How did social media, in the matter of less than 10 years, manage to get indissolubly bound not only to the promotion, but also to the making and life of motion pictures?
The cinema industry is, after all, a fairly traditional one. Arguably, the last groundbreaking innovation took place in the 1920s with the introduction of the talkies. Today, this same industry has found itself absorbing and integrating new means of communication and dialogue in order to further connect with its audiences. In addition, some cases have highlighted how it has managed to deliver extremely innovative funding strategies, while others have revealed refined distributed production techniques.
With this post I’d like to frame for a moment the scene we have in front of us – steering away from superfluous in-depth analysis. My wish is to provide a simple walkthrough of the relationship between Hollywood and social media.
Innovating, starting from communication
Up until yesterday, cinema productions and distributions were closed-doors institutions, inscrutable bearers of mysterious knowledge. Nowadays it’s a totally different matter: they have opened up to a world of conversations, fan contributions and inputs, same-level relationships mediated by digital means. Today it’s extremely hard to immagine a movie being launched without the aid of social media.
The change indeed required the overcoming of many barriers, nevertheless it has brought remarkable results.
Rather than profoundly changing its inner core, and then display a different approach towards the world, the cinema industry has opted to remain virtually the same while adopting new means of communication, with changes affecting its ‘outer shell’ more than its heart.
The world of motion pictures chose to be cutting-edge in the communication field first, and then go back to modify some key-features that, after being neglected for decades, were found to be in need of a revamp.
Social media have now become the studios new conscience and the industry has been forced to embrace a different approach, perhaps more innovative and open to dialogue of what it was initially prepared to adopt.
Mapping the territory
There’s no way of taking our snapshot without mentioning some true giants that today capture the attention of a huge number social media users. I have no intentions, however, to either put these social platform under close scrutiny, or draw up a comprehensive list of them. Simply, I’d like to take a brief overview on the most important communication channels of today’s cinema industry, those on which producers and distributors spend more money and time on.
One of the most important communication platform on a global level, Facebook is not immune to the charm of the silver screen and here users have found a place where they not only can exchange opinions about films, but also officially declare their loyalty by liking fan pages, which enables them to follow the life of each single movie as well as of important franchises.
Production and distribution companies have been paying extreme attention to Facebook, focusing their marketing efforts on the platform and investing a great deal also in the production of ad-hoc content. In some cases a reference to the Facebook page appears on the film’s poster and its presence is more and more frequently casting a shadow on the official site, which is relegated to second place, if present at all.
The presence of producers and distributors on Twitter is pretty organic and natural, reason being that this platform was adopted quite early by journalists, who immediately understood the informative value of this new communication tool. After journalists, it was the turn of actors and film directors: celebrities started pouring on Twitter and began building a large part of their online community there. Last but not least came producers with their brands and also movies, which have now become also a natural presence on the platform.
Tumblr is a popular and growing social media at the moment. The core of this platform lies in its flow of photos, videos and animations: the perfect mean of communication for the film industry, which has acknowledged its effectiveness in informally delivering information to fans. Just like Facebook, Tumblr too is steadily taking over official movie websites.
With its rich graphic layout and ability to appeal to a female skewed audience, Pinterest has become a key-platform in the marketing of motion pictures. Even though the creative use of its boards is what has made it really popular, Pinterest excels also in the daily dissemination of images, photos, infographics, posters and other artwork, which distinguishes it from other social media.
YouTube deserves a special mention because it enables an extremely important presence for the cinema industry. Interacting with fans is today an important component of film promotions, nevertheless, video material extracted from the movie and trailers in particular are still the marketing tool of choice. A study carried out by the Hollywood Reporter focused on the impact of social media on target audiences has in fact revealed that the 40% of moviegoers still bases the choice of what to watch on the trailer. YouTube, by combining these two components, is therefore currently providing an incredibly important service to the movie industry.
On YouTube fans expect to find several movie trailers, in addition to clips, backstage footage, special features and interviews. Distributors strive to meet expectations by building increasingly interesting and content-packed channels, which rarely leave the public disappointed.
The new contender in the social media space when it comes to engaging teens, Snapchat is the elusive social network where personalities are thriving and brands are still struggling. The launch of an advertising platform has eased some of Hollywood’s anxieties, but this new instantaneous and ephemeral network is still puzzling most marketing execs. One of the most confusing aspects is that the materials that have been painstakingly produced disappear into oblivion in just 24 hours. Speaking of reduction of the attention span.
First contact between the film and social media
— World of Warcraft (@Warcraft) October 1, 2013
Social media are involved from the very moment a film is announced. The press release stating the start of filming is usually posted on Twitter, with username and URLs registered on all main social networks to safeguard the film’s trademark.
Starting so early on, dictates new duties, such as producing as soon as possible some visual material, a title and swiftly releasing photos from the set.
In addition to receiving, watching and sharing content, fans also leave comments and exchange opinions: as a consequence, their response can influence marketing decisions ahead of the film release.
At this stage, feedback from the web is held in high regard.
— Zoolander 2 (@ZoolanderMovie) February 12, 2016
The zenith of film promotion remains the time when the movie is released in cinemas, and the most interesting material, games and events are set aside for this moment only. Traditionally the cast, director and producers accompany the film in a promotional tour, which is too a remarkable opportunity to create even more content for social networks.
Today it’s possible to release a movie online for authorised digital download in conjunction with its premiere in cinemas. From that moment onwards, the interaction is no longer based on the material produced around the film, but on the film itself. Fans analyse it, look for the reasons behind creative choices and, if they deem it appropriate, openly argue with the production, director and cast.
In other cases, the reviews are the ones to end up under scrutiny, especially if the film has a particularly hardened fan base and the critics have shown a negative attitude towards it.
The role of fans in the promotion of the film
Fans not only receive, they notice and comment. They are not only passive recipients of information, they are also perfectly capable of creating content. They design posters, edit official visual material, shoot parodies or spin-offs, pose in front of the camera to cover songs, impersonate hits or – more simply – are an active part of a cultural phenomenon.
Film meets community
The early fans usually shape the conversation around the film. This conversation will evolve from the moment of the release and will continue for several years to come. Opinions of the single individuals will vary: teen movie fans may grow older and stop identifying with the generational phenomenon embraced in their youth.
A cinematographic flop with few hardened fans may become a successful film in the long run. A best-loved saga may be ruined by a disappointing last episode. As the political, cultural and informative context changes, the film may be seen under a completely different light, revealing new-found meanings. Single scenes of niche films may become classics on social networks and at times more popular than the film itself.
For instance Bruno Ganz playing Hitler in Der Untergang became a meme in 2004, something virtually unrelated to the film it was extracted from.
Stars and social media
The film industry wouldn’t be the same without a star system. To this day, studios and independent production companies rely on the public recognising and following a certain number of actors.
Although becoming a star involves more than just social media, it is true that nowadays stars can capitalise on their status using both the content they choose to share on social platforms and the interaction they choose to have with their fans. Actors and directors are today an active part of the communication strategy of every single film.
The content they share is not the result of a spontaneous emotional choice, but rather the object of specific planning. In many cases the stars profiles are part of a wider scheme which includes PR and advertising.
Every actor, director and anyone who chooses to be in the limelight today has a chance to make their personal brand grow film after film, increasing with each one of the movies in which they work. The social capital thus flows in different directions: distributors and producers direct the investment on the film, but this often ends up feeding also the film crew and cast.
Crowdfunding: fans open the wallet
The birth of Kickstarter provided the relationship between fans and filmmakers with a further opportunity for growth. With the ability to fund the production of new films, fans feel at the core of the process, able to change the fate of a cinematographic project with their own efforts.
Crowdfunding is by now an established praxis: in 2013 the first film ever realised also thanks to crowdfunding won the Oscar for Best Documentary and Wikipedia at the time of writing lists a total of 9 cinematographic projects in the top 109 most successful crowdfunding campaigns.
In these first projects that accessed the financial resources of the community, backers were basically benefactors subsidising the film without any financial return. They did not enjoy the same financial upside as the other production partners, often already established film production companies. This iniquity has been balanced out by recent legislative developments in the field of crowdfunding, which have also opened to backers found on the web the opportunity to participate in the financial benefits that films can generate during their life cycle.
Crowdsourcing: fans get to work
Fans have eyes, critical skills, money: but it doesn’t end there. They have tools that make them as creative as the filmmakers they love. And that’s exactly why some directors have started relying on fan communities contributing to the making of a movie. How? In some cases the fans are involved in the narrative structure, in others in the production of special effects, others have to arm themselves with a camera and shoot scenes of the film.
The consequence of this involvement is summed up by director D.J. Caruso when he talks about ‘Inside’, a film commissioned by Intel and Toshiba: “Inside is unique because it allows me as a director to direct not just the actors, but the audience as well.”
In other cases the fan community is recruited in the last stages of the film’s distribution: fans are asked to find theatres, sell tickets to friends and become – in fact – local micro-distributors of their favourite movie.
Crowdsourcing is yet another way to engage and retain fans who may have an appeal for some, even if – as pointed out by John Lisi on PopMatters – “It’s doubtful that the majority of consumers will suddenly change from viewing content to wanting to contribute to the production of content”.
To conclude this snapshot we must look at another aspect: what happens during the film viewing. Well, not even movie theatres seem to be immune to the appeal of social media. If it is a common habit of the audience to use their smartphones to send messages while watching the film, there is a certain part of the audience keen on interacting on social media during the movie, a commentary similar to that of sporting events. A research by Hollywood Reporter has found that the majority of young people aged 18 to 34 believes in the use of social media during film screening.
Franchises and social media
— Harry Potter Film (@HarryPotterFilm) May 26, 2016
Movie franchises are another important aspect: these are brands capable of reaching the market through films, merchandising and games. These established brands such as Spiderman or Harry Potter, compared to individual films, have a much greater appeal on social media. The franchises live all the stages we have described, yet amplified by how important these film series are for the audience. This is how cross-generational phenomena such as Star Wars are born, phenomena which today find in social media a long-lasting point of synthesis and contact with fans.
Social media are therefore involved since before the conception of the film, used to finance the production and realise some parts, which are then exploited to promote the film. Social media through which fans interact before, during and after viewing the film.
Not only through social media, young viewers receive updates on the film’s release. These tools come into play both right ahead of the film viewing (for instance by sharing the intention to see a particular film), while watching the film (in ‘second screen’ mode) and immediately after the vision (by commenting and sharing the experience).
The snapshot that I took has two features that the reader should keep in mind: it is blurred and already outdated, because the tools I described have already changed since I wrote these words, already employed in a new, different way. Because new channels have emerged and some of those channels that we now take for granted have begun an inexorable decline.
Innovation takes place at the edges, on the boundaries of the communication tableau. It starts from the edges to get to the centre, the mainstream. One should keep an eye on the early adopters, since they are already living in the future, a future already present in today’s time although – as William Gibson says – not yet equally distributed.