Hollywood measures what's hot
Definition of Buzz: Hot gossip about an upcoming film.
Usage: ”Project X has good buzz,” casually dropped at pitch meeting.— Term for dealers: Buzz merchants.
Rule of operation: Nobody starts the buzz, but everyone in Hollywood traffics in it.
Just as Wall Street brokers tune in to ”the word” on the street, so Hollywood spin doctors nervously measure the pitch of industry ”buzz.” ”It’s the governing factor in all our lives,” laments one studio executive. ”The buzz taps into people’s greatest dreams and their worst primal nightmares.”
Studio marketing departments try to court good buzz and thwart the bad, journalists measure buzz to determine how to dole out coverage, and programmers at major theater chains factor it into their exhibiting strategies. Of course, few communities are better suited to buzz production than Hollywood, where inside information is the currency of choice. ”People spend enormous amounts of time on the phone here, and anything that will ingratiate you and make you seem important is information to be traded,” says Variety reporter Richard Vitale.
Where does buzz come from? Some projects just have built-in buzz thanks to the reputation of their star or director. Lethal Weapon 3 had strong positive buzz even before production began because director Richard Donner had proven box office success with big action pictures (including the first two Lethal movies). But not all big directors are that fortunate. During the shooting of The Prince of Tides, for instance, rumors flew that Barbra Streisand was having planes rerouted around the set (the reports were unfounded). ”Streisand is a notorious perfectionist,” says one insider, ”so any project she’s involved with is going to have automatic buzz problems.”
Built-in buzz can be aggravated by gossip. Eddie Murphy’s upcoming Boomerang developed negative buzz when stories surfaced that he had cost the production nearly $1 million by showing up late on the set. ”Boomerang already had bad buzz because of its long, involved production history,” notes one Hollywood source,”and Murphy’s alleged misbehavior didn’t help.” Tongues invariably wag about noticeable blips in the production process. The ill-fated Dustin Hoffman vehicle Billy Bathgate developed adverse buzz when word circulated that scenes were being reshot. Hook also acquired negative money buzz when news came out that the film had gone dramatically over budget (reportedly slated for $49 million, the production snowballed to an estimated $80 million). The word shifted, however, after TriStar invited journalists to tour the set. ”People were still buzzing,” says Hollywood Reporter film writer Anita Busch, ”but they were buzzing about the great sets.”
Buzz can also be manufactured. ”Hollywood is all about judgments and perception. So if you can put a spin on those perceptions you have the upper hand,” says one marketing executive. The buzz behind Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act was partly the result of a national advance-screening campaign orchestrated by Disney. Similarly, Columbia prompted the very positive buzz surrounding Bram Stoker’s Dracula by showing preview clips to the press even before the film wrapped. But negative buzz can be generated just as easily. ”A lot of it comes from competitors who are out to smear the film,” says October Films cochairman Bingham Ray.
Whether it’s good or bad, buzz is definitely not the final word. ”This whole business is a crapshoot,” cautions Michael Fleming, editor of Variety‘s much watched Buzz column. ”The bottom line is you don’t know for sure until it opens.” Consider the 1989 blockbuster Batman, which inspired so much negative buzz in Hollywood that insiders jokingly dubbed it ”Howard the Bat” (after the 1986 clunker Howard the Duck). Finally, no buzz is not necessarily bad buzz. Take an obscure Twentieth Century Fox project that barely registered on the sensitive buzz meter. ”There was absolutely no buzz at all on that movie,” insists Howard Lichtman, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Cineplex Odeon. ”No one had any idea it was going to capture the heart of a nation.” The movie without any buzz: Home Alone.