The Los Angeles Times (registration required) has an illuminating piece on the role that high-tech word of mouth now plays in the success or failure of movies. Of course, buzz has always been important for low-budget independent films. What seem so to be different is that it works a lot faster, and can derail big pictures. This is especially important for the film industry, because movies make most of their money in the first two or three weeks of release:

“In the old days, there used to be a term, ‘buying your gross,’ ” said Rick Sands, chief operating officer at Miramax, referring to the millions of dollars studios throw at a movie to ensure a big opening weekend.

“You could buy your gross for the weekend and overcome bad word of mouth, because it took time to filter out into the general audience,” he said. “Those days are over. Today, there is no fooling the public.”

The casualties are everywhere, and even mighty studio marketing machines have been powerless to stem the tide.

“The Hulk” opened with $62 million but fell 69.7% by its second weekend. “2 Fast 2 Furious” started off with $50.4 million but dipped 63%. “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” turned in a disappointing $37 million and then saw its fortunes drop by 62.8%. And the much-maligned “Gigli” was in a class by itself, plunging faster than the scariest summer thrill ride a disastrous $3.7-million opening weekend, followed by a record-breaking drop of 81.9%.

Likewise, The Independent reports:

In Hollywood, 2003 is rapidly becoming known as the year of the failed blockbuster, and the industry now thinks it knows why.

No, the executives are not blaming such bombs as The Hulk, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle or Gigli on poor quality, lack of originality, or general failure to entertain. There’s absolutely nothing new about that.

The problem, they say, is teenagers who instant message their friends with their verdict on new films – sometimes while they are still in the cinema watching – and so scuppering carefully crafted marketing campaigns designed to lure audiences out to a big movie on its opening weekend.

[via Andrea, Smart Mobs]