Q & A with Ted Hong on Fandango.com’s First Annual Fan Choice Award

Star of the Fandango Fan Choice Award Movie Twilight, Robert Pattinson

Star of the Fandango Fan Choice Award Movie Twilight, Robert Pattinson

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing series of conversations about independent films Martin Grove talks to Ted Hong, chief marketing officer for the online movie tickets site Fandango.com, about Fandango’s first annual Fan Choice Award to Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight” Apr. 2 at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas.

The 10 films nominated by Fandango, a unit of Comcast Interactive Media, in the new awards competition it announced Feb. 20 were 2008’s Top Ten domestic grossing films: “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”. The nominees were the films that moviegoers had clearly already voted for at the boxoffice.

More than 69,000 votes came in at Fandango.com and when they were tabulated “Twilight”, a fantasy thriller about a teenage girl’s romance with a vampire, was the overwhelming winner with 78 percent of the vote. The vote reflected the film’s boxoffice success with a domestic gross of about $191 million domestically since opening last Nov. 21 and more than 3 million units sold on Mar. 21, its first day in DVD release.

The first sequel in Summit’s “Twilight” franchise, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”, opens wide Nov. 20 and is already generating a big early buzz on Fandango and other Internet movie sites. Directed by Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”), it re-teams Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson from the original. It will be followed by “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”, which is slated for wide release June 30, 2010.

Q: I’ve suggested in the past that the Motion Picture Academy should introduce a new People’s Choice type of award that the public could vote for online. It’s something that could be done as a running tabulation onscreen during the Oscar telecast and it could create a sense of interest and excitement that the Oscars have lacked for quite a few years now and that’s been reflected in the show’s ratings. I was happy to see Fandango doing something along those lines, providing moviegoers with a voice in a best picture vote. Why did you do this?
A: 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?" Historically, a film like “Twilight” doesn’t readily fall into traditional Academy categories. 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 percent of the opening weekend (grosses) for “Twilight” so definitely it’s something that our audience liked.
Q: I recall that Fandango saw “Twilight’s” success coming last November and pointed to it in one of your weekly e-mails to media people about what’s likely to be happening at the boxoffice.
A: 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. 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”.
Q: Now “Twilight” is certainly not the type of movie that Academy members nominate for best picture these days. But there was a time when they did vote for pictures that were much more mainstream than the specialized films they tend to applaud now.
A: As recently as “Titanic”, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (and) “Forrest Gump” those (mainstream) films just fit more easily into a (mainstream) box that was easily digestible for Academy members.
Q: I think if an Academy member told other members that he was planning to nominate a mainstream film like “Twilight” for best picture they’d probably run him out of town.
A: I’m not in the Academy and I don’t know what they’re saying. Maybe there’s some amount of peer pressure there. But more than half of Fandango users felt the Academy was out of touch with the mainstream moviegoing public. (Actually, 81 percent of Fandango voters said so.)
Q: Now there’s nothing that says Academy members have to reflect the public’s thoughts about movies when they nominate films for Oscar consideration, but there’s certainly a big disconnect between the way the two groups are thinking these days. Do you think the Academy should create a new People’s Choice type award to try to be more in touch with how moviegoers are thinking?
A: 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. (However,) 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.
Q: You may be trying to be overly fair here. Last year’s Oscar ratings were the lowest ever and this year’s were only slightly better. Audiences really don’t seem to be responding to what the Academy’s doing with the Oscar telecast.
A: 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.

We have a very film savvy audience. They like to go on opening weekend. They see blockbusters, they see small films, they see art house films. We think it’s important in the world of online and for us as a business to let our fans and users have a voice. It’s the only major award “Twilight’s” going to win and, hey, it’s nice that it came from Fandango.
Q: Were you surprised that “Twilight” won?
A: I thought it would be a pretty close race (with “Dark Knight"). 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.
Q: Then are we seeing that the public and Academy voters are alike in that they best remember what they saw most recently?
A: I think that’s one part of it. But then there’s so much buzz around the 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.
Q: Hollywood seems to be one of very few businesses that’s doing really well during this recession. Are you bullish about the rest of this year?
A: I think so. 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.
Q: Fandango sells tickets to over 16,000 U.S. movie screens. I understand your biggest percentage of opening weekend ticket sales for a wide release was 16 percent for “Sex and the City” last May.
A: For “Twilight”, it was 15 percent. We’ve been up as high as 31 percent for a more limited release film — “Hannah Montana”, the 3D version.
Q: It’s interesting to see the impact you have on ticket sales because it wasn’t so long ago that online movie ticket sales didn’t even exist.
A: We’ve been around over nine years. 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?
Q: And you’re doing things now to make it even easier for moviegoers to buy tickets from Fandango.
A: 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 the 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.