Commentary: Fandango best picture 'Twilight' no April Fools joke

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Fandango fans: With April Fools' Day in mind, you'd be forgiven for thinking I'm joking when I tell you "Twilight's" just won a best picture award.

Well, it's no joke and, actually, it's nothing to laugh about. In fact, the award voted by visitors to the online movie tickets site Fandango.com is significant because it reflects the taste of people who actually pay to see movies. Fandango's first annual Fan Choice Award will be presented Thursday to Summit Entertainment, which produced and released "Twilight," at ShoWest in Las Vegas.

Fandango, a unit of Comcast Interactive Media, announced the new awards competition Feb. 20 just before the Oscars were handed out. Its 10 nominees were the top 10 domestic grossing films for 2008: "The Dark Knight," "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who," "Hancock," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "Iron Man," "Kung Fu Panda," "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," "Quantum of Solace," "Twilight" and "Wall-E." Clearly, these were the films that the fans had voted for with their dollars at the boxoffice.

Over 69,000 moviegoers wound up voting online at Fandango.com, and when their ballots were counted "Twilight," a fantasy thriller about a teen girl falling in love with a vampire, took top honors with 78% of the vote. Not only did the film gross about $191 million domestically after opening last Nov. 21 but it sold 3 million-plus units on March 21, its first day in DVD release. Its sequel, "New Moon," is scheduled for release Nov. 20 and is already, according to Fandango, one of the year's most anticipated movies. Directed by Chris Weitz ("The Golden Compass"), it stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, who starred in the original. The franchise's third episode, "Eclipse," is listed on advance release schedules for June 30, 2010.

Having suggested here in the past that the Academy and its roughly 6,000 voting members should create a People's Choice Award that the public could vote for online during the Oscar telecast with a running tabulation onscreen all evening, I was pleased to see Fandango doing something along those lines. Giving an awards voice to the very people without whom there'd be no movies is an idea that makes great sense.

I was happy to have an opportunity recently to kick some ideas around on the subject with Ted Hong, Fandango's chief marketing officer. "We have such a great audience of moviegoers, and we felt like maybe they weren't necessarily represented by the Motion Picture Academy, so we said, 'Hey, why don't we let our fans have a voice and see what they say?' " Hong explained when I asked why Fandango had created such an award.

"Historically, a film like 'Twilight' doesn't readily fall into traditional Academy categories," Hong observed. "It has a bit of sci-fi. It has a bit of fantasy. It's a vampire love story. You don't hear too many of those type of films making it up into the Academy ranks. Certainly, our fans liked the movie. The movie did well at the boxoffice. We did 15% of the opening weekend (grosses) for 'Twilight,' so definitely it's something that our audience liked."

Indeed, Fandango saw "Twilight's" success coming last November and pointed it out at the time in one of its weekly e-mails to media people about how the weekend boxoffice is likely to go. "We see from the sales (of tickets on Fandango) and we see from traffic to the site, to the page, what people are clicking on, what they're looking at," he said. "You can tell also on the Web in the blogosphere about how excited people were for the film. And you're seeing how excited they are for the next film (in the franchise) and even the film after that. There's not a week that goes by that there isn't some news about either 'New Moon' or 'Eclipse.' "

Indeed, "Twilight's" not the kind of film that typically resonates with Academy members as a best picture nominee. And yet there was a time when Academy members did nominate for best picture films that were people-pleasing commercial releases. "As recently as 'Titanic,' 'Lord of the Rings: Return of the King' (and) 'Forrest Gump,' those (mainstream) films just fit more easily into a box that was easily digestible for Academy members," Hong said.

Well, times have changed. In Fandango's poll last February 81% of those participating said Academy members were not reflecting moviegoers' feelings in their nominations. Of course, there's nothing in the Academy's charter that says it's supposed to reflect moviegoers' opinions in its nominations, but the great disparity between the films that get Oscar nominated these days and the films that resonate with moviegoers suggests that there's a major disconnect between the Academy and the public.

Asked if he thought it would be a good thing for the Academy to create a new award -- not another Oscar, but something with its own unique name and statuette -- to give out to a People's Choice-type winner, Hong replied, "I don't know. It's tough to say. Part of what the Academy is and what the Academy represents is tradition, and there is an element of that that is always going to be important for them to maintain. I don't know if putting in an 'American Idol'-style voting thing is the way for them to do."

On the other hand, he agreed, "There's definitely things they can do to increase viewership, (but) to be fair, viewership of everything is down. Viewership of the Super Bowl was down. It's just more fragmented viewing behavior patterns across the board."

When I countered that I thought he was being overly fair about this and that last year's Oscar ratings were the lowest ever and this time around was only marginally better, he answered, "Well, I'm a big fan of online obviously. There certainly are ways to integrate online and integrate connectivity with the audience and engagement. That is definitely the way the world is moving. And I think they can certainly do things in that arena and not harm the tradition. I don't know that doing a specific fan award is the right answer. It can be part of an answer and you can have certain things (that) live on line that don't have to live in the telecast and (in that way) give people a voice. And maybe that's just what people want. They just want to have a voice."

Was he surprised "Twilight" won? "I thought it would be a pretty close race," he replied with the mega-blockbuster "Dark Knight" in mind. "I think what 'Twilight' had going for it is obviously a very rabid online fan base, but (also) proximity. It had a better chance because it's a November movie as opposed to a July movie (like 'Dark Knight'). Typically, awards films are back-loaded in the end of the year to keep it fresh in people's minds. And I think it had a little bit of that going for it, too."

So is the public similar to Oscar voters in that they all seem to remember best what they saw most recently? "I think that's one part of it," Hong said. "But then there's so much buzz around the ('Twilight') sequels and there's not a lot of buzz around the Batman sequel as of yet. They're certainly talking about it, but it's not in production yet (and) 'New Moon' and 'Eclipse' are revved up and ready to go and they've been talking about the director for 'Eclipse' for two months. It's been in the press a lot more recently than 'Dark Knight' so I think that helps, as well."



Since Fandango's business is selling movie tickets and movies seem to be one of very few U.S. industries that are managing to perform well in this deep recession, I asked Hong if he's bullish on Hollywood's prospects? "I think so," he replied. "We're having the best first quarter in the history of Fandango and I think during these tough economic times with so much bad news out in the press, people more than ever are looking to escape a little bit and movies are a great affordable form of escape. I think that plays right into what we offer and it plays into the movie business overall and good film product helps support that. The summer's actually shaping up pretty well, as well, and I think (the strong boxoffice) is going to definitely continue for the rest of the year."

Fandango sells tickets to over 16,000 U.S. movie screens. Its biggest percentage of opening weekend ticket sales for a wide release, Hong said, was 16% for "Sex and the City" last May. "For 'Twilight,' it was 15%," he added. "We've been up as high as 31% for a more limited release film -- 'Hannah Montana,' the 3-D version."

Buying tickets online may be routine today, but it's a relatively new business. "We've been around over nine years," Hong noted. "Before that, you could order over the phone -- in the old days, all the way back in the late '90s! But the reason I think we're doing well is (that moviegoing is) still the cheapest form of out-of-house entertainment. It's certainly cheaper than a sporting event or a concert or going to (see) live theater. And there's less of a long term commitment. You're not out for four or five or six hours. I mean, you certainly can be, but it's usually a drive to someplace local or you can walk to your neighborhood theater and get in and get out and you're home and you had a good piece of entertainment and you got out of the house.

"One of the reasons why we seem to tend to do well and the reason we're having our best first quarter is because people are into that habit of buying their tickets online, especially at Fandango. More and more, we've just become the way to go to the movies. If you can remove the hassle of any part of the experience (by buying tickets online), why not do it?"

To make it even easier for moviegoers to buy tickets from Fandango, he pointed out, "We've just launched our iPhone application. A significant number of downloads for the iPhone application (have been done) and it's among their Top Ten entertainment applications of the week. (Besides buying tickets) you can download showtimes and watch trailers. The beauty of it is if you're having dinner with your friend, everyone's got their iPhone with them and you just plug in the showtimes and (find out what a film's about by watching) the trailer.

"And then you (can buy tickets online and) just show up at the theater and you're in. And because of location-based services, you don't have to plug in your zip code after you've done it the first time. It knows where you are. The iPhone's a tremendous device. We built an application for the platform because so many people have it and we want to be everywhere where people need movie information and more and more it's on the go."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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