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Hollywood Hype and the New Critic

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How the suits have to stay ahead of the SMS


Like the recession we had to have, Hollywood will get a lot worse before they get better.

The bane of some people's movie experiences is the brainless blockbusters hawked by movie studios for fast returns at the expense of our intellectual engagement (as it happens, that system comprises the bulk of the global film industry and is ironically the institution that gave rise to modern film).

A few months ago it was blockbuster season in the US, and amid the marketing juggernauts sweeping the globe (for the likes of X2, The Matrix: Reloaded, Daredevil and Hulk), Filmink Publishing Director Dov Kornits took time out from the relentless coverage to comment on the almost unbearable hype movies receive – hype that seems to get more hysterical every year (read; North American summer).

More recently, Sydney Morning Herald film correspondent David Dale reported on a new phenomenon that's sure to become the studios' and distributors' biggest fear; the connectivity technologies of the new millennium and the potential they have to make or break a movie.

In simple terms, Dale was talking about teenagers (the target demographic of most American movies) calling, emailing and SMSing their friends the day after they see a movie and either turning them away or bringing them in in droves.

He backed his observations up with hard figures detailing the 'drop off' factors of several recent films (percentages their takings dropped by on their second weekends of release) that must have distributors sweating bullets. These fanboys and girls had a tangible effect on the box office of a movie after day one. It's the sort of word of mouth marketing that makes ad execs cream their Armanis.

What does this mean to studios who make movies and the distributors who try to sell them to us? It means they can forget the opening weekend – now a movie (especially a bad one) has to make its money back on opening night. And they're wise. In Dale's article, COO of Miramax Rick Sands described the olden-days practice of 'buying your gross'. "You could buy your gross for the weekend and overcome bad word of mouth," Sands is quoted as saying, "because it took time to filter out into the general audience. Today, there is no fooling the public."

What will it mean for movie fans? The film business is deeply entrenched around the world – if you think Hollywood studios are going to stop flogging the sort of trash we've seen in the last few months just because a few kids can hop onto Hotmail and sink a movie, you haven't seen the way they tackle marketing problems in the past.

Their only chance to keep things the way they are is to get back ahead of the race, one step ahead of this new army creating its own unrestrained focus group. The first short-term solution we're likely to see is that they'll simply crank it up.

Expect those sorts of popcorn blockbusters to get bigger, louder, faster and sexier – but also more ridiculous, more moronic and more grating. Expect the cost savings movie studios make because of technologies like CGI to be ploughed into nuclear-powered marketing campaigns the likes of which we've never seen. Think you saw Jar Jar Binks and Spiderman everywhere from muesli bars to CD-ROM games for months? One day soon even opening night will be too late – they'll have to make their money back after the first screening.

But as it always does when Hollywood's onto a good thing, critical mass will eventually come through adrenaline fatigue. Just like audiences the world over were sick to death of the empty-skulled CG blockbusters by the time Pearl Harbour limped away, we'll get sick of ridiculous levels of promotion for upcoming blockbusters.

Instead of staying away from bad movies in flocks, moviegoers will start staying away from movies that are simply overhyped. We've had an inkling of the future of saturation marketing for the last few US blockbuster release seasons, and when the white noise becomes deafening, Hollywood will get a strong message when audiences don't bother showing up to see movies they're already sick of hearing about.

Maybe then, they'll realise we've got them backed into a corner. Maybe then the event movie behemoth will fall out of fashion for awhile and they'll have no choice but to produce substance over style. Maybe then the sort of viral marketing kids across the world are starting to generate might work in their favour.

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