Sony Pictures is starting to show the face of The Social Network, the saga of the founding of Facebook and one of the most buzzed-about films of the season. The studio has started to screen it, beginning with a select list of journalists that included the kind of online film friends most likely to engage and spread the word. No surprise there.
At the same time, the studio is positioning the film for Oscar. Along with reporters from fan sites, the guest list at screenings includes awards bloggers. And obviously, any film produced by Scott Rudin, directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin, premiering at the New York Film Festival and having consultants from 42 West on board is running an awards campaign.
Sony wants it all: commercial results and artistic recognition. The studio declined to discuss the carefully orchestrated marketing campaign for the film, but clearly it's chasing the young audience, with spots on MTV emphasizing partying, bling and Justin Timberlake. For older audiences, it's being spun more as Wall Street, with heavy reliance on quotes from positive reviews.
"I think there is heat on the movie and it's going to work," said a distribution executive at a rival studio.
Sony will need it to work commercially if it wants to be a contender in the awards race, according to one veteran consultant (who hasn't seen the film). Unlike a modest movie like Hurt Locker, Social Network -- with its high-end pedigree and a budget of $40 million or more -- will need commercial traction to engage the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"The sucker can't bomb," this campaigner said. "It's about Facebook -- about something that has permeated all levels of our culture. ... If it doesn't do business, it failed. It can't come out and tank when everyone knows there's an audience for it. There's nothing worse than promoting a film within the Academy that failed to do what it was supposed to do."
So far, the early reviews for the movie fan sites are positive. Slashfilm raved. CHUD.com called it "absorbing and hilarious and smart."
An executive at a rival studio said Sony is trying to create a snowball effect. "They're showing it to the hard-core geeks first supposedly because they're 'of the Internet,'" he said. "But to get these guys excited, you have to let them be the first to see it. That's all they want, sometimes. So they're all frothing, and when they show it at the New York Film Festival and other places to the older critics, they're going to have to jump on the bandwagon. They don't want to be perceived as uncool."
The campaign consultant concurred: "They're trying to make it something you have to see -- it's hip and if you don't understand it, you're left out."
Sony's biggest challenge, commercially, will be to draw in the increasingly important young female audience, which tends to be driven by word of mouth. Young women are big users of Facebook, in fact, but they may not be drawn so easily to the story of its founder's debauchery. So far, the ads on MTV appeal to young men; Sony still needs to reach the young ladies, possibly with ads on cable shows where they congregate.
If in fact the studio manages to generate enough commercial success to give the movie traction with awards voters, the inevitable anti-"Social Network" campaigning will begin -- that the characters in the film are unpleasant, that there's no rooting interest, that watching rich miscreants is not appealing at a time of economic stress.
As the campaign strategist put it, "Facebook is a thing that everyone who's on it loves, but the inventor is this dick."
And the consultant adds that even positive buzz can turn into a problem. "I hate being in that position," he said. "I dread it. They can only go downhill from there unless it delivers on every level."
But the consultant said the film might have an advantage -- perhaps counterintuitively -- because even the many Academy members who will never see 40 again tend to be plugged into Facebook. Given that, he said, the issue comes down to the film's commercial prospects.
"If it becomes a populist entertainment, they have a shot," he said. "If they come out and don't do business, good luck."