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The “Twitter” Effect

I don’t have a twitter account. Until earlier this year, I didn’t have a blog. I’m not a slow technological adapter, but I don’t pretend that I am the fastest either. I don’t do facebook, linkedin or bebo, among others. Apparently I am way behind the times. Anyway, it’s always fun to watch the sociological impact of these new multimedia methods of keeping in touch and how they find themselves harnessed (whether intentionally or not) to the service or detriment of established traditional media. Paranormal Activity is the latest movie to benefit the Twitter Effect.

Is it a phantom effect?

Is it a phantom effect?

Twitter can do both, apparently. Or so we’ve been informed with story-after-story over the massive summer that was 2009. What has been dubbed “the Twitter Effect” apparently helped Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds gain a larger audience than most anticipated over its weekend opening and it also crippled Bruno, which witnessed a massive crash over its three day opening. It seems that whenever a movie does what it’s not expected to, new media is to blame. The comedy from the guy behind Borat tanks? Blame new media. Tarantino’s film with a mixed critical reaction did big box office numbers? Blame new media. A zero-budget horror film named Paranormal Activity does the business and is gradually widening its opening? Definitely blame new media.

In fairness there was a corallation (note I didn’t say causation) between ticket sales for Inglourious Basterds and the positive tweeting coverage it received. I think the more logical assumption to make is that tweeting was just one aspect of the positive word of mouth which made the movie a hit, rather than suggesting it was the only reason. Tweeting was a reflection of the root cause, more than the cause itself. But that doesn’t make headlines.

I am naturally skeptical of such claims. Possibly because critics themselves may be becoming even more irrelevent and also because it has been demonstrated that huge movies can open without engaging new media (or old, for that matter). Maybe there’s also the far more concrete observation that only 10-12% of film goers apparently use Twitter. Researcher Vinnie Bruzzese suggests that word of mouth is playing a role in these shock plays, but not necessarily through twitter or new media:

The data suggests that all the media play for the Twitter Effect is really jumping the gun. It has an impact, but it’s coming much later on, not as initial reaction. There may be people with a lot of followers on Twitter, but the most influential people in terms of word of mouth are still the people you’re talking to every day — your friends and co-workers.

There’s also the fact that the kind of people who tweet aren’t the kind of people you make or break blockbusters. They are first adaptors, more likely to check out something strange and new like (500) Days of Summer than Transformers 2. Apparently teenagers aren’t tweeting, which – given Hollywood’s desire to edit down any movie to a PG rating and the dreaded fear of the letter R – are a huge part of the audience for these films.

There is also the simple fact that while movies have engaged with new media – The Dark Knight had a viral campaign which was almost as large as the film itself, for example – movies reaching out to their audience aren’t necessarily a new thing. Paranormal Activity, one of the films credited with a boost from this phenomenon, is still in the shadow of that other great indie horror success, The Blair Witch Project. Released in 1999, that movie just about predates the new social networking complex which has grabbed popular consciousness.

The people who herald the arrival of tweeting defining movies for a generation would do well to observe that occasionally we host false prophets. The web is a very different place than the high street and sometimes the taste of netizens don’t quite overlap with regular folk. Just because there’s a flurry on-line about a film doesn’t translate to either bums on seats or the legendary bottom dollar. Ask Snakes on a Plane, the would-be cult classic produced explicitly for the net generation. Except they didn’t so up in the droves necessary to make a success. And regular cinema goers just weren’t interested in so bizarre a concept (I would suggest they are confused, but the plot is pretty much in the title). On the net whoever shouts loudest gets heard, which doesn’t necessarily relate to what the public wants. The studios learnt not to engage with the fanboy over the ‘financial disaster’ of Watchmen (it was more profittable than Superman Returns!) and learnt they didn’t have to engage with critics over G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, so I wonder what it will take for them to disengage from the new media thing.

I accept that any sort of media campaign hoping to engage with their audience would do well the use these new tools and that the benificial impact of word-of-mouth on films is certainly increased by the diversity of methods of spreading word-of-mouth, but I don’t think that the tools make the campaign, for example. People will want to see moves that they want to see and will see movies that their friends tell them to see. They might even see films that critics tell them to see (that will be the day!). It doesn’t matter how the people tell them that – though I’d imagine, given how few people (statistically speaking) are on twitter and how close the people we trust generally are to us (we meet them in the pub or at work or in our neighbourhood), I don’t think that tweeting makes or breaks a movie, at least for the majority.

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