Tweetia and Tinseltown: Part 2

Published on January 12th, 2011

James continues his breakdown of how social media is affecting Hollywood.

In part one, we looked at what kind of effect social media has on box office revenue. We saw how the speed and popularity of social media has changed the reviews of movies that we write and read. We looked at the diminishing power of the professional critics and how more feedback is coming from amateur and casual sources, sometimes in our family or circle of friends, and sometimes very distant acquaintances or complete strangers. We saw that word of mouth has become a more powerful and immediate force for moviegoers after a film’s release. In this article we will see how social media is used a tool in creating and presenting a film, from the pre-production until its theatrical run.

I would consider myself a Hollywood outsider.  I have never had a job in show business. I’ve never been on TMZ. I can’t remember ever doing cocaine with Lindsay Lohan, but maybe that’s just how hard you have to party to keep up with LiLo and my memory has suffered. According to Google Maps, it would take me 1 day, 17 hours, 4064 kilometres, 9 states, 4 toll roads and 34 turns before that final right onto Sunset Boulevard if I wanted to drive to Hollywood. I’m not in the business of making movies but I certainly care about them and try to learn what I can when writing an article on the subject. The things I write do not come out of experience but research, anecdotal evidence, common sense, assumptions, things I’ve pieced together from directors’ commentaries and other 2nd hand sources. I do not pretend to be involved in the Hollywood but there are several ways that social networking has changed how it functions that are apparent to me.

The most obvious and basic changes social media made on making films must be similar to changes brought about by cell phones and the internet early in the last decade. Things are just done more quickly. People can contact each other more quickly easily. For example, there are dozens of Twitter accounts just about casting calls. It was often necessary to allow time for agents or certain publications to disseminate this information to the right people. Now we have an instantaneous way to reach any potential actors who want to be in a film. This also helps to level the playing field as it often was only people with agents, or who knew the right person, or read the right publications, who were made aware of these things. Social networking’s effect on a film doesn’t stop there.

While a movie is being made, social media is a great way for studios to keep a pulse on what is happening with its potential future fans. 2006’s action/thriller/comedy/post-modern experiment Snakes on a Plane provides one of the most interesting case studies of this. For S.O.A.P., thousands of people on the Internet were making videos and writing fan faction and Photoshopping pictures about this movie months before it came out. News reports were made on the fad and the information spread as memes and internet phenomena typically do. What was highlighted was that everyone was into it for the ridiculousness. It was not simply a ridiculous premise that will allow for some cool action. Everyone who was into it was into just for the ridiculousness. While talking to each other online, it became clear that they wanted more unbelievable plot elements and absurd scenes. They wanted unrealistic violence. Instead of having to wait for him to say 2 sentences, this movie could finally have Sam Jackson say motherfuckin’ twice in one sentence (in this case, in regards to his steeply decreased patience with the reptilian nature of a large number of passengers aboard the aircraft he was on at the time of his remarks). When the studio briefly changed the name of the movie to the more subtle Pacific Air Flight 121, the online backlash was palpable. It was the extremely obvious and honest nature of the title that many people first fell in love with. (Jackson even claimed he signed onto the movie without reading the script or seeing what other actors were involved because he loved the title so much). People who formerly had been inadvertently advertising this movie online by posting about it on Facebook and linking to user-generated content related to the movie claimed they were now going to boycott the movie. Negative feedback about the name change exploded online and there was a decrease in new and continued interest in the film. The studio changed the name back shortly after. While this represents an impressive amount of control of a massive studio by what were largely teens and twentysomethings screwing around on their computers with their free time, the most unprecedented impact was still to come. In what New Line Cinema itself said was a response to the massive Internet buzz, additional days of shooting were added months of principal photography wrapped up. Re-shoots are usually only done when a film is starting to be edited together and it becomes apparent there are big problems. Re-shoots are costly and difficult to schedule and are avoided whenever possible. In this case, New Line had millions of messages, videos, original songs, manipulated pictures, statuses, blogs and other ways opinions take shape in social media to give them a better idea of what the public was expecting and wanting from this movie.

The title and the premise (which are the same thing) helped it build an immediate fanbase, despite the movie not being made yet. With all of this hype, there were a lot of curious eyes watching how well Snakes on a Plane did when it came out. Due to the massive amounts of internet hype, it was expected to make more than it did. Despite doubling its budget, the movie is largely viewed as a financial disappointment simply because of how much talk there was about it. There are 2 general reasons given for its profitable but underwhelming performance. The first is that some things are funny for 3 minutes at a time but not 90 minutes. The second is that things we found funny 8 months ago aren’t always the things we find funny today (“What’s a Chris Crocker?”). By the time Snakes on a Plane hit theatres, a lot of people had enough of it. In the time it takes to cast, write, shoot, edit, market and release a movie, it seems hundreds and thousands of people had all the fun they thought they could have from the premise. Internet users can discover something, make a meme of it, do remixes and autotunes, mix it up with other current memes, Photoshop their drunk friends into pictures and make soundboards of it and then grow tired of it and forget about it in much shorter time that the complete production and exhibition of a feature film.

Here we see the huge spike and immediate drop-off in popularity

Even though Snakes on a Plane is seen as a disappointment, it shows just how much attention studios pay to us goofing around on the Internet and how much control we have simply by being a key demographic.

Filmmakers and studios weren’t happy to sit back and react to social media though. They saw its power and knew there was a way to capitalize. There is a great term in advertising called “Astroturfing.” When the public gets an idea in their minds and feel they don’t see enough of it in the mainstream, their attempts at promoting it are referred to as grassroots efforts. People love the feeling of being on David’s side when he defeats Goliath and supporting a smaller, less-hyped movie does the job. Its success feels like their success as they helped it on its way. Astroturfing takes this idea and subverts by making a well-financed, well-staffed picture see like its  the underdog. It is artificial grassroots. In much the same way that Astroturf is trying to be passed off as grass, Astroturfing is the attempt of a private entity presenting a product as something the people really want. In film marketing, this usually consists of companies creating users on social networking sites who failed to divulge their connection to the product and attempt to promote it. Astroturfing is pretty underhanded but not all film promotion through social media is so devious.

Independent filmmakers were quick to realize the power of Twitter. As a way to reach potential viewers many times a day at little to no cost, twitter is the dream of an independent filmmaker working without the deep pocketed marketing departments of major studios. With the advent of cheaper and more user-friendly of digital video cameras and home editing software, amateur and independent filmmakers were able to make fairly professional looking products. Social networking has levelled the playing field in marketing in a similar fashion. Sites like Facebook and Twitter give indie filmmakers a medium to promote their work to a wide audience. You’re not going to get billboards but you’re going to get right into the audience’s pocket…and that’s where the money is. As a result, this is beginning to factor into the product itself. I have heard directors state that they sometimes decide which actor is right for the part by which one has the bigger Twitter following. This idea is two-fold. First, a bigger following may mean they are a better actor and naturally charismatic and likeable and talented. Second, the idea of that actor bringing a following they go makes them more valuable as they are seen as bringing a built-in audience to any film they’re cast in. In independent cinema, publicity can be scarce and valuable so to be seen as tech-savvy and well connected is as much of a concern. This is not as much of a concern in major studios with well-funded, multi-pronged marketing strategies and actors don’t need to be tweeting to get the movie a following. We did, however, see a larger social networking campaign for casting in a blockbuster last year. Donald Glover, most famous for his parts in Derrick Comedy and later/currently NBC’s Community (both of which deserve your attention), had thousands of supporters who wanted him to be Spiderman, or at least get him an audition for the slated superhero reboot. While it didn’t work and the part went to Andrew Garfield, this rally for Glover did cause a splash. It is safe to assume that this support did make it to the top and the people in charge of casting this role were made aware of the huge amount of people wanting Glover to don the red and blue. Perhaps with a smaller film, a different story or a different actor, the social networking masses may have got their way. While they were unsuccessful, it certainly didn’t hurt his chances and caused increased publicity for the new film, so Glover and the studio both gained.

Donald Glover is funny. He is a charismatic, clever man with a great sense for comedy. His Twitter feed is full of very funny material and he has deservedly earned himself a large following there. Any film that he gets involved with (and since watching Derrick Comedy, my money has been on this number being several) will benefit from this. While shooting, doing press and premiering any movies in the future, he will continue to tweet and his current projects will inevitably come up, intentionally or not. His followers wait eagerly for his next Twitter contribution and these open minds will be receptive to mentions of his projects. And this is why I believe promoting a product through social media will be a key part of future marketing strategies. Anyone can advertise. We’re in a state of advertising oversaturation where the average person is subjected to so many ads in a day the issue isn’t message exposure but retention. It’s not about getting your message out there. It’s about getting your message in there; into the minds of the people you are trying to sell tickets to. This is not to say Glover is a corporate shill whenever he mentions one of his films through Twitter, but that he has been consistently funny enough for people voluntarily follow his account and receive what will function as publicity for his projects, whether this is his goal or not.

More often than not, the more tweets the better. People often say no press is bad press but when dealing with certain genres and demographics, it certainly can be. Or at least Disney seems to think so. When Donald Glover tweets from the set of Community, it can be vulgar, sarcastic and irreverent, which functions well for someone currently involved in Community, a show that shares those same qualities. But when Miley Cyrus, 16 at the time, tweeted this picture from the set of The Last Song, many people felt it was a little too sexual for the 16 year old Disney Channel starlet. I don’t see the big deal, but Disney did. They notified their legal department that all future contracts that are to be drawn up must be done so with a clause stipulating that no tweeting is to be done from the set. Many people felt it was an overreaction and in this isolated case they are right but I see exactly where Disney is coming from. The content could have been much worse and it would have been too late to do anything about it. Her values and current interests aren’t in line with the children watching Disney products, or at least that’s not what their parents think or hope. Publicity for a film or TV show has a lot of money, effort, research and careful crafting behind it. In this age when people are capable of using social networking to do publicity on their own, it is important to limit, in Disney’s evident opinion, just what they can say and do (or in this case, who they can stand near and look away from the camera).

Sometimes it is not the studio but other actors who disapprove of utilizing these technologies on the set. Statistically speaking, you probably didn’t see the 2010 film Lottery Ticket starring the Artist formerly known as Lil Bow Wow. Here is a quote about Bow Wow’s work ethic from his co-star Brandon Jackson:

“He likes to tweet on set. I’m trying to be in the scene, I’m trying to be a good actor. And Bow Wow’s a good actor, I love Bow Wow, but we’ve got this dramatic scene… and he’s tweeting. I’m trying to get my Denzel (Washington) on. I’m trying to get my facial expressions, and then he’s just tweeting and next thing you know there’s like girls on the set and I’m like, ‘Are we shooting a music video or a movie?'”

Other than the phrase ‘get my Denzel on’, what I take from this quote is a growing difference between marketing strategies of some movies. While some people would love the exposure Bow Wow’s tweets make for a film, or the ambivalent awareness that tweets like Miley’s twitpic garner for a film, sometimes it is better to be controlled. A controlled set and a controlled marketing strategy make a more predictable product and presentation while a more laissez-faire attitude can lead to more spontaneous publicity. While tweets similar to Bow Wow’s created free publicity for the film, the quote from Jackson shows its effect on the film was negative. Miley’s pictures got more attention for the film but at the risk of alienating its core audience. Perhaps it will be more than just the sheer number of Twitter followers that would affect an actor’s chances of getting cast, but how they tweet, how often they tweet and who they consult before they do it.

Twitter is far from the end ways to advertise through social media. The most interesting forms of advertising using social media take a bit more creativity. A little while back Facebook Chatroullette was very popular. You would be matched up to have a video conversation with a random Facebook user and until everyone saw too many dicks, it was pretty fun for most people. What Lionsgate, a film distributor, realized was that this might be a great chance to get some free advertising for their upcoming film The Last Exorcism. While many movies have their own branded Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, these often only solidify a fanbase the movie already has. The Last Exorcism’s campaign was much more clever and likely to be effective in gaining new fans as it is marketed to unsuspecting users. If you have the capability, watch the video but for those who can’t, the premise is simple. When Chatroullette matched users up with a certain account, they were shown a video of a pretty girl beginning to unbutton her shirt. She stops for a moment, and as everyone holds their breath and looks closely, she rolls her eyes into the back of her head and makes looks and movements of a woman possessed. She screams and the title of the soon-to-be-released movie appears. The reactions can be hilarious but results of the campaign are notable as well. Even with a limited release, this film made its budget back ten-fold in the opening weekend. It is clever, cutting edge advertising like this that will keep advertisers convinced of the potential of social networking to pique interest.

It’s not only their products that celebrities are promoting through Twitter. While social networking is great for people to feel close to stars, it is also a way for stars to share their passions and causes with their fans. In the incredibly overdramatically named “Digital Life Sacrifice” celebrities “died” (AKA signed out) in the world of social networking until a million dollars was raised for a children’s charity. Want to know what Serena Williams thought of her breakfast? Dying to hear how Elijah Wood’s flight was? Too bad.  They’re digitally dead so start forking over the cash.

As far as the actual films these people are making, audience participation found an interesting home in Tim Burton’s Cadavre Exquis project. He asked people to collectively write his next film for him, one tweet at a time. In one 140 character bursts, fans submitted what will eventually become Burton’s next film. After I was done wondering how many times the words ‘Johnny Depp’ had been submitted, I thought about the fact that Tim Burton is a very established filmmaker. This project was run in conjuction with the Toronto International Film Festival and The New York Musuem of Modern Art. These are large, well-respected, well-financed organization that feel social media is a great way to engage an audience, make them feel involved and hopefully go see the movie they now feel they’re a part of. Had I submitted something to this project, I must admit I can see myself buying a ticket to see if my contribution was used.

Juxtaposed against other publicity generating media, Twitter is interesting in the sense that up until the film’s release date, it is largely a one-sided marketing tool, but after opening, it can bury the film. Studios can continue to promote the film using Twitter but it will be quickly overpowered by word of mouth, or word of tweet, on how good the film really is. Television is a pretty one-sided affair as marketing tool. Commercials will be everywhere when a film is about to be released. When it comes out, critics will see it. If their reviews are good, the studio will use some quotes from them in their commercials and the movie looks better. If the reviews are unanimously negative, the studio will continue to run the same commercials and the film will look the same. Some of the negative reviews might make it into your local news segment and maybe your one of those people who watches film review TV shows but otherwise television is largely used just for advertisements and positive reviews. Unless the movie is infamously poor like Gigli and becomes a punchline for late-night shows, TV is mostly positive. This is mostly true when it comes to radio as well.

There was a time when focus groups were necessary to get an idea of the general public’s feelings on your product. Now it is as easy as having a look through social networking sites, or using aggregate sites that look at these social networks and gauge the nature of people’s opinions towards a certain product. While commercials in more traditional media take a while to create and are booked well in advance, online campaigns, such as those on social networking sites, can be tweaked with much less notice, allowing advertisers to respond to reactions of filmgoers in real time. They can see which elements are working and not working, judge which marketing campaigns are working better than others and focus on underperforming regions.

Again, as a Hollywood outsider, I can’t be certain of any of this but it seems that there are too many reasons for marketers and filmmakers to ignore social media. It is where so many people currently spend their time and energy. It is where they express their interests and where they create and share media. The amount of free opinions and information is a marketer’s dream, the ability to feel connected to the stars is a fan’s dream and hearing someone who has met him complain about Bow Wow is my dream. More power to you, social media.

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