Viral Marketing: Hollywood's Bridge to Nowhere

Couples Retreat may have won the weekend box office crown, but the big buzz is about Paranormal Activity, a little no-budget horror film that's on the brink of becoming the Next Big Movie To Change Everything.

At the box office this weekend, Paranormal Activity, the made-on-a-shoestring flick about a couple attempting to videotape the ghost invasion of their home, stunned the industry by earning seven million dollars playing on just 160 screens (compare that to Couples, the weekend's top grosser, which needed 3000 screens to rake in 35 million.) For the first time since The Blair Witch Project, a movie shows the potential of being another Blair Witch Project — that is, a film made for nothing which fueled by a subterranean word-of-mouth campaign, goes on to gross gazillions.

But more important than the money is the effect these films have on the minds of entertainment reporters, who seem them flipping the dominant paradigm; to redefining the way films are sold and turn the show biz establishment on its head. Just like Blair Witch did....

Around editorial conference tables, pages are being re-planned, new covers ordered and trend pieces commissioned about just what this giant shake-up in the marketing world means.

There is nothing an entertainment reporter likes to write about more than film marketing. Compared to the messy business of writing about that stuff that appears on the screen, writing about marketing is seriousy, grown-up reporting; it's almost like writing about business, with the\ caveat that you don't actually have to know about business, or about the business, to write about marketing, just to be able to more or less, look at ads and posters. Writing about marketing also has an added bonus in that the only people one has to talk to to write about it are the studio's marketeers — whose job it is to talk to reporters in the first place and become their best friends.

Combine that with the fact that there's no reporter on the planet who can resist jumping for a trend piece, and everyone's a winner when a marketing phenomenon breaks loose.

The problem: these viral internet phenomenon have a habit of presaging exactly nothing. The ten year wait since Blair Witch for the next Blair Witch should be some indication of exactly what that kicked off. The thing about viral phenomenon is that they are dependent about the element of surprise, coming at you an unexpected way, from the corner of your senses that is undefended against PR flimflammery. And surprise is by definition, impossible to replicate.

In 2005, for instance Lonelygirl15 became the web's first great online viral video series, and also its last. The excitement about LG15 was the exception that proved the rule — a worldwide frenzied search kicked off to solve the mystery of whether the series was real or fake; a question which would never be asked of any series again.

In 2006, Snakes on a Plane kicked off a massive web hype based on excitement for the title alone fuels a year long pre-release frenzy, prompting re-shoots to up the gore and satisfy the online mobs. After endless hype, however, the public seems weary of the film before it is even released and it grosses only a meager 34 million in its run.

In the end, while countless trees will be killed for stories about about power of the blogs, Twitter, Facebook and social media to propel a film to stardom. But in the end, asking people to retweet your movie title and make it a trending topic is a much easier sell then asking them to mortgage their house to pay for tickets, parking, popcorn and dinner to see it at a crowded multiplex.

And by the way, that Blair Witch Film which changed everything. It grossed 140 million dollars. Which is six million less than Paul Blart: Mall Cop made this year. We're waiting to see your trend pieces on that.