Like Godzilla - the cinematic reptile that chomped cars and sent urbanites scattering like roaches - an unwieldy beast has sunk its jaws into Hollywood this year.
Major-studio marketers say they have long feared it. Producers and filmmakers say they are at its mercy more than ever. And industry watchers say it could change the kinds of movies we will see in coming years.
The beast is called "word of mouth." But wait. It's not the simple word-of-mouth of yesteryear (man sees movie, tells handful of friends "thumbs up" or "thumbs down").
Rather, it is a kind of instant, grass-roots "word-of-mouth" amplified through the megaphone of the Internet.
More and more ordinary fans are sending advance reviews of films they've seen at test screenings and previews to movie-themed websites. Or they're sending out ad hoc reviews to friends via multiple-destination e-mails. Before long, that creates perceptions about upcoming movies that the media picks up on.
This summer, studios are feeling the brunt of bad buzz. Cinema attendance is down, few releases have sustained moviegoer interest beyond the opening weekend, and there's a murmuring consensus that only a handful - such as "Finding Nemo" - have been worth recommending.
"Hollywood is pulling its hair out trying to figure out how to market its movies amidst the new world of Internet buzz," says Anthony Kusich, analyst for Reel Source Inc., a box- office tracking firm. "First-time viewers are having much more say in which movies make it and which ones don't, creating potential audiences for stuff they like and killing off audiences for stuff they don't."
Critical assessment has been democratized because anyone can put up a website and give an opinion of films, says Laura Grindstaff, a sociologist and author of several books on American culture. Two that have gained the loyalty of fans are www.aint itcool.com and www.rottentomatoes.com.
Mostly, those logging onto such websites are young men and yet their influence can be enormous. Just weeks before the release of the movie "Gigli," starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Internet rumors are already circulating about poor audience response to early screenings.
"The purveyors of such populist opinions are not as diverse as the population [Hollywood] wants to watch its films," says Ms. Grindstaff.
The box office is down between three and four percent over last year, depending whom you ask, and attendance is down about seven percent. Even though several major releases have generated a big opening-weekend box office, the crucial second-weekend figures have been dropping off far more dramatically than in recent years.
Ticket sales for the "The Hulk," for example, dropped 70 percent in its second weekend, the worst drop for a No. 1 movie ever.
"Big marketing blitzes on TV and in newspapers can buy you an opening-week audience, but 'bought' is all it is," says Paul Dergarabedian, chief analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "For any kind of staying power you need word of mouth. And this year's word of mouth is killing Hollywood."
Good word of mouth has, however, blessed several small, independent films such as "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Whale Rider" this summer. Even two lauded documentaries, "Winged Migration," and "Spellbound," have had unusual longevity in theaters.
Critics say a major part of Hollywood's box-office problem this year is a spate of movies that just haven't been that good. But whatever the popular and critical assessment, the success-or-failure calculation is becoming a bit more complicated, analysts say.
Out of fear of not generating the immediate, "must-see" buzz of a great box office in the all-important first weekend, marketers and promoters are now spending $40 million to $60 million on just the few days prior to a movie's release. Studios are also relying heavily on recognizable brand-names to pull in weekend crowds - this year a record 25 sequels have already debuted in US theaters.
"Hollywood decided to play it safe this year and try what worked for them before," says Timothy Shary, a professor of screen studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "What they gave us has either not been as creative as the previous movies, or just not deviated enough to generate enthusiasm."
Part of the reason for Hollywood's complacent reliance on sequels and blockbuster formulas is that their predecessors have performed well in domestic release, foreign theaters, a growing market of DVD sales (with extra footage and features), and merchandise tie-ins from restaurant toys to video game figurines.
Because of such ancillary tie-ins, a cultural continuity and recognition quotient guarantees a ready made audience. Such audiences are increasingly necessary - providing over 50 percent of a movie's income - as marketing costs soar.
But the recent spate of underperforming sequels has studio accountants worried because it is the initial domestic gross which sets the dominoes falling for foreign markets, post-release rentals, and product tie-ins.
"Theatrical domestic figures are the engine that drive every other income for a movie," says Mr. Dergarabedian. "That's why this summer's falloff is creating a ripple through the industry."