Flash Voids

Science fiction author Larry Niven once described a world where people would instantly teleport to places where something interesting was happening, causing what he called “Flash Crowds.” Now the LA Times reports that movie makers are seeing the opposite problem: instant communication means that if the audience doesn’t like your movie on opening-night Friday, by Saturday you’ll have yourself a flash void:

“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.”

Two things are going on here. The first is just that word-of-mouth is getting faster, which we already knew. That means that the old strategy of hyping a bad movie so everyone sees it before the reviews come out won’t work much longer. The more important point, though, is that movie companies are seeing their carefully crafted ad campaigns overwhelmed by the buzz created by everyone’s texting, emailing and blogging. The shift in power cuts both ways: audience-pleasers like Bend It Like Beckham thrive on almost buzz alone, while The Hulk was killed by buzz based partially on pirated pre-release copies, in spite of a huge marketing campaign.

Studios (and producers in general) will learn one of two lessons from this trend. Either they’ll decide they need to manipulate buzz by wooing mavens and carefully controlling how information is released, or, just possibly, they’ll follow the advice of Oren Aviv, Disney’s marketing chief: “Make a good movie and you win. Make a crappy movie and you lose.”