Hollywood questions ‘The Twitter Effect’

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In 2009, Twitter was seen as the answer to film studios' questions about box office winners with word-of-mouth steering the way to blockbusters or busts.

Twitter was perceived as the best predictor of box office performance, better than standard marketing tracking. Tweets pointed the way to big opening films, such as The Blind Side - up almost 25 percent on day two after tweets on Friday. It also hinted at downslides like Public Enemies 33 percent dip the next day after negative feedback.

Film studios scrambled to jump aboard the phenomenon finding Twitter a great tool for reading the audience response.

Researchers at Hewlett Packard Labs published a study early this year showing how their formula could accurately predict opening US gross revenues of films based on tweets with 97.3% accuracy. The study tracked Twitter with 24 films, including Twilight Saga: New Moon and Avatar, with nearly 2.9 million tweets by 1.2 million users over three-months.

Studios saw potential but recently the social media site seems to have lost its magic. Few films this summer have been hits or flops that Twitter trends indicated. All the more surprising since Twitter users increases from 50 million to 125 million over the year.

"I think the viral nature of social media in general can impact a film's opening, but that's certainly not limited to Twitter," Chris Aronson, executive VP of distribution for Fox, told Hollywood blog The Wrap, referring to Facebook which has 500 million users, MySpace and text posts with film feedback.

Now studios hope to use the power of Twitter though its advertising platform, called ‘Promoted Tweets.' Spots for Toy Story 3, Despicable Me and Karate Kid produced positive returns on the investment - more than banner ads, according Dwight Caines, Sony's president of worldwide digital marketing at a panel called "The Twitter Effect on Movies and Popular Culture" two weeks ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

But this past weekend, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the geek action-comedy based on the graphic novel series, performed poorly at the box office, earning only $10.5 million and ranked fifth. Yet it replaced Inception as the top trending topic on Twitter, according to Forbes magazine online.

This response may indicate the films have a life after theatrical release, such as Kick-Ass, another comic book adaptation, which had a lackluster box office but made 100% of its $48 million US sales on DVD, instead of the usual 60-70%.

Cult films do better through word-of-mouth, according to SNL Kagan, a media research firm, so the fans' ‘Twitter effect' may help it breakout.