Facebook's 500 million users spend about six hours a month on the social-networking website. To Sony Pictures, the question is how many will invest two hours at the theater when The Social Network opens Oct. 1.
The Social Network, an account of Facebook Inc.'s 2004 inception, has already been called "the movie of the year" by Rolling Stone magazine and the Los Angeles Times lauded the film's trailer. The website's users have focused more attention on a vampire movie opening the same weekend.
On a Facebook fan page for The Social Network, 13,550 people clicked the "Like This" tab as of Aug. 26. That's about a fifth of the 66,244 endorsing a page for Let Me In, a low-budget horror film. The disparity highlights the challenge of marketing a movie that features people typing on computers and giving legal depositions.
"There is no question that if you have 500 million users people are fascinated," said Ken Auletta, whose book about search giant Google (GOOG) is being adapted into a film. "But does that mean they're going to be fascinated by the movie? That's a stretch."
The Social Network focuses on founder Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard student working in his dorm room, and his legal battles with classmates who sought to share the credit and profit. Jesse Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg, now 26, as a misfit desperate for an achievement that would attract girls and party invitations.
Facebook, the world's largest social-networking site, lets users exchange messages, post photos, share information, and send greetings via electronic "pokes." The closely held company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is worth almost $34 billion based on employee share sales, the Financial Times reported.
Internet trailers may broaden the movie's appeal beyond Facebook devotees, said Gitesh Pandya, editor of Box Office Guru.com. The previews reflect director David Fincher's flair for tension, Pandya said. Fincher's credits include the thrillers Se7en and Zodiac. The film was adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires.
"There's more to it than Facebook," Pandya said. "Someone like myself, who is not on Facebook, will be very interested in this movie."
The film may take in as much as $70 million in the U.S. if Sony attracts teens and young adults, said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Los Angeles-based researcher Exhibitor Relations Co. Eisenberg and co-star Justin Timberlake will help, he said. The movie cost $50 million to make, according to IMDB.com.
"For these dramas, it's usually the adult crowd but this obviously caters more toward teenagers and young adults," Bock said in an interview.
The Social Network arrives in U.S. theaters during the period when studios release movies they hope will win awards. The trailer led Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times movie awards website The Envelope.com, to declare it an early front-runner for a best-picture Oscar. Rolling Stone magazine critic Peter Travers gave the film a top four-star rating, and in a Twitter message said, "It's the movie of the year that also brilliantly defines the decade."
Film Comment magazine's Scott Foundas said it is "as suspenseful as any more obvious thriller."
Studio executives declined to comment on the film, according to Steve Elzer, a spokesman for Culver City (Calif.)-based Sony Pictures Entertainment. Producer Scott Rudin told The New York Times the movie was based largely on lawsuits involving Zuckerberg and his associates.
Facebook, in a statement, said the film might be a sign that the company "has become meaningful to people even if the movie is fiction." Zuckerberg was critical in comments made to the industry website The Wrap.com at a July conference.
"Improve the World"
"I started Facebook to improve the world and make it a more transparent place," Zuckerberg said. "This movie portrays me as someone who built Facebook so I could meet girls."
The founder's legal troubles continue. Paul Ceglia of Wellsville, N.Y, claims in a state court complaint filed in Allegheny County that he owns 84 percent of the company under a contract he and Zuckerberg signed in 2003.
Internet buzz and critical acclaim don't guarantee success, even for a film about a company that claims more than 7 percent of the world's population as members. Universal Pictures' Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had both. The film, which cost $60 million to make, opened with $10.6 million in sales to finish fifth in its debut the weekend of Aug. 13, according to researcher Box Office Mojo.
Friendship and Notoriety
Scott Pilgrim had an 82 percent approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com, a website that aggregates reviews, and was a popular topic on Twitter's message network, Pandya said.
"Social-networking sites are great to spread word of mouth, but they don't translate into great ticket sales," Pandya said.
In its depiction of Facebook and Zuckerberg, the movie raises questions about friendship and notoriety that could be asked of the network's real-life users, said Susan Etlinger, a social media consultant with San Mateo (Calif.)-based Altimeter Group.
"What is a friend to begin with?" Etlinger said in an interview. "I think Facebook muddies the waters. As far as Facebook knows, somebody I met at a business party once has the same value as my best friend in high school. They still can't tell the difference."
Douglas MacMillan contributed to this report.