James Franco (left) and Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) star in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” whose success may depend on social media.
James Franco (left) and Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) star in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” whose success may depend on social media.
Disney Enterprises Photo

‘Oz the Great and Powerful” soared to the top of the box office charts with a wicked $80.3 million opening weekend driven by big-name actors, a major Hollywood director, and a spectacle of electrifying 3-D imagery.

Now analysts say the $200 million Disney production’s future as a top-grossing film of 2013 or just another flick that quickly fades at the box office could hinge on 140-character critiques posted online by thousands of moviegoers.

“Word-of-mouth has always been a very effective tool at either propelling or sinking movies,” said Karie Bible, a box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. “Now, with social media, it travels at the speed of light.”

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Social networks cannot accurately predict a movie’s box office performance before an opening, but movies with a lot of prerelease online hype tend to have big opening weekends.

Analysts say audience members who post comments about a film on social media can sway public opinion and affect ticket sales in the critical weeks after it first hits theaters.

A whopping 72 percent of social media users write online comments about films they see, according to one poll. The survey, conducted by the consulting firm Penn Schoen & Berland and The Hollywood Reporter, also found that a third of social media users had seen a movie in a theater because of something they had read on a social network.

Movie viewers are immediately sharing opinions on a massive scale, and that means a film’s fate is likely to be decided much faster and then amplified, said Bruce Nash, president of Nash Information Services, a movie industry research company in Beverly Hills.

That’s also one reason behind a Hollywood trend of movies opening big and then fizzling out, he said.

“Social media divides the winners from the losers more quickly,” Nash said. “The weaker films will die much more quickly, and the successful films will be much more successful.”

Movies targeting young adults create the most social media buzz. And while social media hype does not indicate a box office smash, films aimed at a young audience that fail to show strong online activity will almost certainly do poorly, Nash said.

Films that target older viewers, who remain mostly influenced by reviews from critics, often slip through the social media web. They have smaller opening weekends but more steady box office figures in the following weeks, Nash said.

“The Hunger Games,” a social media and box office sensation, was mentioned in 930,000 tweets, according to social media analysis company Crimson Hexagon, during its $152.5 million opening weekend. The film went on to gross $408 million domestically.

“Lincoln,” on the contrary, was tweeted 19,000 times in its $21 million opening weekend. Its second weekend raked in $25.7 million and the film has grossed $180.8 million total in US theaters.

The Oz movie, whose audience is a mix of young and old, was tweeted 90,500 times when it opened last weekend. Analysts say the film needs to earn at least another $120 million in the United States to meet its production budget and end up being profitable.

Nash said social media cannot accurately predict a movie’s box office performance before a release because there is no guarantee that someone who posts a link about a movie will pay to see it.

One example of viral content that might not drive ticket sales: a video of Mila Kunis, who plays the witch Theodora in the Oz film, being interviewed by a star-struck correspondent for BBC radio.

Kunis and the sheepish young man discuss pubs and beer more than the movie, yet the video added to the social media hype surrounding the film with more than 10 million YouTube views and 15,000 shares on Twitter.

“You need to have something that is actually going to encourage people to go to the film, versus something that is a five-minute distraction,” Nash said.

Now, the 98,800 tweets about the film in the two weeks before its release suggest that Oz was more than just Internet fodder.

So far, online opinion has been more positive than comments by reviewers, many of whom criticized James Franco’s performance and the film’s reliance on special effects over plot.

Sixty-nine percent of the 50,000 viewers who weighed in on Rotten Tomatoes, a popular movie-review aggregation website, liked the film.

Crimson Hexagon said 76 percent of social media users who took a stance on the film were positive, versus 24 percent who were negative.

But a breakdown of positive mentions revealed that 65 percent were written in anticipation of the movie, and only 10 percent were positive reviews, which begs the question of whether the film has true staying power.

Bible said January, February, and March are typically weak months for films, a lull between Oscar season and the release of summer blockbusters.

In this period, studios release movies that are bombs and other films that might do well against weak competition, she said.

It appears that “Oz” is the latter. “Jack the Giant Slayer” was the second-highest grossing movie of the weekend, with $9.8 million, and no major hits are on the horizon.

“The film could succeed simply by default because there aren’t a lot of other alternatives,” Bible said.

As studios push for more creative online marketing campaigns and troll Twitter to understand their audiences, Penn Schoen & Berland President of Media and Entertainment Jon Penn believes the greatest potential to boost ticket sales lies in social media-friendly showtimes.

Half of 18- to 24-year-olds in his poll said multitasking while using social networking sites adds to their experience of watching a movie in the theater.

“The actual theater experience has to transform and become more relevant as a media experience for younger movie viewers,” he said.

“People want more control, and the theater is a leap back.”