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For a long time film studios have kept a subset of films away from critics before their premiere. The logic is that these films — from horror pics to big budget thrillers and comedies — might get bad reviews and will fare better going directly to the public.

The feeling is that the approach might at least help these films get a strong opening weekend. And now studios are relying on social media for that purpose. But as Hollywood is increasingly trying to get people to see big budget films with dwindling marketing budgets, social media is getting more of the credit and blame for box office success or failure. 

Take Disney's new cartoon "How To Train Your Dragon." According to The Washington Post:

"It spent $160 million to $175 million to market "Dragon," then had to revamp its promotional materials and TV commercials right before it opened. Analysts say its campaign fell flat with audiences."

In today's media environment, marketing efforts are increasingly pegged to opening weekend box office results. Gordon Paddison, who led the online media campaign for "The Lord of The Rings" films, tells The Post:

"If you don't open strongly, it really hurts, so there's a high level of attention to efficiency. Everybody's trying to do more with less."

"How To Train Your Dragon" was expected to bring in $65 million to $70 million in its opening weekend. But the movie only brought in $43.7 million.

The holy grail for film studios is to turn individuals into brand evangelists on social media, but they've had varied success rates with that. Hot Tub Time Machine, for instance, created great buzz online leading up to the film's premiere, while many people attributed Bruno's lagging opening weekend sales to negative commentary from the twitterati.

And two scientists have put some numbers behind the idea of the Twitter success indicator for films. According to the LA Times:

"Sitaram Asur and Bernardo Huberman, two social computing scientists at HP Labs in California, say computational methods using Twitter feeds can predict with as much as 97.3% accuracy how a movie will perform on its first weekend of release."

In a tight financial environment, social media holds a lot of promise. Especially considering that Hollywood reportedly cut ad spending by 8% to $4.39 billion in 2009 (after cutting budgets 3% in 2008.) according to Bernstein Research.

But digital venues are not necessarily going to come cheap. The YouTube homepage, for instance, is seen as a good way to reach people online, and The Washington Post notes that Sony Pictures ran a "Death at a Funeral" placement there this week that cost an estimated $250,000.

Meanwhile, the real-time nature of social media means that companies are having to totally revamp their strategies in a short time period. How To Train Your Dragon eventually got some positive recognition for its online efforts, but that kind of creative turnaround doesn't come cheap.

Blaming social media for a film's failure is a bit misplaced — and ignores the fact that the content of a film also has something to do with people seeing it. But as much as things are changing in the movie business, a lot is staying the same. Howard Bass of Ernst & Young Global Media & Entertainment tells The Washington Post:

"Studios are challenging marketing budgets and doing more experimentation, but TV continues to take the major share on views it reaches the biggest audience."

Meghan Keane

Published 9 April, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Paul Davidson

It seems inevitable that social media is going to play an increasing role in whether or not the public decides to see a film.The great online marketing of the Blair Witch Project was a good indication of how this can increase the success of a film and this was before social media sites became so popular, so their influence will only grow in importance.

over 6 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Surely what Hollywood could be doing is to engage with potential audiences, via Social Media, much sooner than they currently do. For example, could they create several alternative endings for the next blockbuster, put them up onto YouTube and let people vote for their favourite? Or could they use Twitter to ask people to submit a line of dialogue (140 characters long)? Maybe they should (if they haven't already) allow people to submit potential sound effects and soundtracks via MP3 uploads that they may be used in the film. Of course, all of this input would have to be improved upon and professionalised. But if enough people in Social Media got engaged with the idea, then these would be the people who'd use their social networks to tell others. Oh, and go and watch the film!!

over 6 years ago

Patrick Attallah

Patrick Attallah, Founder & CEO at social4ce

Independent filmmakers and distributors are turning more and more to social media to help build online buzz around television shows, theatrical and dvd releases of blockbuster and independent movies. There’s an obvious opportunity for them, since these platforms are more affordable, by and large, than traditional, “old media”, especially if you stumble upon the holy grail of online marketing: the appropriation of your messages by the audience. Some have started saying: ‘If we all thought that Facebook and Twitter social media growth phenomena were extraordinary, wait until Social TV hits your screens.‘

More on my blog: Movie & Television Social Media Marketing http://bit.ly/1jifVv

over 6 years ago

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Akash Sharma

Hi Meghan,The first look for a film describes a lot about it as TV promos, some stint about the stories in leading newspapers, or cracked wallpapers on social sites do some amount of good or bed to the audience expectations.I think what Asur and Bernardo are doing is something to look upon plus trailers and images should be much more secret then they usually are, we can draw something from Iron-Man 2 stealth promotions.

over 6 years ago

Rick Noel

Rick Noel, Digital Marketing Consultant at eBiz ROI, Inc.

The viral nature of social media, coupled with huge, engaged audiences can make for powerful and cost effective distribution channels. More and more are consuming video online with 32.4Billion vides viewed online in the US in Jan 2010 according to comScore Video Metrix service. What's interesting is how quickly reviews can travel via social networks, in part, because the technology makes it very easy for almost anyone to share multimedia content and reviews with hundreds or possibly thousands of connections in a single click. As information gets shared from user to user, network to network, the reach can grow exponentially in the matter of hours or days, putting strong emphasis on quality of the end product. This is can be a positive as good news travels just as fast as bad.

over 6 years ago

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