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Thursday October 17, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday October 17, 2013 MYT 1:34:33 PM
by chris lee
Why surprises at the box office are becoming more common.
THE numbers said Kick-Ass 2 was going to do just that.
Before its theatrical release, audience tracking surveys estimated the superhero action-comedy could gross as much as US$25mil (RM79.5mil) in its opening weekend.
Instead, the sequel took in only US$13mil (RM41.3mil), finishing far behind the civil rights drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler and earning Kick-Ass 2 an instant reputation as a flop.
For decades, tracking was used by studios to determine filmgoer interest ahead of a new movie’s release and tell marketing executives where to spend their advertising dollars.
Now trade publications, national dailies, blogs, TV newscasts and even drive-time radio shows share the once closely-held numbers with everyday moviegoers.
Tracking establishes financial expectations for a new film as well as an A-list star’s ability to “open” a movie. The estimates effectively declare a winner before the weekly box office battle begins.
“Tracking is broken. There’s no doubt about it,” said Vincent Bruzzese, chief executive of the tracking firm Worldwide Motion Picture Group. “It’s been asking the same questions since 1980. It isn’t predictive anymore. And it doesn’t cover the way consumers make choices anymore.”
This summer, several movies were damaged by inaccurate tracking. The Lone Ranger, The Wolverine and The Hangover Part III were said to have “underperformed” when they had openings at least US$10mil (RM32mil) below estimates. All went on to sputter domestically after bad word of mouth and earlier-than-expected exits from theatres.
Even a hit film can fall victim to bad tracking. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 opened at No 1 but is seen as having underperformed by grossing US$10mil less than estimates predicted.
When movies exceed expectations, they generate positive buzz that can increase returns. Recently, Gravity took in US$55mil (RM174.9mil) — US$10mil more than the most optimistic pre-release surveys indicated it would earn. Man Of Steel, The Conjuring and Now You See Me earned much more than tracking predicted.
“You can say, ‘The testing was great’,” said one respected studio marketer who, like other top executives interviewed for this story, declined to be identified for fear of jeopardising his industry standing.
“But you know in your heart you don’t believe in the testing anymore. And if you do, you’re fooling yourself.”
Because of the sheer volume of movies being released — 660 last year — as well as seismic social media changes, tracking service executives say, pre-release audience awareness and anticipation have never been more difficult to gauge. This is especially true, experts say, for non-sequel films and films popular with minority moviegoers, who can be harder to survey because they are a statistically small and not reliably representative cross-sampling of respondents.
Even with tracking’s accuracy increasingly doubted, it’s such a dominant part of the Hollywood conversation that none of its studio detractors interviewed for this article voiced willingness to give up the service.
Studios receive tracking information over a three-week to two-month pre-release window. The estimates sample audience awareness, “definite interest” in seeing a movie and the proportion of respondents ranking the movie as their first choice, as well as projected breakdowns by gender and age.
Firms crunch their polling results, comparing the movies with previous titles by genre and release window to yield an estimated opening-weekend gross.
But because respondents must self-identify as moviegoers who see at least six films per year, a sizable population remains under-accounted. Especially difficult to predict is audience turnout for faith-based films and movies based on TV shows such as Sex And The City.
Citing issues similar to those faced by election-year pollsters, some studio marketing executives privately fear that tracking’s respondents are not only less diverse but have been over-polled, succumbing to a kind of survey fatigue.
“The phone rings, you don’t answer if you don’t recognise the call. And nobody answers the land line anyway,” a studio marketer said. “It’s one of the real challenges.” — Los Angeles Times / McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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Lifestyle, Entertainment, Movies, Box office, Audience tracking, Upsets, Fops, Hits
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