James begins a two-part look at the effect social media has on Hollywood.
I once had a friend who loved going to the movies but believed more than 90% of what played in theaters was awful. He wouldn’t go see a movie, no matter how good it looked, without speaking to someone who had seen it first. Clearly I have no problem reviewing movies but my friend would ask me to call him from the theater right when the movie was over so he could make it to the theater in time to see the next showing that night. He certainly didn’t love all movies but he knew film. He knew how long trailers took and he knew the running time of movies that just came out. He knew when my first chance to call would be.
“You know there are people who review movies professionally, right?” I asked into the pay phone outside the theater. “You don’t need to wait for me to hear about what a movie’s like.”
“Yeah, I know that. But they’re part of the movie industry. They say everything’s good. If they say that movies are bad, people won’t go to the theatre and they’re out of a job” he explained. He continued to describe the oligarchical nature of modern cinema. I was not listening.
It was Saturday night in the fall of 2001 and I was in a significantly more uncomfortable setting than I had been just 3 minutes earlier. From a warm theater full of the smell of buttery popcorn, I left my plush seat and proceeded outside into remarkably unpleasant weather. There was an awning over the payphone but seemingly unending gusts of wind rendered it useless by splashing cold rain on my underdressed body. I was upset that I was asked to do this all the time. It was below zero and every time I could see my breath I was reminded of the lengths I would go to stop my friend from seeing a terrible movie. I felt taken advantage of at the sight of each cloud of my subzero breath that floated past my eyes. Today, in 2010, I know why he asked me do this. We all know the feelings he was trying to avoid by getting my advice on a movie before he saw it. He didn’t want to feel tricked by an ad campaign. He didn’t want that feeling of being duped. He didn’t want to feel like he was giving power to the tasteless, soulless Hollywood movie machine with no appreciation of true art by seeing anything and everything that comes out. He didn’t want that feeling of sitting in a theatre and tediously waiting for something he paid a lot of money for to just end. He was sick of suffering through an unenjoyable experience with knowledge in the back of his mind that somewhere in the very same building there was an empty seat he could be in, where he could be laughing or crying or cheering and perhaps creating a memory that will stay with him for years to come, or maybe even open his eyes to something he never thought possible with film.
On more than one occasion I had felt all those things those too, and hated every moment of it. However, at that very second, the version of me standing outside of the movie theatre in 2001 with a soaked copy of Tribute magazine in my pocket, feeling cold wind push colder rain through my shirt, I could not bring those to mind. All I could think about was how the raindrops were aimlessly falling until sudden kicks of wind stopped them milliseconds before hitting the ground and whipped them purposefully at me. This was entirely my friend’s fault. My hand was numb and this conversation needed to end immediately.
“Hey, you listening? Should I see it or not?” he asked.
“Yes.” I replied instantly. “Glitter is the film of the year.” I hung up the phone and ran back inside with the wind slamming the door behind me.
* * *
This was 2001 and for a number of reasons, stories like that don’t need to take place anymore. First and foremost, pay phones? I don’t know if it was the telecommunications boom that took place right around the time of my above story, or if it was Colin Farrell pointing out just how dangerous they can be in “Phone Booth”, but pay phones are harder and harder to find these days. For the sake of this article, let’s say that it was the advances and proliferation of mobile phone technologies that occurred at the start of that decade and not the film that caused Peter Travers to refer to Colin Farrell as “a dynamo.” Instead of going outside to the payphone to make that call, I would use the cell phone I now have, and didn’t have in 2001.
It wasn’t as though my friend and I had the exact same taste in movies. He merely wanted to speak to someone who he felt didn’t have a financial incentive for the positive performance of a movie. Perhaps my friend was wrong about the degree of how little critics can be trusted, but he was on to something. Critics need movies to do well. As we saw, negative reviews of Marmaduke did not shut down Hollywood and get every critic fired but the point is worth keeping in mind. The critic’s name the average person hears the most these days is probably Peter Travers. Why? Because he likes everything now and when advertisers want quotes to put in their commercials and on their poster, they obviously want the positive ones. Of course there have always been people who read movie reviews directly from the critic and don’t only hear the positive things fit to be put on a DVD case. These people will hear the negative things that are said about a film as well, but these people always represented the vast minority, and were likely more discriminatory movie-goers to begin with. There are fewer and fewer TV shows dedicated to film review each year. Even the 2 minute movie review segments on news or talk shows are disappearing. Outside of academia and art house film appreciators, publications dedicated to film review are few. So who are movie goers listening to for movie advice? Each other. More and more people have become like my friend and want to hear from average movie goers about what a film is like. And while most people probably don’t care enough to ask their friend to take some time out of their day to make a call to them, they usually don’t need to ask anymore. Technological changes coupled with changes in the way that we socialize have made film reviews from thousands of people readily accessible for free. I can step out of a theatre and tweet “New Alvin and the Chipmunks sucks #nomoresqueakquels” and by the time I’m at my car, someone in line may change their mind about what they want to see. This is the Twitter Effect and much has been said about it. It is important to look closely at it and see exactly how it works, and if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.
The Twitter Effect in film was brought on by a lot more than Twitter. Its roots would be the in the explosion of internet usage and the user-friendliness and shrinking costs of cell phone technologies in the early 2000s. Zack Morris had a cell phone in the 90s and the World Wide Web appeared even earlier but cost and usability prevented them from having a massive effect for years. The Internet brought blogging and personal websites that allows us to express our feelings about anything, including movies, right away. The only thing is that ‘right away’ in the early 2000s for most people meant ‘go home, get on your shared family computer if no one else is using it (or the phoneline for dial-up), log onto the internet and post something on your blog.’ If you had a cell phone you could also call someone right when you left the theater, then that would be instant communication but it is still limited. You are only reaching one person. Even mass-texting has you reaching a relatively small number of people and at this point in time, it would be the minority of people who have cell phones. The internet gave us a place to post things for the whole world to see and cell phones allowed us to share our opinions anywhere, anytime we got enough reception.
It was not Twitter that gave us the ability to communicate with such a wide audience with such speed. It was the wide spread use of cell phones with Internet capabilities. Without these technologies working in tandem, Twitter would not have become the social phenomenon it did, it would just be a microblogging website. In my opinion, the Twitter Effect is a result of the improved hardware and many other social networking sites outside of Twitter. If as many people had cell phones with internet capabilities but Twitter had not been invented, Hollywood analysts would likely be writing about the Facebook Effect. Status updates, groups being created and messages on Facebook have the same instant, broad-reaching appeal and would cause a noticeable effect on the box office in a Twitterless world.
Even the people who aren’t interested in film enough to post a review to Rotten Tomatoes right after leaving the movie are benefiting from the people who do. I have seen couples change their mind while in the line-up for movie tickets when they saw overwhelmingly negative reviews on their iPhone. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB have thousands of user-generated, non-professional reviews, many of which are posted on opening night or opening weekend.
This is not to say Twitter isn’t a large part of this. People tweet very casually and often about many subjects and film seems to be particularly popular on Twitter. There are several sites and feeds dedicated solely to tweeting film reviews. This way you don’t even need to know anyone who has seen the film to get an unbiased review on it. There are thousands of strangers posting their opinions for anyone to read. Many of these sites have direct links to Fandango and similar ticket-vendor sites. This means that a positive review can turn into ticket sales in mere seconds. I find twittersentiment to be a particularly interesting website. Punch in the name of a movie (or anything really) and see how many people are talking about it, when they talk about it and whether their sentiments are positive or negative. It is not flawless as it sometimes but gives you a great general idea of how public feels.
As I have demonstrated the Twitter Effect is a general name for the effect created by a combination of internet-capable cell phones, a huge increase in digital communication via extremely popular social networking sites, text messaging and more websites compiling user-generated reviews in a web 1.5 sort of way. As it is more than just Twitter and combines different forms of communication, I propose the Tweetia Effect as the term to describe the multiple technologies and social factors referred to commonly as the Twitter Effect. I realize that this does not seem like much of a change but it points out 2 important factors. First, the variety of media movie goers now utilize in getting reviews. Yes, Twitter is a part of it but it also largely Facebook, BBM, other blogs, MSN Messenger, texting, online profiles, message boards, IMDB reviews and a wide variety of other media. Second, the word ‘tweet’ itself points to the amateur, casual nature of these messages. Although Roger Ebert and many other film critics have Twitter accounts, the Twitter Effect is rarely used to describe your ability to access professional reviews right away. It is more often used to describe the instantaneous nature of the film reviews you get from friends, family and non film-related celebrities, such as this Tweet review of Inception posted by rapper Slim Thug. These reviews come from people who don’t review movies professionally and for this reason, the monetary factor that worried my friend back in 2001 is gone. Jack Dorsey, inventor of Twitter explains he chose the word ‘tweet’ because “the definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information.’” I am not saying that movie reviews are inconsequential but it is important to note these reviews aren’t coming from professionals. These are usually reviews by average people for average people. It is not a matter of one’s livelihood. This allows for the casual, honest, unbiased reviews for normal moviegoers. We tweet and make status updates about how breakfast was so why not about movies too? The Tweetia Effect encompasses any media which we use to make instantaneous and casual communication to multiple people in a non-professional way. I’m aware this is a broad term but this type of interaction is ubiquitous relative to just a few years ago and the changes it has brought about merit a closer look.
Now that the Tweetia Effect has been described, we can look more closely at what it does. Here is a quote from Rick Sands, the operating officer at Miramax, in an interview the L.A. Times.
“In the old days, there used to be a term, ‘buying your gross.’ You could buy your gross for the weekend and overcome bad word of mouth, because it took time to filter out into the general audience”
What Mr Sands is describing is the power that advertising used to have. While great advertising can’t turn a bad movie into a success, it used to have the power to trick people, at least for an opening weekend, into believing it would be good, just by the sheer amount of money being used to promote it. On Monday everyone would go to school or work and have their first chance to share their feelings on what a terrible movie this was. The Tweetia Effect has eliminated this and now we don’t have to wait until Monday to hear the general perception of it. Now we can hear about it on our phones or laptop before we buy our ticket and this is shifting the way movies perform at the box office. Sands used to view the opening weekend as a bit of a freebie. No matter how bad the film, it will do well on its first weekend if it was advertised enough. The Tweetia Effect is shutting that window. The drop between a bad movie’s opening weekend and its second is growing larger as digital word-of-mouth allows us to warn our friends of what’s not worth their time. Some movies have even shown a substantial drop-off in ticket sales between a movie’s Friday and Saturday night performance during opening weekend. Rick Sands explains that the studio used to be able to buy that first weekend before anyone caught on to what garbage they had released. Some now say that the only amount of time you’re going to get away with is the Friday opening on the east coast, as their timezone allows them the earliest reviews. After that, everyone will know if your movie is a dud. I feel this is an exaggeration and largely concerns the most die-hard fans that represent a small percent of box office receipts but it still indicative of the how Tweetia have affected our film consumption.
Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow up to sleeper hit Borat, may be the best evidence of Tweetia’s ability to prevent an unpopular movie from getting viewers beyond its opening night. Bruno suffered a massive 39% drop between its opening Friday and Saturday. I saw this movie and people walked out of the theatre. * SPOILERS* Male nudity, bondage and a close-up of a penis yelling the main character’s name are all things that would cause certain people to go out of their way to discourage their peers from seeing. *SPOILERS OVER* Star-studded biblical comedy Year One’s lackluster $19 million opening weekend was blamed on instantaneous transmission of bad reviews. The same can be said for the Will Ferrell vehicle Land of the Lost, with its underwhelming $18.8 million opening weekend. While I did enjoy Bruno and wish it made more money, overall I welcome the Tweetia Effect. It takes power away from the marketing departments of studios and forces them to make movies people will not just see, but enjoy and encourage their friends to see. This has shown studios that they can no longer pull the wool over our eyes and expect great returns on projects simply because they have big stars in them or big billboard ads about them. Tweetia has the effect of allowing smaller movies to build a following more quickly. The Hangover was certainly not a small, independent, no-budget movie, but it was not predicted to become the massive hit that it was. Many Hollywood insiders predicted that it would not take top spot from Dinsey/Pixar’s Up, released just one weekend earlier but that’s exactly what it did. It accomplished this through a shockingly strong Sunday performance. Either many people went to see it after church or The Hangover is a great example of word spreading quickly and reviews getting around before the weekend had even ended.
I am not the first person to write about this effect. It was first written about a while ago, talked about, built up, touted as overstated and eventually “debunked”. The survey claiming it was non-existent was far from scientific and I have seen its effect personally too often to believe it is all hype. There are great examples against it, like Transformers 2 which garnered largely negative reviews in the digital universe but made an incredible amount of money anyway, that many point to as proof social media is not really a contributing factor. Others will claim it is the most important concept affecting box office receipts. The truth is somewhere in between. Its strength may be overstated at times but I have personally seen the Tweetia Effect too many times to be convinced it’s not there. It is real and will almost certainly only become more powerful as these technologies play a larger role in more people’s lives.
In part 2 of this article, we will look at the far-reaching, less discussed implications of the Tweetia Effect. While it certainly affects how many people see a movie, it is an increasingly powerful factor in how movies are viewed, how they are marketed and even how they are made.