Film Fund-amentals: The Tweet Smell of Success

Back in the Bronze Age, when Windows 3.11 was the latest thing, I worked as an American reporter for a British magazine via the Internet. Yes, those were the magical days when virtually everything was in text, Usenet was around, and we all spent many late nights listening to the cheery chirps of the Hayes 2400. The online work environment was a new arena full of good possibilities and a strange sense of foreboding.

Which is why I kept getting phone calls from movie publicists wanting to know how this online thing worked. Back in the mid-1990s, the Hollywood publicity system was still structured on a regional office basis that was created near the end of the silent era. It was a fairly straightforward, top-down structure that filtered and controlled everything related to the impending release of a film. It was a time-honored, traditional system that was about to be torn apart by new technology, and the folks who were calling me didn’t have a clue what was happening. Heck, I had to explain to one of them how to turn her computer on.

It’s 16 years later and everything has changed. Many of the regional PR offices are no more, and web access is the standard for the industry. The whole concept of movie publicity is in a state of flux with the Internet as the common denominator in every emerging plan. The old-fashion publicist has been replaced by web designers, and many critics get a lot of their pre-release information from such sites as IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and a wide variety of genre-oriented sites. The old Hollywood approach of tight control over distribution of (and access to) PR information has given way to mad torrents of gossip, news and insider tidbits from anyone with an attitude and easy access to a laptop.

In turn, the standard Hollywood PR item has become both meaningless and pointless. OK, they have always been meaningless and pointless, but with the availability of much “hotter” information from the web, nobody really cares to see the usual studio pap. Publicity has become an easy commodity and is no longer commanded by a studio. The PR machine has blown a rod and Hollywood is scrambling aboard the Internet with a giddy abandon.

The recent success of the highly unorthodox PR campaign for Paranormal Activity has convinced everyone to storm onto Twitter in pursuit of the audience.  In turn, Twitter is unveiling a new ad system that allows corporate advertisers to match up and connect with tweets related to their products. Thanks to the millions of tweets on Twitter, advertisers can now go after people with the lightening speed of piranhas let use in a public pool. Even better, Hollywood has come to realize that public postings on Twitter have become the New Age equivalent of a word-of-mouth campaign, and every studio PR department now wants to get in there and manipulate the process.

Which actually means it is the beginning of the end for Twitter. Let’s face it, the whole point to Twitter is the giddy pleasure of posting a quick note about virtually anything under the sun in a public forum where you feel free to be whatever you want to be. Soon, you’ll be lucky to type “I’m feeling low today” without the drug industry sending you 2,000 ads for every pharmaceutical product available in Canada.

As for movies, the result will be even more insidious. Hollywood is aware that Twitter has become the new source for successful word-of-mouth campaigns. The system is so successful that a statistical method has been worked out allowing the user to predict the opening box office of movies based on Twitter postings in the week before a film’s release. In their report on this statistical system, Sitaram Asur and Bernardo A. Huberman (both of the HP Labs in Palo Alto, California) are extremely confident in the ability of this approach to predict the box office with 100 percent accuracy.

To be honest, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that any system that’s 100 percent accurate must have something wrong with it (in statistics, as in baseball, nobody bats .1000). But it doesn’t matter. Even if the system works as well as they claim, it won’t be working much longer. Social media sites have a predictable degree of unpredictable ups and downs (for example, MySpace – remember that one?). Twitter is hot for now. By next year (or even later this year), who knows? The impending invasion of the advertisers might just be enough to drive away business.

But overt manipulation by Hollywood PR departments will most certainly do it in. The studios have already embraced viral advertising and feel it was useful in promoting such movies as The Dark Knight and Avatar. With Twitter, they are firmly convinced they can create and control the public’s perception and desire to see selected films. It’s extremely easy to cook up a bogus word-of-mouth campaign by way of an online site. It doesn’t really work for the movie, but failure has never stopped a PR campaign.

Which also means that the new approach to movie publicity is entering a stage full of rich promise and, inevitably, impending bad results. The viral campaign for The Dark Knight is widely viewed has having been extremely successful. In reality, who needed it? That movie was going to blow through the roof no matter what. On the other hand, such films as The Fourth Kind bombed in spite of all the bogus “news” items planted on the Internet.

The real question will be the potential hostile reaction as people find themselves increasingly confronted by manipulative intrusions into their “private” online space. It promises to be a very bumpy ride.