Any lingering doubts about social media’s role in driving box office results were left in the dust this summer when two tried-and-true blockbusters squared off against each other.

Fast & Furious 6 (FF6) cruised past The Hangover III on opening weekend with nearly double the sales figures, social media the turbo-charged force behind its victory lap.  And what a victory: It was Universal’s biggest opener ever, taking in $117.1m in the US and becoming one of the summer’s biggest box office successes.

A solid social presence and sustained fan engagement gave FF6 the clear edge over the competition. That kind of impact today means turning to the digital space to cultivate audiences and have ongoing dialogues with them. That’s something both the Fast & Furious franchise and its stars have clearly accomplished with great success. All FF6 title actors* have Facebook fan pages, totaling 55m+ fans, whereas only three of The Hangover III title actors have pages (totaling just 841k fans)—and two of them, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms, had no social engagement whatsoever in the month leading up to the film’s debut. Fan engagement (or lack thereof) undoubtedly played a key role in the box office results.

The numbers speak for themselves. It wasn’t a surprise that FF6 had the most Fandango pre-sales of any movie.  According to a recent Google study, “70% of the variation in box office performance can be explained with movie-related search volume seven days prior to release date.” Online presence adds up to online sales.

Unlike in days gone by, where films relied solely on marketing and the hope that fans of the marquee names would turn up in droves, today, talent has the ability to cultivate a relationship directly with the fans. As a result, those who choose to embrace social channels are able to maintain a direct dialogue with their fans all year round, and excite and ultimately mobilize them to action on opening night and beyond.

Building audiences and converting “people” into fans is paramount to success. We’ve found the best way to do that is to apply “science” to entertainment, and use data to closely study those relationships. As such, we look at all areas of how talent interacts with fans, from tracking their digital footprint in our PMK*BNC Strength Index to defining who the fans are with our fanDNA tool, to creating brand-casting effectiveness tools to ascertain what roles best fit partnerships with talent. 

According to our Strength Index, which analyzes celebrities’ digital footprints both qualitatively and quantitatively, FF6’s top three male leads scored higher across the board compared to The Hangover III’s top leads. These insights clearly show the changing impact of celebrity today—and why looking closely at cultural relevance in the digital sphere can move the dial.

Even beyond the box office, social engagement is now more imperative than ever for talent to reach consumers. We see this need for engagement spilling over into the publishing world and the savviest of magazine editors have begun to tune in to the trend.

The unapproachable Hollywood A-lister isn’t necessarily the coveted “get” it once was: As a recent New York Times article pointed out, more and more titles are shifting from putting megawatt stars on their covers to the more accessible celebrities (often from the realms of reality TV and music) who regularly engage with their fan base via social media.

For example, having Miley Cyrus* tout your cover to her 12 million Twitter followers, as she did when she appeared on Cosmopolitan’s March issue, is priceless.  Her single tweet inspired the hashtag #BuyMileysCosmo; an invaluable promotional force that bolstered the magazine’s monthly sales. According to Media Industry Newsletter, Miley’s issue sold approximately $1m more in revenue than the 2012 March issue.

In the end, when competing at the box office or the newsstand, an on-going relationship with your audience has a definite impact.

*Fast & Furious 6 actor Paul Walker and Miley Cyrus are clients

Chris Robichaud is CEO of PMK*BNC