The chaos of growth and change roils hardest in Hollywood’s digital-marketing departments, which control roughly 10% of any studio movie’s marketing dollars — a share that’s exploded from the scrawny six-figure online spends of just a handful of years ago.

Digital marketing became essential overnight, before it could mature out of its experimentation phase. Before it could figure out what its success was even supposed to be.

And yet the top of the Hollywood food chain has little idea whether any of it effectively sells tickets.

“Everyone’s doing it, so nobody wants to take the risk of not doing it … even though nobody knows what it’s really doing,” says one former studio marketing head, now an active consultant on several projects.

One high-volume vendor offers this damning assessment: “They’d rather not know.”

That frustration echoes many among more than two dozen digital marketing mavens — studio digital toppers, vendors, think-tankers, analysts, academics, agencies, consultants and entrepreneurs — who spoke with Variety over the past few months about the course of digital theatrical marketing. Those not authorized to go on the record because of the sensitivity of their positions were allowed to speak on background.

Collectively, they drew a picture of a Wild West without a reliable template for success; where real-time data shapes key decisions but is poorly understood by studio higher-ups; where digital marketers are just beginning to be treated like peers by top executives; and where what seems to get traction — and what doesn’t — changes from one campaign to the next.

“You can’t rely on what worked last time because the marketplace is so dynamic,” says Gordon Paddison, one of the discipline’s earliest pioneers while at New Line and now CEO of Stradella Road, a top media and entertainment consultancy. “That’s a blessing. You can’t be lazy in digital. I don’t know anyone who is.”

For their efforts, marketers already have the ability to glean sentiment from social media — “a focus group the size of the Internet,” one researcher swoons — in highly refined ways. The ability to understand the public’s feelings about a trailer or one-sheet moments after its release empowers marketers to tweak tactics on the fly. And such data is used widely: “Social listening guides every single thing we do,” says another vendor.

But measuring whether digital assets can actually motivate a trip to the box office? That’s a ways off yet.

“Trying to measure social effectiveness against box office is very difficult,” says Sony digital topper Dwight Caines, another founding father of digital marketing. “But what we do know is that the velocity of word-of-mouth due to social media can make or break a film.”

All agree that a catchy campaign or targeted spend can give a film a visible “lift” in sentiment and awareness tracking. But while anecdotes of digital campaigns that helped open a movie have been told and retold, none have been definitively quantified. Many top digital-marketing minds are skeptical of tales of one-off success, such as the oft-cited “Paranormal Activity” franchise launch, which some believe was not the Internet phenomenon of legend, but the result of savvy, aggressive, market-by-market field work for just the right kind of “stunt” movie.

And while an off-the-leash Twitter campaign for Universal’s “Ted” was hailed as a roaring success, there’s no data to suggest it had anything to do with the pic’s surprise $54 million opening. In fact, many say pedigree, unique premise and word-of-mouth had everything to do with “Ted’s” boffo bow.

“The only way to determine what worked is to do post-opening-day research, and nobody does that, because it takes resources,” says Sharon Ann Lee, cultural trend analyst and founder of think tank CultureBrain.

Such resources won’t materialize until they’re a priority in the corner offices, where some execs are still too easily distracted by digital’s shiny objects: They respond to skyrocketing numbers of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers, which are virtually meaningless and can easily be bought. (Buying “likes” still takes place, but marketers alternately call it “garbage” and “of no real value.” Takeaway: beware of shady digital agencies that sell “engagement” based on these metrics.)

Instead, the trend in savvy digital campaigns is to court “influencers,” consumers with a passion for the brand or movie whose social-media circles include potential converts. The thinking goes that if you get to them, their followers will follow. (The other big shift is toward original content creation: See story this page).

“Very early on you have to identify influencers and build a community,” says Disney digital topper T.J. Marchetti. “That sets you up for long-term affinity and follow-through.”

Under this philosophy, everyone with a social presence is a potential media channel. And all agree it’s not their number of friends or followers that’s important, but how much true clout the “influencer” has with the following.

That’s a trickier thing to ascertain — and a much trickier thing to communicate in the boardroom. One exec recalls how a mogul suggested the data being presented at pitch meetings be dumbed down so as not to overwhelm the bosses.

“A lot of studio execs think they can make it to retirement without having to understand digital,” says an exec, adding that a corrective priority shift will happen “when digital people start running marketing departments. Or studios. It’s inevitable as younger people come up.”

To be fair, the political climate has been slowly warming to digital marketers. For years they were ghettoized in windowless workspaces and banished to mid-level meetings; more recently, though, they’ve found their seat at the grownups’ table. Most studios now include digital teams in meetings as early as the greenlight process to integrate their work with traditional marketing.

“Internally, our big challenge is making sure every single type of media throws to a second-screen experience,” says Caines, a feat that requires endless coordination. Tagging every scrap of marketing with a Twitter handle, app or other digital destination has long been a priority at Sony, an early adopter of engaging digital brainpower from the get-go.

No digital marketer has yet risen to run a studio or its marketing department, but moguls of tomorrow are surely there, drafting the map that will lead theatrical marketing — still dominated by TV, print and outdoor — through a critical inflection point that’s fast approaching: the day when digital eclipses television. Not that TV is fading to black just yet; digital marketers agree that for opening a tentpole, the smallscreen is still king.

“There are people who will tell you, ‘We launched a movie on digital,’ but that’s just not true,” Caines says. “You can reduce the cost of broadcast and print, but advertising embedded in programming is still very important to what we’re doing.”

With a 30-second primetime ad averaging around $150,000 and peaking at $500,000 for a top-rated slot, those costs can add up fast. One market analyst who advises studios on campaign spending says overall P&A budgets have actually been dropping 5% to 10% from expectations set at greenlight, in large part because digital marketing facilitates lower-cost awareness building. What’s more, studios that closely track social sentiment quickly figure out where to pull back on ineffective spending.

“TV is still good for the widest swath of people,” says Lee. “But for getting younger people, whose media consumption is changing, it’s just not as effective anymore. It’s still the only megaphone out there, but it’s a blind process.”

Not so for digital, which is just learning to see its own influence.

“We’re in early days for this kind of analysis,” says Steve Canepa, general manager of IBM’s global media and entertainment industry arm. “My belief is, studios — all media companies really — need to build a next-generation data architecture. They’ll need to analyze all this stati
c data they have today and then they’ll have to meld that with data that comes from this new social world.”

Until that happens, digital marketing will be ruled by William Goldman’s famous diktat: Nobody knows anything. And a major reason is that unlike TV viewers, accustomed to cookie-cutter trailers, digital consumers demand authenticity and a unique experience.

“For a 20-year-old to say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’ — whew, that’s powerful,” says Lee. “In the old model, you were Oz. In the social graph, you have to behave like a good friend. And if your good friend is always trying to sell you something, you unfriend that person really fast.”

9:10 a.m.

Content Keynote — Engaging the Digital Consumer in the Ubiquitous Channel of Internet. Speaker: Dwight Caines, president, worldwide digital marketing, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Interviewed by Andrew Wallenstein, TV editor, Variety.

11 a.m.

Panel — Digital Marketing and the Analytical Engine: Transformational Opportunities for Entertainment. Speakers: Michelle Edelman, vice president, direct to consumer marketing, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution; Field Garthwaite, chief executive officer, Iris.TV; Jane Mohon, senior VP, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; Nanea Reeves, COO, Machinima; Lisa Joy Rosner, chief marketing officer, NetBase. Moderator: Blake White, director, advisory, PwC

11:50 a.m.

Retail Keynote — Big Data for Personalized Marketing and Supply Chain Optimization: Builds Customer Loyalty for Enterprise Growth. Speaker: Phil Shelley, chief technology officer, Sears Holding

1:45 p.m.

Social Keynote: How Hollywood can Capitalize on the Twitter Conversation. Speaker: Robert J. Pietsch, director of sales, west, Twitter.

3 p.m.

Panel — Metadata: The Trigger for Monetization. John Crosier, senior VP, digital architecture and delivery, Cinram. Panelists: Clyde Smith, senior veep of new technologies, Fox Network engineering and operations; JR Yasgur, VP, aggregated metadata management & operations, Sony Pictures Entertainment; Jeff Stevens, vice president, digital archives, Warner Bros. Technical Operations; Mark Turner, director, relationship & strategy, M&E Group, Microsoft. Moderator: Theodore X. Garcia, president, XGAR Group

5 p.m.

Media Measurement: In Search of the Holy Grail. Speaker: Vince Muscarella, vice president studio digital services, Rentrak

Original content outshines Web ads