An April 30th, 2015 article by Natalie Robehmed in Forbes examines how Hollywood is increasing its reliance on data from social media:
"In the last few years, a handful of companies have started tuning into social media conversations to gather information on how people perceive movies and their stars. In a multi-billion dollar industry, where production budgets can top $200 million per film – and marketing budgets may soar just as high – insight into what people think about a leading man or blockbuster trailer is lucrative knowledge that, if harnessed, can flip a film from red to black."
A pile of papers bearing statistics is nothing new in LA. Hollywood marketing execs have long relied on reams of data. For example, legendary producer Irving Thalberg famously recut early MGM talkies based on preview screenings. And in the years since then, many movie-biz hopefuls have found a first job in Hollywood gathering and analyzing audience data (full disclosure, my first job in Hollywood was for a company that provided "audience sentiment" data - gathered from surveys and screenings - to the studios and television networks).
These days, when studios spend upwards of $200 million to market global blockbusters, there is no question that some data-hungry Hollywood tub-thumpers have become pioneers in using the "sentiments" culled from vast amounts of tweets and posts to guide their movie marketing.
What types of data are Hollywood execs choosing to look at in the age of Facebook and Twitter?
Is there a consensus about what numbers to track?
What special insights (if any) can social media bring to the party?
There does seem to be an emerging consensus in Hollywood marketing circles about which numbers to track.
As David Herrin (head of research at the Hollywood talent agency UTA) says in Natalie Robehmed's Forbes article: "The holy trinity in social conversation is volume, a large conversation; sentiment, people saying good things; and an organic conversation that is consumer driven rather than from studios or press."
So Hollywood marketers now track things like:
1) The number of posts created by the potential audience about a film's title (= one metric for Volume).
2) The "description words" used in relation to a film's title in social media posts (assigning a positive, negative, or neutral value to social media posts and then determining the ratio of positive to negative and neutral = one metric of Sentiment).
3) Hollywood marketing execs know you're more likely to survive a plane crash than you are to click on a banner ad. One marketing wag has even suggested an app that sends an ambulance to your home if you click on a banner ad, because the odds are you've suffered a medical emergency and hit your head on the "return" key. In a world where conspicuous online ads are avoided, marketers increasingly seek ways to encourage what they call organic conversations (content that lends itself to social sharing and engagement = Organic). It seems the idea that marketers are trying to capture when they refer to a conversation as "organic" is that users will sniff out and avoid ads initiated by a brand online - but they might share messages about a brand that are entertaining or informative. So organic tends to refer to the way the messages (whether actually organically user-generated, or paid-for content marketing that includes messages directly from the marketer) spread via social media. Of course, this raises the question: How can a conversation be truly organic when it serves the needs of marketers? The trick for marketers with organic marketing is to get people talking about a film - or to encourage them to spread positive messages about a film - without making the user overly aware of the brands interest in spreading those messages via social media.
Paradoxically, so far China remains the lone exception to the studios' army of bean counters.
Notably, China - the territory that already boasts the world’s most engaged social media audience and will soon be the biggest movie market in the world ("China could surpass the US as the largest theatrical box office market by 2018") - is not yet a part of the studios' reliance in big data for movie marketing trend. As Pamela McClintock noted in an article that appeared in the August 8th, 2014 The Hollywood Reporter Magazine: "Ironically, marketing costs nearly nothing in China, the world's second-biggest market. The government's China Film Group pays for and runs a campaign, relying almost exclusively on the Internet since few moviegoers watch television."
Finally, when considering the role that big data is playing in Hollywood, one last big dystopian question looms...
Have we crossed (are we about to cross?) the final frontier to moviemaking guided primarily by automated tools for the measurement of mass sentiment instead of auteurist impulses?
In other words: Beyond helping with marketing decisions, how far has the influence of the new tools - like online social sentiment - extended into the tinsel town decision-making process?
Are movies getting made solely because Snapchat wants them?
The answer to this last question isn't really clear.
And let's face it: As a practical matter, it isn't likely (unless we experience another Sony-level studio hack and document dump) that we'll overhear a studio head candidly talking any time soon about the time he or she let tweets decide which star was given a certain role or which project was given a green light...
If social media has already begun making those decisions, why are shareholders paying Tom Rothman and Donna Langley so much money?
The nightmare of movies made on autopilot - if it comes to pass - will probably remain a closely guarded secret. At least for a while. If only to protect the perks of being important in Hollywood.
But even if we only look at how big data is changing marketing in Hollywood, how the new tools are being employed can be fascinating - and it might even be heuristic in other areas of marketing...
If you're thinking about spending time and money analyzing social media data - are you just finding a new way to play the same old guessing game - or can watching tweets and posts really tell you new things that are meaningful and actionable?