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High-Tech Word of Mouth Maims Movies in a Flash

August 17, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Fatima Bholat stepped into the summer sunshine, fresh from the darkened theater where she'd just seen "The Hulk." It was opening day, and the 16-year-old high school junior had rushed out with her younger brother to see director Ang Lee's moody take on the big green superhero.

Now she wanted to tell her friends all about it. She whipped out her silver-and-blue T-Mobile cell phone, pressed a button and did something that strikes terror into the hearts of studio executives:

She tapped out a message telling her friends exactly what she thought of the movie -- and the verdict was brutal.

Fatima's pan was all her friends needed to convince them to stay away.

And they told their friends. Soon the chatter would end up in a girls Internet discussion group, where all the world could see what a few teenagers in Manhattan Beach thought about a movie.

Word of mouth -- buzz -- has long been an element in a film's success or failure. But rapid advances in technology, in the hands of an "American Idol" culture quick to express its vote-'em-off sentiments, has accelerated the pace of communication so much that Hollywood feels the reverberations at the box office almost immediately.

"In the old days, there used to be a term, 'buying your gross,' " said Rick Sands, chief operating officer at Miramax, referring to the millions of dollars studios throw at a movie to ensure a big opening weekend.

"You could buy your gross for the weekend and overcome bad word of mouth, because it took time to filter out into the general audience," he said. "Those days are over. Today, there is no fooling the public."

Widely released movies this summer dropped off an average of 51% between their first weekend and their second, according to Nielsen EDI Inc., a box office tracking firm. Five years ago, the drop-off averaged 40.1%.

The casualties are everywhere, and even mighty studio marketing machines have been powerless to stem the tide.

"The Hulk" opened with $62 million but fell 69.7% by its second weekend. "2 Fast 2 Furious" started off with $50.4 million but dipped 63%. "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" turned in a disappointing $37 million and then saw its fortunes drop by 62.8%. And the much-maligned "Gigli" was in a class by itself, plunging faster than the scariest summer thrill ride -- a disastrous $3.7-million opening weekend, followed by a record-breaking drop of 81.9%.

Instant word of mouth, as a trend, probably traces back to 1998 in Japan with the release of "Ringu," Sands said.

The cerebral horror flick that inspired a U.S. remake -- "The Ring," which was released here last fall -- caused a sensation in Japan. And in a technology-forward country with lots of cell phones, instant word of mouth became the fuel that lighted that film's box office success. The power of instant feedback -- good or bad -- was immediately apparent.

"I remember it struck fear into the hearts of our Japanese distributors, because it was a new phenomenon," Sands said. "By the time people walked out of the theaters, they were instant messaging. And it is so much more pronounced now."

In the U.S. these days, the pace of chat is fast enough, in some cases, to affect a movie's box office results from its Friday opening to Saturday night.

"Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" signaled it was in trouble when it dropped 11% overnight.

(Conversely, a hit like "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" can show its mettle instantly; the Disney film, which opened on a Wednesday, actually went up 17.3% from Friday to Saturday, according to Nielsen EDI.)

Generally, though, Hollywood lives and dies by the weekend-to-weekend comparisons, which have fluctuated dramatically this summer.

And in the highly competitive summer months, conventional wisdom has it that a movie must keep second-weekend drops to between 30% and 50% to survive. If it drops more than 50%, "it's over," as one distribution executive put it.

"Today, there is just no hope of recovering your marketing costs if the film doesn't connect with the audience, because the reaction is so quick -- you are dead immediately," said Bob Berney, head of Newmarket Films, which distributed "Whale Rider," a well-received, low-budget New Zealand picture that grossed $12.8 million and has endured through the summer. "Conversely, if the film is there, then the business is there."

The box office numbers seem to buck the perception that summer audiences are undiscerning thrill-seekers, easily lured into the cineplexes with slick marketing and the promise of big stars and glitzy special effects.

"Saying something is good is not good enough," said Adam Fogelson, head of marketing for Universal Pictures, whose "Seabiscuit" and "Bruce Almighty" helped bring the studio its highest-grossing summer ever, "The Hulk" notwithstanding.

"It has to be fresh or different or new, or a new star has to be born out of the film," he said. "I don't think simply a satisfying version of what someone expects will guarantee great box office."

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