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New power player in filmdom: the cell

HOLLYWOOD — HOLLYWOOD -- Fatima Bholat stepped into the summer sunshine, fresh from the darkened theater where she'd just seen The Hulk. It was opening day, and the 16-year-old high school junior had rushed out with her younger brother to see director Ang Lee's moody take on the big green superhero.

Now she wanted to tell her friends all about it. She whipped out her silver-and-blue T-Mobile cell phone, pressed a button and did something that strikes terror into the hearts of studio executives:

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She tapped out a message telling her friends exactly what she thought of the movie -- and the verdict was brutal.

Fatima's pan was all her friends needed to convince them to stay away.

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And they told their friends. Soon the chatter would end up in a girls Internet discussion group, where all the world could see what a few teen-agers in Manhattan Beach thought about a movie.

Word of mouth -- buzz -- has long been an element in a film's success or failure. But rapid advances in technology, in the hands of an American Idol culture quick to express its vote-'em-off sentiments, has accelerated the pace of communication so much that Hollywood feels the reverberations at the box office almost immediately.

Widely released movies this summer dropped off an average of 51 percent between their first weekend and their second, according to Nielsen EDI Inc., a box office tracking company. Five years ago, the drop-off averaged 40.1 percent.

The casualties are everywhere, and even mighty studio marketing machines have been powerless to stem the tide.

The Hulk opened with $62 million but fell 69.7 percent by its second weekend. 2 Fast 2 Furious started off with $50.4 million but dipped 63 percent. Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle turned in a disappointing $37 million and then saw its fortunes drop by 62.8 percent. And the much-maligned Gigli was in a class by itself, plunging faster than the scariest summer thrill ride -- a disastrous $3.7-million opening weekend, followed by a record-breaking drop of 81.9 percent.

Instant word of mouth, as a trend, probably traces back to 1998 in Japan with the release of Ringu, Sands said. The cerebral horror flick that inspired a U.S. remake -- The Ring, which was released here in the fall -- caused a sensation in Japan. And in a technology-forward country with lots of cell phones, instant word of mouth became the fuel that lighted that film's box office success. The power of instant feedback -- good or bad -- was immediately apparent.

"I remember it struck fear into the hearts of our Japanese distributors, because it was a new phenomenon," Sands said. "By the time people walked out of the theaters, they were instant messaging. And it is so much more pronounced now."

In the United States these days, the pace of chat is fast enough, in some cases, to affect a movie's box office results from its Friday opening to Saturday night. Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle signaled it was in trouble when it dropped 11 percent overnight. (Conversely, a hit such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl can show its mettle instantly; the Disney film, which opened on a Wednesday, actually went up 17.3 percent from Friday to Saturday, according to Nielsen EDI.)

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Generally, though, Hollywood lives and dies by the weekend-to-weekend comparisons, which have fluctuated dramatically this summer.

And in the highly competitive summer months, conventional wisdom has it that a movie must keep second-weekend drops to between 30 percent and 50 percent to survive. If it drops more than 50 percent, "it's over," as one distribution executive put it.

"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."

The box office numbers seem to buck the perception that summer audiences are undiscerning thrill-seekers, easily lured into the cineplexes with slick marketing and the promise of big stars and glitzy special effects.

High-tech gear can deliver raves as well as pans. Only minutes into the raunchy goofball comedy American Wedding, 17-year-old Nick Bateman demonstrated the powers of positive, instant feedback. In the darkened Washington, D.C., theater, his father at his side, he pulled out his metallic Motorola V60 cell phone and text-messaged his best friend: "It's hilarious. You really need to see it."

Despite Bateman's efforts, though, the film dropped 53.7 percent in its second weekend -- not terrible for the third film in a series, but not great, either.

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But some of this summer's biggest hits, such as Disney's Finding Nemo and Pirates, showed the kind of staying power that comes only through positive word of mouth.

Oren Aviv, Disney's marketing chief, said repeat customers and great word of mouth contributed to his studio's summer success. Finding Nemo has become the highest-grossing animated film of all time as well as the most successful movie of the year. Pirates has grossed $239 million domestically. There's a simple lesson to be learned, Aviv said:

"Make a good movie and you win. Make a crappy movie and you lose."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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