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The 20 Biggest Word-of-Mouth Bombs and the Insignificance of Twitter on Box-Office Success

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | August 17, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | August 17, 2011 |

The Monday after Bruno — Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2009 follow-up to his massively successful comedy, Borat — was released, the media was rife with tales about how the burgeoning social network Twitter had essentially killed the movie. It had opened with strong numbers on Friday, but saw a 40 percent drop on Saturday, a drop many pundits attributed to negative word-of-mouth on Twitter. Out of that experience, the Time, The NYTimes, and a number of movie blogs wrote trend pieces suggesting that Twitter would essentially change the movie industry. Word of mouth would travel faster, and more films would wither over the course of their first weekend.

Since the release of Bruno, however, there hasn’t been a lot of statistical evidence to back up those claims. A few other films, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and Paranormal Activity 2 have had large percentage drops between Friday and Saturday, but those drops can be explained by audiences eager to see those movies on opening night. Both movies, likewise, were received decently by critics and audiences alike. It’s perhaps possible that Bruno itself was an aberration: Maybe it wasn’t Twitter that killed its momentum. Maybe a large percentage of Sacha Baron Cohen’s fans simply wanted to see it on opening night. Maybe their was a GroupOn coupon. Maybe GLAAD’s protest of the film hurt it.

In either case, Twitter hasn’t proven to have a significant positive or negative effect on the box-office outcome since Bruno. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a great demonstration of that: That movie had been trending on Twitter for days leading up to its release and continued to trend throughout that weekend, but Pilgrim, too, had a significant Friday to Saturday drop, not because of bad word of mouth (overall, word of mouth was quite positive), but more likely because its audience was both limited and front-loaded. Moreover, the substantial Twitter-hype didn’t convert into box-office success for the Edgar Wright film.

Indeed, despite all the alarm bells, Twitter has not, in fact, reshaped the movie industry, nor has it significantly impacted movie marketing. That’s probably because opinions on movies in and among the over 1 billion tweets per week is too varied and diffuse. Even on Twitter, most have gravitated toward like-minded people, where Tweets largely reinforce our own opinions. Opinions about films on Twitter (and Facebook) are just like in the real world: Different among different circles of people.

That doesn’t mean that word-of-mouth doesn’t play a significant role in a movie’s success. Bridesmaids is a perfect example: Thanks to positive word of mouth, that movie continues to perform well. Three months after is release, it’s not only still in theaters, but it’s still in the top 20. A similar thing happened to The Hangover back in 2009, if you’ll recall.

To the best of my knowledge, however, no one has ever endeavored to come up with a definitive list of the Biggest Word-of-Mouth Bombs. Measuring word-of-mouth, obviously, is not an exact science. A good place to start, however, is to look at the films with the biggest second week percentage drop. That, obviously, doesn’t tell the entire story. A film like Gigli, for instance, had an 82 percent drop in its second week, but Gigli was a bomb even before word-of-mouth killed it. Gigli, like a lot of others with huge second-week drops, was essentially dead on arrival.

Moreover, there are some quite successful films whose audiences are front-loaded. The most recent Harry Potter movie, for instance, had a massive 72 percent drop between its first and second weekend, but that’s because a huge percentage of its audience watched it on opening weekend. Likewise, horror movies tend to be front-loaded, although there are two horror movies on this list that fall way outside of the mean for even horror flicks.

Other factors besides second weekend drops also have to come into play. In coming up with this list, I looked at films that at least came into their opening weekends with a whiff of hope. Advanced reviews might have been terrible, but for the most part, didn’t put a huge dent in opening weekend numbers, which is to say: These films opened at least modestly against expecations. I also looked at user ratings on IMDb and audience scores on Metafilter to determine how well they were received by audiences. I whipped all these factors up into a makeshift formula held together by duct tape and spit, and this is what I came up with. Is it precise? Maybe not, but it’s in the ballpark.

The 20 Biggest Word-of-Mouth Bombs of the 21st Century (So Far)

1. The Happening

2. Skyline

3. Elektra

4. Sucker Punch

5. Year One

6. Hulk

7. The Day the Earth Stood Still

8. Bruno

9. Valentine’s Day

10. The Wolfman

11. Bangkok Dangerous

12. Eragon

13. Watchmen

14. Doom

15. Sex and the City 2

16. Catch and Release

17. Timeline

18. Friday the 13th (2007)

19. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

20. Green Lantern