For some reason, the November 10 issue of Entertainment Weekly ran a story right up front in their “Newsnotes” section as to whether Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan  would be a success based on its internet hype. By the time the magazine showed up in our mailbox early the week after the November 3 release, the film had spectacularly won the weekend. Won it despite being in only 837 theaters. Won it with an average $31,607 per screen average for a total weekend haul of $26,455,463. By the way, shortly before the release, Fox actually reduced the number of planned theaters, wary about the film’s dubious chances. (I swear I said at the time, what are they thinking?)
The film predicted by Variety to win the weekend,, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause came in a respectable second on 3,458 screens, averaged $5,640 and totaled $19,504,038. Flushed Away was not far behind, on 3,707 screen, averaging $5,075 and totaling $18,814,323. It seems fairly obvious that the two family-oriented films split that audience, while the considerable non-family-oriented audience had one obvious choice.
This film was hyped to an extent that few $18 million movies are. A clip was posted on YouTube shortly before the release, as the EW article points out, and chat, photos, and reviews filled the internet. EW’s question was this: Would Borat suffer the fate of Snakes on a Plane? That film caused huge amounts of buzz in cyberspace but reaped somewhat disappointing ticket sales for a horror-thriller. The film’s worldwide box-office, $59,377,419 on a reported budget of $33 million, wasn’t great, but it wasn’t disastrous, either. I suspect DVD sales will be much higher and put the film in the black.
The semi-failure of Snakes has led to speculation, as in EW’s article, that maybe the internet isn’t as powerful a means of publicizing films as the studios hoped. Borat’s success demonstrates that we just plain don’t know yet. Probably in some cases, yes, in some cases, no—just as with other forms of publicity. EW assigns grades to films’ trailers. Maybe someday they’ll do the same for internet campaigns.
Sure, Borat was all over the internet, but it was also all over the other media. You had to be living in a lighthouse on Easter Island if you wanted to miss all the PR. Sasha Baron Cohen himself was everywhere, including the sidewalk in front of the White House, promoting the film. He wisely appeared as Borat rather than as himself, giving people beyond his relatively small existing fan base a vivid hint of what they could expect from the film. The hype fed upon itself as the regular print and broadcast media began to treat the film as news precisely because it was becoming ubiquitous—and because the colorful Cohen/Borat made for great infotainment.
Even as I was drafting this entry, boxofficemojo.com posted the estimates for the Friday-night box-office figures. Not surprisingly, the top three films of last weekend look set to become the top three films of this weekend. Borat’s percentage of drop between weekends will probably be pretty low, a sign of a film with good word-of-mouth in addition to hype. “Borat on a Plane?” EW asks. Clearly not.
I’m interested in the relationship between online interest and the success of films. When I say “online interest,” I mostly mean the many fan-created sites and chatroom discussion that range far beyond a studio’s own campaign in cyberspace. In The Frodo Franchise, I’ve got two chapters on the relationship of The Lord of the Rings to the online publicity, from official to highly unofficial. There the internet clearly made a difference and boosted the film’s success, for a variety of reasons. But for other films without a built-in fan base that break out and generate widespread interest in cyberspace—The Blair Witch Project being the most obvious exception—the case is not so clear.
The contrasting cases of Borat and Snakes on a Plane are fascinating, and I’m planning to write more about the subject when the DVD of the latter  comes out on January 2 (complete with a “Snakes on a Blog” supplement). I’ll explore why the two met such different fates despite the apparent similarity of the build-up on the internet.