Social Media: The ‘IT’ Factor

Warner Bros/New Line’s It broke just about every record possible this September when it opened to $123 million over it first weekend. The film set a new high-water mark for the biggest September opening (beating Hotel Transylvania 2’s $48 million), smashed Paranormal Activity 3’s six-year-old record for the biggest R-rated horror opening of $53 million, became the second-highest R-rated opening ever (behind Deadpool’s $132 million), and secured the third-biggest opening overall in 2017 behind Beauty and the Beast ($175 million) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($147 million). No one expected the film to be as big as it ultimately became—Boxoffice Pro was on the high end of pre-release forecasts, predicting an $81 million debut days before its theatrical bow. Taking a closer look at the film’s social media performance, however, allows us to see how the film was able to reach such heights.

Simply put, It was a game changer for the industry, forging an entirely different archetype for R-rated horror films, much as Deadpool did for the superhero genre in 2016. New Line has been honing its marketing and rollout strategy for the horror genre for many years, and in recent times there has been no other studio that boasts a more impressive track record. The studio now has six of the 11 highest-opening R-rated horror flicks of all time, and five of those have come within the last four years. Add to that its hugely popular and influential A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and countless other notable films in the genre, and it should be no surprise that New Line was able to rewrite the horror record books.

Notable Release Week Social Media Comparisons for It

The remarkable thing about It’s performance on social media, particularly on Twitter, is that unlike recent titles like Annabelle: Creation, Get Out, and The Conjuring 2, the word “It” is so common that it can’t be accurately tracked. This means that our social media tracking of the title consisted solely of grouping tweets with the film’s official hashtag, giving us a more compressed sample size of tweets. Despite the search string challenges, It had the second-highest release-week tweets and Facebook like increases among the aforementioned titles, behind only The Conjuring 2 in both cases. Given that The Conjuring 2 was a sequel to a very popular film in its own right, it arguably came in with a higher built-in audience going into its release—a luxury not afforded to It. The social media numbers made it clear that It would enjoy a big debut, but the film’s commonplace title masked its actual Twitter buzz. Had the film been titled “Pennywise,” or something similarly unique, it likely would have been tracked as the most talked about horror film in its release week on Twitter—doing away with any surprise factor when it came to its box office performance.

It undoubtedly benefitted from audience familiarity with Stephen King’s source novel and the cult 1990 television miniseries of the same name, making the evil clown Pennywise as recognizable as horror icons like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.

This film adaptation had been in development since 2009, with numerous directors and actors coming and going from the project and a budget well above the genre standard. It was by no means a guaranteed hit; New Line took a risk and it paid off in spades.

Horror fans do not add up to $123 million on opening weekend. That level of earnings is only achieved by reaching audiences who might not have otherwise come out but are enticed by what the film has to offer and are willing to brave the scares to see it. This is where It set itself apart, using a massive marketing push that permeated several media platforms. Its first trailer received almost 200 million views on YouTube within its first 24 hours, breaking the previous record of 140 million held by The Fate and the Furious. To promote the movie, distributor Warner Bros. erected a re-creation of the film’s haunted house on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street so fans could walk through and post pictures on social media. A series of prerelease screenings, amplified by strong reviews from critics, intensified the online buzz.

What does It teach us about other major horror releases that are aspiring to crossover to mainstream audiences? First and foremost, just because a film has an R rating does not automatically mean its appeal and earning potential are diminished. Call this Deadpool enlightenment, but studios are realizing that with the right source material, appeal, and marketing, R-rated films can flourish, overlap with mainstream audiences, and rake in huge earnings. With no need for A-list stars or brand-name directors, the horror genre can get by with relatively smaller budgets—which a well-oiled studio marketing machine can leverage to achieve big box office earnings.

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