Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Hardboiled tweets”

Posted on February 8, 2013


Thanks to social media, the world has become an even more unfair place. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Every time a major release ends up being savaged on social media, there rises a question about the fairness of it all. The points made by the filmmakers and their PR people are these: “No one can tell you whether to like or dislike our film. You’re going to have your opinions, like everyone else, and if some of these opinions aren’t in our favour… well, tough luck. But be evenhanded while disbursing these opinions.” Their concerns are understandable, and these are the concerns of everyone who’s made a film and let it go into the unpredictable realm of the audience, over whom filmmakers have no control. And what they’re asking, in return for their months of labour, sometimes even years of labour, is that we treat the film with respect.

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But of course, this isn’t always going to happen. And before we get into that, let’s acknowledge the obvious reason today’s filmmakers so fear social media: the cost factor. Every creator – a writer, a poet, a painter, a musician – worries about how his work will be received, but books and art and music aren’t consumed in large volumes and by such diverse strata of society, at least not the way films are. Films cost crores to make and market, and the audiences have shrunk due to piracy and other entertainment options, and so good buzz is critical. And nothing can kill good buzz (rather, create bad buzz) quicker than social media. I was in a theatre last year awaiting a screening of a high-profile Tamil movie (this was the second show on the first day), and the man in the next seat kept complaining to his companions that he’d heard what a bad film this was, and after about twenty-odd minutes of the film, he whipped out his smart phone and began to tweet (about the movie, I presume). I know, I should have had my eyes on the screen in front, but the bright light of these phones makes you look away and you find yourself staring, if only for a second, at the source of that light, which means you end up peeking at what’s on that screen as well.

No filmmaker wants this, but there’s nothing that can be done about this either. Films did get affected by bad word of mouth even earlier, long before social media were even thought of and the only social media were friends and the families next door and the colleagues at work, but two things have changed since then. One, films were released in just a handful of theatres, so fewer people got to see them at one go, and so there were fewer opinions to go around (at least during the first week, because the reviews in the papers would appear only the following Friday). In other words, it’s not that people have suddenly become more opinionated today. It’s just that they had to wait their turn to formulate these opinions. The second thing that’s changed, of course, is the medium of communication. Not only do films get released on a huge number of screens, but the correspondingly huge numbers of audiences can also begin updating their Facebook and Twitter accounts with live commentary.

And this gets shared or re-tweeted unto infinity, and before you know it, bad buzz has settled on the film like sweat on skin. As I said, nothing can be done about this. Like all technology, social media brings with it pros and cons. (And if you take away social media, then you’re missing out the lightning-fast ability to build good buzz as well, in case audiences like your film.) Also, once you put yourself out there, by choosing a profession that thrusts you in the public eye, I guess you’re fair game. In the early days of writing reviews, I used to Google up my name to see who was talking about me and what they were saying. It was such a thrill, eavesdropping on people saying nice things about my work. But then, I discovered that they could be saying nasty things as well, and the need for a benign form of ego-massaging was quickly replaced by the need for self-preservation. It took a bit of self control, but I don’t Google up my name anymore. (It helps when you don’t have a smart phone.)

But my case, like that of people who write for newspapers and blogs, is different from that of filmmakers, because we don’t have money riding on other people’s opinions. In a roundabout way, probably yes, because what people say about you can, in the long run, boost your profile or bring you down, and this could have some sort of impact on your career – but at least it’s not a life-and-death situation like it is for filmmakers who have not just their careers at stake (let’s ignore reputations, for now) but also huge amounts of money. A filmmaker could point this out to a social media user, that great power brings with it great responsibility, but no one’s going to care. They’ll say, “Hey, I gave you my two-hundred bucks. I am entitled to my opinion, and I am going to splash that opinion all over town.” And they’re right. They could perhaps temper the sarcasm in these opinions, and maybe use their creativity somewhere else instead of coming up with witty putdowns of the film. Perhaps they could be nicer – but they’re right.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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