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Do Box-Office Boycotts Work?

Critics are speculating that allegations against Johnny Depp are hurting Alice Through the Looking Glass’ bottom line — but the ethics of box-office attendance are more complicated than star power.
Johnny Depp in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Johnny Depp in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is, by most accounts, a bad movie. That shouldn’t preclude it from being a successful movie. But five days and $36 million since its release (compared to the $116 million raked in by its predecessor, Alice in Wonderland, on opening weekend alone) the new Alice is shaping up to be a box office dud. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen grossed $108 million on its opening weekend; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest made $135 million. So why is Alice Through the Looking Glass—which should have been able to bank on both the familiarity of its source material to moviegoers and its sequel status—bombing? Two words, according to some entertainment journalists: Johnny Depp.

In case you’re not abreast of Depp’s legal troubles, here’s a briefer: Last Friday, after lawyers representing Amber Heard, Depp’s wife, alleged that the actor had inflicted “emotional, verbal, and physical abuse” on his partner during a recent argument, two hashtags, #ImWithAmber and #WeStandWithAmber, emerged to defend Heard against claims that she had fabricated those accusations. Social-media users attached the hashtags to tweets and posts expressing they would be abstaining from buying a ticket to Depp’s latest film, which led several publications to speculate the “boycott” had doomed the film’s opening-weekend prospects. If some journalists were cautious about drawing a correlation between social-media polarization and box-office performance, others were more confident Depp’s legal drama tanked revenues. The allegations may have “cost Disney millions in collateral damage,” Rolling Stone asserted.

The separation of art and artist is, of course, a perennial issue for entertainment journalists—who both appraise films as artistic works and feed our fascination with celebrities’ private lives—and social-media users, who tend to be politically active. In May, film journalist Melissa Silverstein publicly stated her intention not to see accused director Woody Allen’s latest film following renewed accusations that he sexually abused his adopted daughter. That same month, The Cut’s Dayna Evans suggested that media outlets publish fewer articles about alleged abusers such as Allen, Chris Brown, Greg Hardy, R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, and Charlie Sheen in order to avoid giving these stars “a platform for redemption.” So it’s not particularly surprising that journalists are paying a great deal of attention to how the allegations against Depp may have affected Alice Through the Looking Glass’ attendance—for journalists with pangs of conscience, the film’s box-office performance functions as a convergence between morality and business.

But to what extent do these buzzy boycotts actually affect the spending habits of the general moviegoer? Users of Twitter, where protest hashtags are predominant, reflect only 23 percent of all Internet users, many of them young, affluent, and living in urban areas, according to the Pew Research Center. Moviegoers, meanwhile, are a very diverse bunch, spanning all ages, geographic locations, and household incomes. They don’t necessarily buy tickets because they like individual actors, but rather as the result of a complex interaction of multiple variables—production costs, studios that release the films, award nominations, and sequels. That’s all to ask: Do social and mainstream media-fused box-office boycotts of celebrities even work?

Studies that have looked into the role celebrities play on a movie’s bottom line suggest name brands are not as important to theater attendance as these embargoes might suggest. In 1999, two economists studying a sample of over 2,000 movies released between 1984 and 1996 found that, while stars were associated with $17.9 million more in overall median revenue, they also entailed more risk, in the form of an additional $13.1 million in production costs. Stars’ presence didn’t appear to narrow down the infinite ways a movie could succeed or fail, which made the researchers conclude that “the audience makes a movie a hit and no amount of ‘star power’ or marketing can alter that.”

Filmgoers are less attached to the news when deciding what to watch than they are to reviews, genre trappings, and awards attention.

It’s a finding that seems to align with the baffling and variable box-office record of scandal-plagued celebrities. Consider Sean Penn: In 1988, just months after tabloids began alleging Penn hit then-girlfriend Madonna with a baseball bat, his well-reviewed film Colors beat Beetlejuice at the box office. One year later, when Madonna filed a police report claiming Penn had broken into her house, his Christmas-time release We’re No Angels—which critics did not particularly like—flopped.

What about Allen’s 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight, which impressed at the independent box office just months after Allen’s adopted daughter accused him of sexual abuse in the New York Times, while, one year later, his Irrational Man did some $20 million less in business? Even if Moonlight wasn’t considered Allen’s best work, it did get better reviews than Irrational Man—which seems to suggest filmgoers are less attached to the news when deciding what to watch than they are to reviews, genre trappings, and awards attention.

Nevertheless, viewers don’t choose films in a vacuum, and the research suggests that, when negative press predominates, we might spend less at the box office. In 2006, two researchers scanning BlogPulse index for polarized language before and after a film’s release found that, for over half of the films included in their study, positive buzz anticipated strong ticket sales before a movie’s release. While their sample size of blog posts included significantly fewer negative comments than positive ones, the researchers asserted that comments worked both ways. “In the domain of movies, there is good correlation between references to movies in weblog posts—both before and after their release—and the movies’ financial success,” they wrote. Even if we’re not paying for movie tickets for particular stars, we may react against a movie if our Twitter feed is filled with accusations against a particular celebrity.

The position that film critics take on these allegations can also make a dent in box-office performance, an effect that may be increasingly relevant as critics address, or at least mention, abuse allegations in reviews. One 2012 study from Duke University concluded that good reviews were associated with better performance for foreign films on opening weekends, while another found that negative and positive reviews influence and predict box-office performance. Meanwhile, for those critics boycotting directors who have been accused of misconduct, their silence on the work in question could have a reverberating commercial effect: A higher volume of reviews tends to exert greater influence on viewers.

Not everyone listens to the press, of course. Remember when X-Men: Days of Future Past racked up $90 million on its opening weekend in 2014, a little more than a month after director Bryan Singer was very publicly accused of drugging and raping a teenage boy? Film critics tend to affect the arthouse moviegoer more than your typical Marvel fan. In some cases, snooty critics may be more effective at persuading viewers to boycott them than their favorite actors—the Duke study found, for instance, that positive reviews of domestic non-arthouse movies were correlated with bad performance at the box office.

While entertainment writers often pay lip service to the determining effect of “word of mouth” on a movie’s box-office performance, researchers find the tone of our posts may be less important than the sheer volume of posts related to a movie.

In 2010, Harvard University undergraduates investigated what journalists have colloquially called the “Brüno effect” — the perceived power of negative social-media posts to tank a film’s prospects. The Harvard students were inspired by the opening weekend for the 2009 film Brüno, which saw a 38 percent decline in box-office gross by Saturday of its opening weekend. To their surprise, they failed to find a correlation between negative word of mouth and box-office decline. Instead, they learned that a drop-off in tweets was associated with a decline in revenue. “It may be hard to put a value on word-of-mouth but… it absolutely has predictive power,” one researcher told the Wall Street Journal.

This, perhaps, isn’t exactly what we’d expect—wouldn’t a negative hashtag more effectively dissuade potential viewers than no hashtag at all?—but it does align with other research into how social media changes how we go to the movies. There is a 98.8 percent correlation between the volume of tweets about particular movies and per-theater movie grosses, and attendance appears to have a cumulative encouraging effect—72 percent of people who go out to the movies post about it on social media afterwards. It seems that if we’re not hearing about a film on Facebook or Instagram, we’re significantly less likely to attend. All of which has powerful implications for activist-minded film viewers who wish to use their dollars to protest perceived injustice: Perhaps the most effective boycott is not a hashtag, but silence.