Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009:
#4: The Twitter Effect
By David Mumpower
January 2, 2010

You will be assimilated.

Perhaps no emerging discussion topic was more passionately debated in 2009 than The Twitter Effect. For those of you who only gained Internet access within the past 72 hours and somehow missed all of it, the premise here is simple. At all points during the history of cinema, the most important factor in a movie's long term success is its word-of-mouth. Yes, strategies may be employed to counter this to some extent, but it is a lot easier to sell a movie that people like enough to tell their friends. Conversely, it is much, much harder to get consumers to want to see a title that their friends have told them is a complete waste of money. Combining the power of word-of-mouth with the changing dynamics of global communication and interaction has created a problem for exhibitors and distributors.

Until the mid-1990s, the only ways a consumer could find out that a movie was terrible were through movie reviews and communication with friends. While the Internet existed during this time frame and was used by a technologically advanced group of early adopters, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of potential movie-goers read reviews in the paper and a few reliable magazine sources such as Premiere and Entertainment Weekly. Siskel & Ebert also provided some guidance as they were noteworthy television critics. Otherwise, if a person wanted to find out about the quality of a film, they would have to be motivated enough to ask friends. Conversely, if a person wanted to hate on a film, they had to be motivated enough to track down their friends then rant and rave about the lackluster quality of a title. Prior to the Internet era, if you tried to seek out full intel on the quality of a movie release, you had to want it.

Over the past 15 years, that situation has changed dramatically. On a prior version of this Web site, we introduced a feature we called Critical Mass back in 1998. The idea was simple. One of our long time contributors, Lexy Green-Seal, would find as many online reviews as possible and she would post links to them on our site. The technological setup bordered on the dark ages as poor Lexy was left to do almost all of the legwork herself. Due to her love of movies, she willingly took on this task and provided a tremendous service to the small but loyal fanbase we had at the time. I remembered thinking at the time that in just a few years, I could see such a service becoming hugely popular with consumers. The problem we faced in the early days of the Internet is that few newspapers immediately adopted an online presence that gave away all of their content away for free online. As such, there weren't that many free reviews available in 1998. Fast forward to now and that statement seems ridiculous.

With the advent of Rotten Tomatoes and its overwhelming popularity, a single site collating all respected movie reviews on the internet made it an oasis in the desert for movie goers. Finally, they had a one-stop shopping location for all possible opinions about a movie's quality. Surprisingly, the process was streamlined further with the onslaught of social media Web sites in the early 2000s. A single Facebook status update offered a consumer the opportunity to quickly express their feelings about a film they had just seen. And that process was again enhanced in terms of quickness of spread message due to cell phone improvements that allowed internet access. A person walking out of a movie theater could immediately express their displeasure on the Internet, just as Comic Book Guy had threatened would be possible. What used to take days if not weeks had become an instantaneous process.

The key to Twitter is that it reduced the overhead of the process as much as possible. The genius/fatal flaw of the service, depending on your perspective, is that stray thoughts are celebrated. Those who are naturally verbose (like me) are limited by the 140 character limit. Conversely, the more laconically inclined have finally found their voice. The user must get in and get out, so to speak, with their comments. A full review is impossible. What has to happen is that people get to the fireworks factory as quickly as possible. No one is going to make comparisons to the later works of Akira Kurosawa on Twitter. This is not a place for Film School students to post key aspects of their dissertations. On Twitter, a movie rules or it sucks. The gray area has been eliminated. It is the most binary of movie review evaluators. For this reason, it's easy for a Twitter user to notice if 25 of their friends tweet that the same film sucks. The debate lies in whether they use this information.

Bruno is considered the movie that exemplified the Twitter Effect. Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to the shocking success of Borat, a $128.5 million winner, faced nasty buzz from the beginning. Its homoerotic subject matter was intended to torture exactly the same fratboys who had made his prior release a breakthrough box office winner. As would be expected of a de facto sequel to a blockbuster, Bruno's first day in release was a tremendous success. The title earned $14.4 million and appeared headed for a wonderful opening weekend. Instead, Bruno fell almost 40% on Saturday to $8.8 million and wound up with a weekend total of $30.6 million. Those of you who have been reading BOP for years realize that we have a calculation called the weekend multiplier that determines how well a title held during the Friday to Sunday period. Bruno's 2.13 is not the lowest ever or even the lowest for a high profile 2009 release. Still, it's a terrible number that ordinarily reflects a movie is going to have terrible holdover appeal. This was particularly true here as Bruno earned only $60.1 million domestically, a final box office multiplier of 1.96. The words EPIC FAIL spring to mind.

The trick to assessing Bruno's failure is where to place the blame. While social media certainly played a role in the quick, violent demise of the movie, the reality is that Cohen himself is mostly to blame. He made a movie that openly mocked its target audience. The last major Hollywood release to be so brazen was Freddy Got Fingered, which earned a whopping $14.2 million. Cohen was playing with the fire the instant he bit the hand that fed him. Is it fair to place the blame (or give the credit?) to Twitter for a movie that is simply the latest in a recent string of one-day wonder releases? That depends entirely upon how much you believe Bruno would have succeeded had it been unaffected by word of mouth.

Consider that only a few months prior, the re-make of Friday the 13th suffered roughly the same fate. That title debuted to $19.3 million on its opening Friday, only to sputter to $40.6 million the rest of the weekend and $65.0 million during its domestic run. Its first Friday represented a full 30% of its total box office. Bruno's first day accrued 24% of its total box office. Is word-of-mouth a factor in the failure of each titles after its opening day? Of course. Has social media and particularly Twitter increased the speed with which people can just on their cellphones and talk smack about a movie? Absolutely yes. Do people faithfully accept the opinions of their friends to the point that they ignore any release with heinous word of mouth? Absolutely not.

Another fascinating aspect of this discussion involves the reviews and buzz of a pair of summer titles Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and GI Joe. Both of these titles are based upon popular 1980s cartoons. Both of them had massive opening weekends. Revenge of the Fallen's $109.0 million is currently the eighth largest box office debut of all time. G.I. Joe's $54.7 million is the 13th largest debut of 2009. Mediocre to poor word-of-mouth should have truncated the legs of both titles. That did not happen. G.I Joe earned another $95.5 million after opening weekend, giving it a respectable (for a huge opening action film) final multiplier of 2.75. The Transformers sequel made a massive $293.1 million after opening weekend. To put that number in perspective, consider that this post-opening total on its own would edge out Up to be the third most successful film of the year behind Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Avatar. Revenge of the Fallen's final box office multiplier was 3.69, quite a bit better than a much higher quality summer blockbuster Star Trek managed. That title's final multiplier was 3.25, placing it squarely in the middle between G.I. Joe and Revenge of the Fallen. Summarizing, even though consumers had the knowledge that G.I. Joe and Transformers 2 were sub-par in quality, consumers still gave them the benefit of the doubt. If the Twitter Effect exists, it was negligible in these instances.

What we're left to determine is how real a phenomenon the Twitter Effect is. A leading market research firm for the industry determined in October that only 12% of moviegoers use Twitter. Due to the nature of emerging Web sites, that number is probably being understated as the site's user total grows markedly each day. Even so, if only one out of every eight consumers have access to Twitter, should that mean word-of-mouth is only impacted on a small scale? Not necessarily. We live in an era where in order for a thought to attain ubiquity, it must go viral. If someone says something funny, albeit nasty, about a movie on Twitter, the consumers who read the quote are likely to pass it along to their friends. Ergo, only one out of every eight potential customers may see the original quote. The problem is that this relaying of the quote doesn't end there.

Once someone has mentioned it on a message board forum and/or quoted it on their Facebook account, all of their potential readers have access to the same information. And the scary thought is that several people who see it at one of those places may repeat the process, creating a re-tweet system that isn't self-contained on Twitter. In this manner, the spread of the stray thought has organically increased exponentially, no matter how large a group the original number of people who could have read it may have been. What cannot be denied is that the nature of the Internet in its current form is interconnectivity. Nothing happens in a vacuum any more. A single stray thought mentioned in one location may be picked up at another place, passed down as words of wisdom at others and become an instant sensation, all in a span of a day.

Such an intricate system of communication is problematic for the existing movie studio system. It is an industry predicated upon secrecy and artificial buzz. In this day and age, controlling the flow of information is a physical impossibility. The process in place for maintaining uniform dispensation of movie details went from problematic to archaic to Jurassic in a period of a decade. At this point, the industry is in an unprecedented state of flux as new methodology is examined in the hopes of finding a better way to deal with the intermingled nature of communication. Even those who believe the Twitter Effect is wildly overstated if not completely fictitious understand that the new consumer ability to disperse opinions instantaneously creates a precarious position for suppliers.

Coincidentally, the solution to this problem also presented itself in 2009. Films like Taken, Star Trek and The Hangover have shown that the Twitter Effect is a dual-edged sword whose advantages are significant. Making a good movie has never been more beneficial than it is in the era of instant communication. Buzz can go from nothing to YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS in the span of a single night at the top of Twitter's Trending Topics. That is the Twitter Effect that matters.