Twitterverse grows at festivals

Social networks call attention to pics but some wary of impact

With its mercilessly brief 140-character limitation, Twitter may not seem like the ideal place to sound off about movies. Yet since everyone from Roger Ebert to Larry King regularly shares their concise reactions to movies in the Twitterverse and on other social networks, the opinions on current cinema has undeniably found its way into the crowded digital realm of status updates.

As a nascent form of communication, Twitter and its ilk have yet to edge out the impact of conventional marketing campaigns and mainstream critics at the box office. However, some view the real-time application of Twitter — which had more than 75 million users at the end of 2009 — as a helpful tool at film festivals, where indie distributors are faced with making split-second business decisions about movies shortly after their premieres.

“I think it’s very helpful to get a perspective on general reactions from festival programmers and press,” says IFC Films marketing chief Ryan Werner. “You get an automatic gut response and can also tell when something is getting a lot of attention.”

He cites the instant buzz surrounding Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” at the Cannes Film Festival last year, when IFC bought the movie within days of its premiere. “The press screening wasn’t even over when the tweets started,” says Werner. “It isn’t totally accurate, but you get a great sense of initial feedback.”

Magnolia Pictures exec Tom Quinn agrees. “It’s a nice gauge of up-to-the-minute reviews and candid screening reactions,” he says. “An aggregate of those kind of reactions is very useful as you try to position and refine your campaign.”

Cinetic Rights Management head Matt Dentler suggests that appreciative tweets about the British dark comedy “Down Terrace” following its Stateside premiere at the Fantastic Film Festival in Austin last year may have helped convince Magnolia’s genre arm Magnet to buy it, although the film had already won kudos at London’s Raindance fest.

“The film was all over Twitter as a must-see and immediately became a hot title at the festival,” Dentler says. “I don’t think any distributors will buy a film purely based on Twitter or Facebook reactions, but those platforms can help sleeper hits emerge in a crowded marketplace.”

David Koh, head of acquisitions and production for Arthouse Films, emphasizes the importance of finding reactions from a movie’s audiences on Twitter. “It definitely helps if something is hip, cool or has a youth audience,” he says, using the Sundance receptions of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and the documentary “Waste Land” as examples. “Usually in blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, you get the unfiltered respect from the immediate audience,” Koh says.

Nevertheless, many distributors hesitate to invest any credibility in something as ephemeral as a tweet. “It’s not the fact of blogging and twittering, but who is blogging and twittering,” explains Fox Searchlight acquisitions exec Tony Safford. “We’ll pay attention to critics’ blogs and tweets, but not to the Babel of the ill-informed, overly enthusiastic or often caustic posts of the I-saw-it-first responders.”

Roadside Attractions’ director of acquisitions Dustin Smith argues that the majority of those responders belong to an insular crowd. “The people who are posting immediate responses on social networking sites are Internet and blog writers,” he says. “While, in the aggregate, their opinions can come together to form an overall vibe of how a movie is playing, they’re not opinions that anyone would, or should, risk hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars on.”

He points out the explosion of good buzz following the South by Southwest world premiere of Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather,” which remains unsold. “If you stood back and realized that every single rave tweet was coming from someone who knew and was friends with the filmmaker,” he says, “you would realize that these aren’t opinions you can necessarily trust.”

Most distributors echo that sentiment. Focus Features CEO James Schamus acknowledges looking at status updates but avoids giving them too much validity. “Our acquisitions folks do see these,” he says, “but given the relatively small sample size out of festival screenings, we take them with a pretty hefty grain of salt.”

Mark Urman, founder of the new distribution outfit Paladin, expresses similar trepidation. “Too much goes into the life of any film, while too little goes into Twitter and Facebook musings,” he says. “I recognize the power. I’m just not sure how to harness it or when.”

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