January 10, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Cloverfield has become the latest motion picture to try to build excitement and word-of-mouth via the Internet. An informal poll of movie-goers has indicated that anyone who spends more than an hour per day surfing the web is more aware of Cloverfield than anyone whose on-line time is less than that. (In fact, while all of the frequent on-liners knew what Cloverfield is, quite a few of those in the other category responded with a "What's Cloverfield?") There are conventional Cloverfield TV ads and trailers but these are nothing compared to the barrage of on-line promotional material. But does this approach to marketing work? Relatively speaking, it's cheap but is it effective? While past trends are no guarantee of future performance, it's worth looking back at four of the most heavily Internet-promoted motion pictures and how they fared at the box office.

The pioneer, if there can be said to be such a thing, for excessive on-line hype was the Granddaddy flop, Snakes on Plane. No movie was more relentlessly promoted across the Internet than this one. There were official websites, fan websites, blogs, and so forth. Forums were ablaze. You couldn't click more than twice without hearing Samuel L. Jackson yelling about getting those motherfucking snakes off this motherfucking plane. Yet, despite so many words being written and so many clips being played, the movie was a bomb. It seemed people were more interested in talking about the "phenomenon" than they were in seeing the film. (The fact that it was bad and had terrible word of mouth might have had something to do with it, but even the special night-before showings were not packed.)

The experience with Borat, however, was much different. The Internet fueled the film's ascension from curiosity to surprise hit. Impelled by blanket Internet coverage, Borat became the must-see movie for college-age viewers (the primary targets of the Internet campaign). Unlike Snakes on a Plane, people went to see Borat. Sold out showings were common as were lines that turned corners and snaked through alleys. Of course, it remains an open question whether the on-line explosion merely re-enforced an already strong interest in the film or whether the hype contributed to Borat's unexpected box office prowess.

The next test for the Internet was Death of a President, which had nearly as much written about it on-line as either Snakes or Borat and was one of the most hyped films at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. Initially, the movie's prospects seemed bleak but it became such a huge hit in Toronto that distributor Newmarket decided on an Internet blitz to generate interest. Despite all of the chatter and controversy (most of which was overblown - the movie wasn't nearly as edgy as advertised), it vanished without a blip when it opened in theaters. Like Snakes on a Plane, this was a movie that bloggers and forum visitors enjoyed pontificating about but which few movie-goers had much interest in seeing.

2007's big Internet-fueled event was 300, a film that was marketed to on-liners in a smart, calculated manner. The campaign was in part modeled after the one that worked so well with Borat and it appeared to be equally successful for 300. The "red-line" trailer, generally not shown in theaters because of R-rated material, became so frequently downloaded that several trailer-delivery sites crashed from bandwidth overload. Fans sites multiplied until there were thousands of them. Ain't It Cool News went wild with publicity. Expected to be a modest success, the movie instead became a stunning early-year box office champion.

Interestingly, traffic to my site allowed me to make early projections about how successful these films would be. Snakes was not screened for critics so I had to attend the night-before showing. I wrote the review when I got home and posted it within two hours. It received surprisingly tepid interest overnight and during the next day. By 8 pm on Friday, I knew that this film wasn't going to do well. The interest wasn't there. Similarly, my Death of a President review received almost no traffic. No one cared. Borat and 300, however, were drawing thousands upon thousands of readers within hours after the advance reviews were up. Even before the movies opened, I could tell based on the number of readers that these movies were going to do extremely well.

But the question remains: Does Internet marketing really work? Can strong on-line hype result in additional butts in theaters? Will people leave their computers to travel to multiplexes? It can't be coincidence that the two successes were good movies while the two failures were not. The one lesson we can learn is that no movie is going to become a runaway success just because its primary means of advertising is on the Internet. But if the audience is primed and the movie gets good word of mouth, on-line hype can only help. Which brings us back to Cloverfield - but we'll have to wait another week to see whether this is 2008's first Big Event or whether this is just another motherfucking Emperor with motherfucking new clothes.