Int’l distribs: crystal-ball busters?

Tracking scant o'seas so studios can be blindsided by homegrown pix

If you thought it was tricky trying to figure out what people from Orange County, Calif., to South Orange, N.J., will see at the multiplex, try forecasting whether “The Devil Wears Prada” will play in Taipei.

With studios betting increasingly on international B.O. to buoy their bottom lines, the majors are scrutinizing foreign-market research more than ever. Where once a picture’s domestic performance could be a barometer of its overseas prospects, that is changing as studios release more pics day-and-date.

But except for major releases, tracking still is scant overseas, and studios can find themselves blindsided by the unexpected performance of homegrown pics.

“International tracking is most useful for tentpoles,” says Mark Zoradi, the newly upped prexy of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, whose “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” has hit $124 million from nine markets overseas.

A number of domestic players are jumping into the game to provide far-flung data. OTX is one firm that insiders say has a leg up on international tracking — collecting the polling data that forecasts what films auds are most likely to see — with clients including Buena Vista Intl., Fox, UIP and Warner Bros.

Sony handles its own movie tracking abroad.

Nielsen’s NRG and Reed Business Information’s MarketCast, meanwhile, don’t run international tracking polls, but do gather data on specific projects.

Some foreign firms, including Pathe Entertainment, will provide local numbers.

Unlike their domestic counterparts, international studio execs have one major hurdle in tracking pics overseas: Data from abroad is received weekly, rather than daily, which makes 11th-hour tweaks to campaigns nearly impossible.

Zoradi points out that weekly data works only when you have begun a campaign well in advance of a film’s release, a tactic reserved for major launches. On smaller pics, studios begin marketing pushes closer to release, so weekly data is interesting, but can be too little, too late — perhaps only leading to a sleepless night for any antsy international exec.

Tracking data “is actionable (distribution-ese for being able to act upon information) earlier in the process,” Zoradi says. “I’m not as interested in information that’s just ‘nice to know.’ ”

For sequels, international tracking becomes less important, because studios already have a good indication of how a pic will behave. BVI, for example, used no tracking for its newest “Pirates” foray.

Some numbers junkies at the studios are flirting with getting tracking numbers from abroad more frequently.

“The biggest issue is not with the information,” says Fox Intl. co-prexy Tomas Jegeus. “It’s how quickly you can take action from it. You need daily to really react quickly, especially for day-and-date releases.”

Fox, which is exploring a daily system for tracking numbers, helped its “Kingdom of Heaven” to triple its domestic B.O. perf abroad ($164.2 million).

But the overseas numbers-crunching gets mixed reviews from some Hollywood execs: A few grouse that the services don’t give a snapshot of the whole world, because only major territories are considered.

Others see data as worthwhile only when it comes from places where per-capita moviegoing is high. Key markets include the U.K., Germany, France, Australia and Japan, as well as Spain, Italy and Mexico.

With local production booming around the world, execs also say tracking can be particularly helpful when a Hollywood pic is going up against a potential hometown hero. The studios’ market research firms try to counter with as much local intelligence as they can.

“You can’t sit in Los Angeles and do tracking,” says Bruce Friend, exec veep of OTX, whose clients include divisions of Buena Vista, Fox, UIP and Warner Bros., and who helped develop Sony’s tracking system. “You need local people who have insights and can track local titles, who are active in the local market.”

“There may be some (projects) that we take for granted here that do not play in other parts of the world,” points out MarketCast managing director Karen Hermelin.

At a Cinema Expo presentation this year, Warner Bros. Intl. exec veep of European distribution Monique Esclavissat told foreign exhibs that in France last year, local productions had a 39% market share, the highest percentage of any foreign territory. (The studio’s own cult franchise “Les Bronzes” had a lot to do with that, garnering 10.4 million admissions, worth $76.5 million.)

In Germany and Spain, Esclavissat said, local pics did 17% of the market’s total B.O. biz, while in emerging territory, Russia the number spiked to 30%.

(Numbers crunchers at foreign market research firms say Russia is growing fast enough to soon catch Italy as the fifth biggest international movie market.)

“The trickiest market is Japan, because of the complexity of the marketplace,” says Friend. “U.S. titles tend to be star-driven in Japan — ‘Mission: Impossible III’ did much better there. But animation titles don’t always translate. Also, you can be up against a huge franchise in Japan, (such as a pic) that’s based on a TV franchise, and get clobbered.”

Experts point to Germany as another problematic territory, where all media has taken a hit in recent years, and say Russia gets the most buzz as a growth opportunity for Hollywood.

Even in Europe, some markets are easier to gauge than others. France — where moviegoing tastes are inconsistent and TV ads for films aren’t allowed — has been a tough nut to crack, the pros say.

And unlike the U.S., moviegoing is not as frequently at the top of potential audiences’ weekend plans. That’s why weather plays such a big part in B.O. results: Eyeballs are as likely to be glued on sun, sand and bikinis abroad as on movie screens.

“The real growth area has been to understand moviegoing and wider media consumption, to understand why people go to the cinema as opposed to the pub, how cinema fits within a range of leisure options and how to target different groups,” says Henry Piney, veep international, Nielsen NRG.

Just as advances in digital cameras don’t make a helmer more talented, execs agree that advances in international data gathering cannot replace local know-how in various territories.

“All market research is directional,” says Jegeus. “You analyze it with the variables you know already, and we’ve used that on quite a few films.”

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