line marketing executive, now an independent consultant. “People say Twitter causes a movie to bomb. I say a bad film causes people to trash it on Twitter.”

“I don’t know that it was the people on Twitter who impacted ‘Bruno,’” added Jason Pollock, a consultant on social-media marketing strategy who has 78,000 followers. “Twitter had a pretty small universe last summer, compared to what it is now.”

At the time of “Bruno’s” July 10, 2009, premiere, Twitter had about 50 million users. But that's still less than half the 125 million it touts today. And it's still only about a fifth of Facebook’s current 500 million-plus user count.

Why was everyone in the movie business so excited about Twitter? Probably because of its potential, more than anything. The speed and the scale of word-of-mouth on Twitter seemed to manifest a terrifyingly powerful tool, one in which Hollywood was unprepared for.

The actual reality has been something less.

Surveying 1,500 moviegoers last September, research firm OTX found that as a source for word-of-mouth about films, Twitter actually lagged far behind rival social-streaming platforms such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as just basic interaction with family, friends and co-workers.

Eight out of the top 20 Friday-to-Saturday drops at the box office have come in the last two years. But industry marketers say that’s a much broader story than Twitter.

“I think the viral nature of social media in general can impact a film’s opening, but that’s certainly not limited to Twitter,” said Chris Aronson, executive VP of distribution for Fox.

In fact, it might not be limited to just social media.

“The thing we’ve found that’s actually much more impressive is the amount of people spreading word-of-mouth by texting,” Paddison said. “That dialogue can’t be tracked, but it’s interesting to ask, What is the SMS effect?”

Meanwhile, while the effect of Twitter to hurt a movie is being discounted, the little blue bird is having an effect in other ways.

At Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures, senior executives said that while they’re not focused on trying to harness the power of Twitter to shape opinion about movies, it could be growing into an exceptional advertising platform for them.

And a pilot program called Promoted Tweets has attracted Disney/Pixar (“Toy Story 3”), Universal (“Despicable Me”) and Sony (“Karate Kid”).

The return on that investment has drawn raves from studio executives.

“On ‘Karate Kid,’ we had a Promoted Tweet, and the interaction rate with this message was higher than we’d seen on any banner advertising,” said Dwight Caines, Sony's president of worldwide digital marketing, while speaking on a panel called “The Twitter Effect on Movies and Popular Culture” two weeks ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“The volume wasn’t as big as buying a homepage on MySpace or a roadblock on Facebook, but it was more engaged volume,” Caines said. “We saw a 6 percent interaction rate on this, where banners don’t click through at more that point-zero-something percent. We looked at that and said, ‘Listen, we know we’re resonating.’”

Studio executives are also finding Twitter to be an excellent tool for taking the temperature of a movie’s audience.

Two researchers at Hewlett Packard Labs recently published a study indicating that they could accurately predict the opening domestic performance of movies based on Twitter chatter alone.

Researchers Sitaram Asur and Bernardo Huberman tracked movie mentions in nearly 2.9 million tweets from 1.2 million users over a three-month period, covering a range of 24 movies that included everything from "Avatar" to “Twilight Saga: New Moon."

They then built a computer model that factored in the rate of tweets around the release date and the number of theaters the movie was playing in. With that model, they were able to predict opening domestic grosses with 97.3 percent accuracy.

Indeed, as the platform continues to grow, so does its effect on the movie business.

And some experts say, Hollywood hasn't seen the top of the Twitter trend's effect.

“Twitter hasn’t reached its boiling point yet,” Pollock contends. “It’s going to grow and get more influential.”