The advent of the digital age has significantly changed the strategies of filmmakers and—in particular—Hollywood. The marketing process, as well as the very window a film has to succeed, has been transformed and shortened. More so than ever, the importance of delivering a big opening box office weekend for a film has become paramount to its success. Films that fail to live up to initial projections and expectations are declared “dead on arrival” after only a few crucial days of exposure. The technological advances underlying the growth and widespread acceptance of social media have been the decisive factor in expediting this shift. These social media sites provide spontaneous reactions from a wide and diverse pool of individuals and have therefore ensured that word of mouth now flies instantly across the digital universe rather than being restricted to a limited circle of friends. Social media has also become an essential channel in creating the buzz needed to fill those opening night seats. The films that end up being green-lit are almost inevitably those that most easily lend themselves to this type of promotion, delivering less of a risk of not realizing those crucial opening numbers. Using a few key case studies of successful and unsuccessful Hollywood blockbusters, this essay will argue that the advent and inexorable rise of social media has made word of mouth much more of a decisive factor than ever before. Moreover, it now provides the primary route for grabbing the attention of Hollywood’s target audience in the time prior to the given film’s release. As a result, there is a growing scarcity of original stories coming from Hollywood as low-risk cinematic formulas have proven to be more attractive given the types of investments driving these blockbusters.
Technology has changed the basic economics of the film industry. In the digitized world, the traditional model of Hollywood is crumbling. Media theorist, Mark Poster attributes this shift in part to the fact that in the digital age consumers are now also producers. Subsequently, he notes that, “In the past decade, each major industry has faced a threat to its existence from the digitization of cultural objects and the transformation of consumer into creator/user” (245). In other words, it is now easier for would-be creators of entertainment to reach an audience without depending solely on the acceptance by a few gatekeepers that dominated a limited number of media channels.
Moreover, as Warner Bros. chairman Kevin Tsujihara notes, “There’s incredible competition with television and with video games. And that’s not even considering the Internet content that you’re now seeing out there” (McClintock and Masters). Grabbing the attention then of a prime film-going audience (18-29) with a notoriously short attention span provides a very limited time in which a studio can hope to focus enough of these individuals during that crucial initial weekend. In this sense, sources of entertainment have become less of a scarce resource. Filmmakers can no longer depend on bored teenagers in search of amusement to bankroll their efforts. As copyright expert and lawyer Lawrence Lessig astutely observes, “This narrowing has an effect on what is produced. The product of such large and concentrated networks is increasingly homogenous. Increasingly safe. Increasingly sterile” (166). For instance, while in 1981 seven of the top-earning films were original, three decades later not one is an original film. That twenty-nine superhero adventures have been released since 2008 when “Iron Man” grossed more than $300 million at the box office is telling of the lack of originality and risk-taking in Hollywood (Smith). The sequel or formula film is hardly new in Hollywood. The difference is the increased dominance in determining cinematic productions. It is still the case that as Hollywood goes, so goes cinema, since “The top ten film studios receive 99 per cent of all film revenue” (Lessig 163).
While word of mouth moved at a slower place even as little as a decade ago, today a film can be almost surgically destroyed on its opening night, indeed before its first showing is completed. The advent of social media in the 21st century has been largely responsible for this shift. These sites have enabled information, both positive and negative, to be spread much more quickly today than ever before, reaching larger audiences. As danah boyd and Alice E. Marwick note, “Tweets can be posted and read on the web, through SMS, or via third-party clients written for desktop computers, smartphones, and other devices. These different access methods allow for instant postings of photos, on-the-ground reports, and quick replies to other users” (116). Word of mouth has essentially become digitized through such sites as Twitter and Facebook. Everyone has in essence become a critic with crowd views evaluating everything from restaurants to books to movies. As a study conducted by Penn Schoen Berland for The Hollywood Reporter reveals, “72% [of moviegoers] post about movies on social networking sites after watching a film, while 20% post before and 8% during” (Godley). This de-professionalization of critical response has made the initial results at the box office much more important in determining a film’s financial success. In turn, any chance of a film’s success developing over a longer period of time has become increasingly unlikely. Moreover, this de-professionalization has also removed the protections that would prevent a lackluster film from instantly flopping. As Michael Cieply observes, the film industry’s “…hits routinely score more than 40 percent of their sales within days of opening.” Films seldom recover from an initial widespread pan, which means that one avenue that allows a studio a hedge against bombing is an initial substantial opening. Achieving that result will help mitigate any subsequent drop in box office results. In this digital age of instant judgment when big budget films are open country wide at multiple screens, there is no time for a fan base to slowly build. Thus a weak opening spells the end of any hopes a studio might have invested in these special-effects blockbusters. If the social media buzz is mixed, fewer people are likely to be eager to see it and they certainly won’t see it again. The fact remains that the way people think about a film is often heavily influenced by this consensus. This causes individuals to reassess any initial views of a given film. Since multiple viewings serve to transform a film into a huge box office success, these days a social media hype necessarily translates into bottom-line profits. Thus it has become more difficult to reproduce the Titanic formula, with some fans viewing it 8-10 times.
The Lone Ranger: DOA
The role of social media in determining a film’s success is underscored by examining the negative case, namely the poor performance of The Lone Ranger (2013). The film combined ignorance of the film’s target audience with a real lack of understanding of how to manipulate social media. Billed as an epic adventure western, the film—on paper—had everything going for it. It had a big-name producer, a huge Hollywood name in Johnny Depp and a lot of financial backing from a major Hollywood studio. Nevertheless, the film bombed in its opening weekend at the box office. It took in a total of $29.4 million over the crucial three-day weekend, ultimately failing to recuperate its budget of $225 million (Cunningham). While critics panned the film, its demise owed largely to the lack of positive social media buzz. “Fizziology’s metrics tracked 21,156 tweets, Facebook comments or blog posts being made about the movie a week prior to its release, which only sounds like a lot until you look at Robert Downey Jr.’s latest outing as Tony Stark, which had 1,639,691 by comparison” (McMillan). Failure to create the right buzz beforehand meant less anticipation and ultimately fewer ticket purchases. With negative first-night responses, the film essentially never made it out of the starting gate. As Vice President and Chief Analyst of BoxOffice.com Phil Contrino stated, “The marketing campaign hasn’t connected in a significant way…It’s not something that people are really that excited about compared to how ‘Despicable Me 2’ is doing on Facebook and Twitter” (qtd in Acuna). However, in the past, it would have taken far longer for the viewing public to come to such conclusions about a film. Moreover, the film would not have faced such fierce competition for the attention of the viewer, as marketing was largely restricted to television and radio ads as well as press releases. Even had the pre-release marketing been savvier, the vehicle itself, The Lone Ranger, was unlikely to lend itself easily to the digital world of social media. The story potentially struck sparks with the baby-boomer generation growing up on 1950s television fare, but the chords that needed to be struck were with the target digital generation. For them, such a theme exerted no immediate resonance. Even proven movie stars require the appropriate vehicle. In effect, the film highlights why Hollywood studios generally churn out productions that resembles cookie-cutter assemblages that mostly compete in terms of special effects.
Due to the need to create anticipation and buzz before it opens to achieve the requisite initial box office success, social media has changed the very nature of the films produced. While smaller, narrative driven films were once a mainstay, the majority of green-lit studio films are now specifically made to have a big initial box office performance in order to hedge against the risks posed by any ensuing negative social media. To draw people into the cinema, studios have therefore devoted more time and money into visual spectacles, namely special-effects-driven films. While such blockbuster films have been fixtures in Hollywood since their inception in the 1980s, today the digitization of technology and the ability to achieve visualizations that stretch the imagination means that an ever-greater proportion of Hollywood films fall into this genre. Many blockbusters as a result appear to be script-light but effects-heavy. Certainly the ultra-successful Transformers series fits nicely into this category.
Transformers: Effects to the rescue
Special effects are utilized as both a novelty and attraction, a device that is much more effective on a large screen as opposed to a home viewing. Aimed at a demographic (18-29) that has proven to be a more reliable cinema-going audience, films now increasingly stress a few key elements that are more likely to appeal to this target audience. Moreover, the past few years in particular have witnessed the rise of the franchise and comic book films. In other words, studios risking hundreds of millions in production costs (let alone marketing expenses) will always choose to hedge their bets by opting to film the familiar, especially the familiar that lends itself to widescreen special effects, such as comic book franchises. In line with this argument, of those surveyed it was the men that preferred to see the larger-budget, blockbuster films. For instance, Joe (20) noted, “… if I am going to spend my money on a movie ticket when I could easily see it free online in a few weeks, I want a real movie experience that can only be experienced at the cinema. Brendan (20) echoed these sentiments, stating that he went to see,“Mostly high budget films that make use of sound, and grand visuals the most. I watch most films outside the cinema, so when I go to see a film, the cinematic setting should contribute substantially to the experience of viewing said film.” These responses reflect a growing trend. As a result of Hollywood’s desire to target this core demographic and thus reap dependable financial gains, they are producing identikit films. As Paramount chairman and CEO Brad Grey affirms, “We’re in the franchise game — whether it’s Transformers or whether it’s creating a new franchise with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…, we’ll continue to do that, and we’ll do it to the point where we’re making four or five of those franchises per year” (qtd. in McClintock and Masters). It is unsurprising given that these films combine key elements of special effects and target the studio’s core demographic. By doing so, the studios circumvent the risk of social media killing their film’s chances before it even has an opportunity to succeed. These are also the type of films that lend themselves to a cleverly manipulated social media buzz prior to release.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Something Different
Moreover, Hollywood studios have had to adjust their marketing techniques to be more social-media friendly. In an attempt to reduce the risk attached to these expensive projects by having them gutted by negative social media, the studios have both bolstered and adjusted their marketing strategies. Greater emphasis has been placed on social media in the hopes of generating the right buzz that will serve to build anticipation, pushing the film into a “must-see” status. Given the increased importance of that initial box office take, creating a stampede to the local cinema has become a categorical imperative. As Jon Penn asserts, “It’s [social media] a tactical tool that can allow studios to improve your marketing campaign in real time” (qtd. in Lang). The effectiveness of this tool is exemplified by the success of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). For instance, prior to release, the film successfully built product recognition and favorable responses on social media. The trailer went viral, and subsequently attracted “…88,000 mentions across Twitter, Facebook and various blogs in a 12-hour period between 11 p.m. EST until 11 a.m. EST” (Lang). Moreover, the cast and director were heavily promoted, featuring in livestream chats and extensive Q&As with Yahoo! and Tumblr, as well as Twitter by employing the hashtag #AsktheGuardians. The objective was to transform obscure characters into ones far more familiar and likable. As Ben Carlson, president and co-creator of social media tracking site Fizziology notes, “I think a lot of people didn’t know how the film was going to work… But they nailed the tone. It was light and fun and full of action and you see that reflected in the social media reaction” (qtd. in Lang). It again reveals how significant social media is, because even a less familiar idea, if it gets the right buzz and anticipation (and generates a big initial weekend), can be a huge success. It is still possible to start with unfamiliar characters, but only if they can properly be transformed through the magic of social media. Risks then are more apparent than real. Given the constraints imposed by social media, Hollywood does not dare to alter the familiar factors and structures of these films (Guardians coming off the ensemble, superhero group of The Avengers). Thus, as projecting the right social media buzz has become more critical, getting that strategy wrong has become even more costly. It might be argued that there is no longer room for anything resembling failure at this stage. When comparing a film like Guardians of the Galaxy to The Lone Ranger these disparate outcomes reveal that while marketing has become more important, at the same time it is less reliable because it can be harder to control and manipulate. Social media simply requires that too many elements be deftly coordinated. Viral advertising is thus extremely important given the potentially massive exposure successful viral media can provide.
In addition, the determinative role of social media has also seen an increase in the need for an actor’s online presence. While actors have always been required to promote their films, it was generally resigned to scheduled television appearances and magazine interviews, these being the only effective promotion channels. However, although there is still a reliance on the more traditional media to launch films, in the digital age new venues to do so have now multiplied at an alarming rate. An actor’s social media presence—whether it is on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter—can therefore have a significant impact in garnering buzz for their film. Hollywood actress Chloe Moretz observed this shift, stating, “Instead of being asked how you want to approach [the role], they tell you that if you don’t Instagram or Tweet your movies then they aren’t going to succeed” (qtd. in Nealey). A film can get a worldwide boost from an actor tweeting out to their thousands or millions of followers to go and see it. For instance, actor Vin Diesel bolstered online buzz for Guardians of the Galaxy, given both his active presence on a variety of social media sites and his large following on them. With more than 80 million connected fans across two networks (Facebook and Twitter), his posted updates often get over 2 million reactions. His ability to reach such an enormous audience in only a matter of seconds allows for waves of widespread promotion over those crucial pre-release weeks. Moreover, the new, technology-driven actions that the film industry is taking are imitated around the world. In Bollywood for instance, “…actors now change their display names on social networking site Twitter to their reel names in order to promote their films and make their fans familiar with their on-screen avatars. Stars also change their profile picture to the look they don in the films” (Singh). That the industry is reshaping its practices underscores the crucial role that the digitization of word of mouth has had. This is another indication that Hollywood recognizes social media as a key factor in determining a film’s success.
Ultimately, it is evident that digitization has altered the very nature of the Hollywood film industry. Specifically, social media has become a decisive factor in determining a film’s box office success. The studio’s attempts to adapt to this change are revealed in the types of films they choose to produce and the manner in which they have amped up their marketing efforts to generate buzz.
Nicola Freedman is a student at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia. She is currently in her third and final year of her undergraduate degree majoring in Film Studies and History. After graduating she plans to take some time off to travel the world before pursuing a career in the film or television industry.
Acuna, Kirsten. “‘The Lone Ranger’ Is Lining Up To Be Disney’s Next ‘John Carter’ Bust.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 3 July 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
Cieply, Michael. “A Last Hurrah for ‘Night at the Museum’ Franchise, and for Robin Williams.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Nov. 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.
Cunningham, Todd. “Johnny Depp Can’t Save ‘Lone Ranger’ From Being ‘John Carter’-Sized Bomb for Disney – TheWrap.” TheWrap. 7 July 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Dodes, Rachel. “Twitter Goes to the Movies.” WSJ., 3 Aug. 2012. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
Godley, Chris. “THR’s Social Media Poll: How Facebook and Twitter Impact the Entertainment Industry.” The Hollywood Reporter. 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Dir. Gore Verbinski. Marvel Studios, 2014. Film.
Lang, Brent. “‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Trailer a Social Media Smash, Bigger Than ‘Man of Steel’ – TheWrap.” TheWrap, 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture 2004 Penguin Press, New York.
The Lone Ranger, Dir. James Gunn. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013. Film.
Marwick, A. E., and D. Boyd. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media & Society 13.1 (2011): 114-33. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
McClintock, Pamela, and Kim Masters. “Executive Roundtable: 6 Studio Heads on China Plans, Superhero Overload, WB Layoffs, ‘Fast & Furious’ Future.” The Hollywood Reporter. 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
McMillan, Graeme. “Why Aren’t More People Talking About ‘The Lone Ranger’?” The Hollywood Reporter. 2 July 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
Nealey, Joshua. “Vin Diesel Cast in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Due to Social Media?” Hypable. 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
Poster, Mark. Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
Singh, Apurva. “Bollywood’s Latest Trend: Actors Change Names on Twitter to Promote Upcoming Movies.” The Indian Express. 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Smith, Elliott. “Why Are Superhero Movies So Popular?” – University of Phoenix. 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.