Everyone knows what an “event movie” is. They are the ones you want to see so badly that you call in sick from work, get a babysitter to take the kids off your hands for an evening, or, if you don’t have a job and a family to worry about, camp out in front of the theater all night to be first in line for. The rise of social media has now brought about something completely opposite, a little thing I call the “un-event movie.” These are the ones that flop mightily at the box office and get terrible reviews, yet still manage to enter the zeitgeist in a significant way. This odd phenomenon started in earnest a few years ago, but has recently advanced to a new level, as evidenced by two high-profile examples from the last 12 months: The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure and Movie 43. Neither of them made more than $9 million at the box office, and both were critically savaged (29 percent and 4 percent, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes). However, both of them achieved a sense of notoriety thanks to social media.
In the past, movies that were troubled, long-delayed, under-promoted, or just plain insufferable would have simply flown under the radar and promptly vanished. But now, thanks to outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, movie buffs now not only hear about these pictures, they also embrace them. Leading up to its release, Oogieloves became a popular Twitter subject, thanks to an abrupt in-theater grassroots marketing campaign launched about two months prior. People began to mock the Oogieloves characters, who were designed to appeal to the under-five set, yet possessed an ironically creepy quality that freaked out adults, young children, and recreational drug users alike. When the opening weekend box office numbers for the film were announced, they were disastrous. Oogieloves, reported to have a $20 million budget, earned an abysmal $443,901, despite playing on over 2,000 screens. (Its per-screen average was $206, which is less than some audience members probably carried in their wallets.) At that point, it became a social media sensation, with jokes about Oogieloves becoming common among film critics and film buffs alike. A similar thing happened with Movie 43. It was not screened in advance for critics, but as soon as the toxic reviews started to roll in, social media chatter rose exponentially. Finding out that Hugh Jackman played a guy with extra genitalia growing on his chin probably helped as well.
In both of these cases, a curious thing happened: People started to go see these pictures. Not in droves, mind you. No, it was a certain type of person who began to go. I follow hundreds of film buffs on social media, and in the days after the release of both Oogieloves and Movie 43, I noticed a surprising number of them bragging on Facebook about how they were going to “see what all the fuss is about.” Photos of newly purchased Movie 43 tickets began to show up on Instagram (which, in fairness, is slightly better than more pictures of someone’s dinner). Brave souls began live-tweeting Oogieloves from inside empty theaters.
I saw one picture on my Twitter feed of three grown men entering a theater to see Oogieloves less than a week after it came out. They each had one of the promotional glow wands — handed out with each ticket sold — but no actual children. Childless adult men heading into a movie aimed at preschoolers do not look normal; they look like they should be checking in with a probation officer somewhere. It gets crazier. A friend of mine, who manages a local multiplex, told me that most showings of Oogieloves had more adults in attendance than kids, and some showings had no kids at all.
The explanation for this phenomenon is simple: Social media chatter has lifted epically bad films to a kind of exalted status. Instead of quietly fading away, these movies become cause celebres. Their failures take on an almost mythic quality in the social media hemisphere, via jokes, references, and dissection. And at that point, it becomes somewhat “cool” to experience them. They officially become un-event films. Sure, bad/weird movies have always attracted cult audiences, but whereas it took Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Room years to achieve cult status, social media allowed Oogieloves and Movie 43 to achieve it almost immediately.
Traditionally, we think of going to the movies as something pleasurable. We go to have a good time. What makes someone pay modern ticket prices — which, let’s face it, aren’t cheap — simply to see something they know they’re going to hate? Isn’t this counter to the whole idea of moviegoing? You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and order the worst-tasting item on the menu, or go to a used car dealership and buy the most run-down junker on the lot. Why do this? The answer to these questions lies in the bragging rights. With derisive discussion reaching a fever pitch online, those who choose to expose themselves to the un-event movies become the new cognoscenti. Everyone’s talking about the films, but only a select few can do it from the innermost circle. Buying a ticket to Movie 43 or Oogieloves confirms upon the individual an insider status, whereas social media gives them a platform through which to impart their knowledge to hundreds or even thousands of followers. They become like that kid in fifth grade who would eat anything on a dare. Yeah, he was nuts, but everyone paid attention to him.
The fact is that social media has changed the way we look at movies. Not just the movies themselves, but also the way they are marketed and how well (or poorly) they perform at the box office. The ability to scrutinize motion pictures like never before has created a new kind of conversation. We engage with movies of all varieties, including the ones that, in years past, we simply would have ignored. Film fans will continue to discuss event movies like Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, and any new Quentin Tarantino flick, but we will also continue to discuss the ones that flop financially, contain unintentional hilarity, and are dumped by their studios. We are only at the dawn of the un-event movie.