The studios and distributors spend $1 billion a year in the U.S. advertising new releases. But they spend virtually nothing after a film's first weekend – because by then they know the matter is out of their hands. If a movie is good, box office will be big. If a movie is bad, box office will be small.
And, either way, it is the verdict of those opening-weekend patrons that will prevail. Clever trailers and heavily redacted film-review excerpts ("It's mindblowing to imagine this trash ever saw the light of day" becomes "Mindblowing!") may lure people to see an unknown quantity, but ads are useless to influence – much less overcome – negative buzz.
Because movie goers are columns of ants, hurrying back to the nest to exclaim, "Dude, that sucked!" Just ask the producers of Waterworld, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar and Gigli. On the other hand, the producers of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Blair Witch Project and Little Miss Sunshine can be most grateful for the same phenomenon. Animal instincts have done them proud.
Beyond Hollywood, there are, of course, many other fabled examples of word of mouth yielding enormous results: Cabbage Patch Kids. The spiritual self-help guide titled "The Purpose Driven Life," Avon's Skin-So-Soft as mosquito repellant – remarkable commercial successes all, with little or no advertising behind them. Or, for a better example still, think about the tire story.
It's coming in the next post.