"The days of free traffic are over," said Dennis Yu, founder of BlitzMetrics. "Facebook has been trying to educate marketers on how to be social — to post the most engaging content — so as not to be penalized by their algorithms."
To be sure, movie studios haven't turned their backs on Facebook and its 1 billion-plus users around the globe. Every major holiday film — including "Twilight: Breaking Dawn — Part 2," "Skyfall," "Lincoln," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and "Les Miserables" — has a splashy presence on the site.
Facebook's Leach said 99% of all films released this year advertised on the social network, although he declined to say how much the studios spent.
"There are so many people on Facebook, it is a good place to have a presence — as a reminder. We buy the billboards in Westwood too — a lot of traffic drives past those," said one marketing executive who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Facebook. "It doesn't mean your film will not open if you don't have that. The correlation is probably minimal. But when we're opening a movie, we want to be in as many relevant places as we can."
At the same time, studios have been turning to the next generation of social media players, including Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest, said Todd Steinman, chief executive of the social media marketing agency M80.
"Nothing exists in a vacuum. You've got all these platforms that have emerged," Steinman said. "Facebook is still the behemoth, but for immediacy and for intelligence and for market penetration, I think Twitter has probably surpassed it as far as a marketing vehicle for movies that are coming out."
The evolution of Summit Entertainment's digital strategy over the four-year run of the "Twilight" series is a case study in how studios traverse digital platforms to keep up with a movie's fan base.
For "Twilight," the first film in the blockbuster series, released in 2008, the studio focused on Myspace, the dominant social network at that time. By the following year, Facebook and Twitter both figured prominently in campaigns for the first sequel, "Twilight: New Moon."
With the final installment in the "Twilight" saga now in theaters, Summit added two more digital outlets, letting fans listen to and share music from all the films in the franchise on online music service Spotify and encouraging them to pin images from the film to personal pinboards on Pinterest for their friends to see and share.
Still, Facebook dwarfs all of its competitors.
"When you are marketing a movie, you want to reach the widest audience possible to get people talking about it," EMarketer analyst Debra Williamson said. "Facebook still has that hands down compared to Twitter."
Social media marketing efforts are a drop in the promotional bucket that splashes money on TV ads and movie trailers. Kantar Media estimates studios spent nearly $2.9 billion on television ads in the U.S. alone in 2011.
Television commercials, in-theater previews and word of mouth remain the primary factors that influence a moviegoer's decision to see a movie, according to Vincent Bruzzese, president of Ipsos' Motion Picture Group.
"I still think [Facebook is] one of the most powerful marketing inventions of all time," said Ben Carlson, president of the research firm Fizziology, which uses social media to forecast box-office results. "But it's not a one-size-fits-all, write a check, and magic happens. It's not a cure-all."
Questions about the role of Facebook in movie marketing campaigns come at a time when studios are looking to cut moviemaking costs, including the film prints and advertising expenses known in the industry by the shorthand term P&A.
Facebook is "a super-duper expensive piece of real estate, and it's only one part of the old ball and chain of P&A," said veteran marketing executive Terry Press, co-president of CBS Films. "It's not like you can do only Facebook. If you could open a movie on Facebook, that's all you would have to buy. But it isn't."
Chmielewski reported from Los Angeles, and Guynn from San Francisco.