film measuring tape Tracking Ratings
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Movie researchers embrace digital data options to keep up with wired moviegoers

Many in the film industry believe that current tracking systems, which have been loudly criticized this summer for considerable inaccuracies in predicting opening weekend box office, are in dire need of improvement to better determine the viewing habits of today’s moviegoers.

Audience tracking, a cottage industry created in the 1970s, works principally by polling viewers at test screenings to gauge interest and awareness of a film, or over opening weekend to provide a window on a movie’s demographics. It’s a good measuring device for marketing a film, but it simply isn’t capable of drilling down deeply enough to provide the kind of analytics that newer digitally driven data-collection can.

“Simply knowing the awareness and interest of something only scratches the surface,” says Vincent Bruzzese, CEO of the Motion Picture Group, a recent spinoff from Paris-based research firm Ipsos. “It doesn’t matter necessarily if you’re going to definitely recommend a movie, so much as how you’re going to recommend it.”

For instance, Bruzzese says there is an important difference between a moviegoer who texts a friend immediately after seeing a film, and a person who likes the same film but says so only if asked directly.

“On paper, both of those people would mark ‘definitely recommend,’ ” Bruzzese says, “and yet, they mean something completely different.”

Moreover, with alternative distribution platforms such as video-on-demand and digital streaming gaining ground, and the narrowing of the theatrical window, market researchers must incorporate non-theatrical release options into their tracking systems to get the full picture of a film’s life. Current tracking looks at only studio-level wide releases, which maintain exclusive theatrical windows.

Many measurement pros maintain that listening to social media has become the most direct way to track the varying types of film distribution, though understanding some of today’s most avid moviegoers means not ignoring those who are less tech-savvy.

“There are people in Kentucky that still have 12:00 blinking on their VCRs,” Bruzzese quips.

Kevin Goetz, founder and CEO of research firm Screen Engine, says that by using social media as a tool for market research, analysts are able to read and score conversations that happen organically, rather than by using what Goetz describes as a “forced choice” scenario, which does not correctly weigh varying consumer choices or price sensitivities.

“Those are things that can screw up your predictive analysis,” Goetz says.

Yet even within the relatively nascent world of social media, there have been the kind of steady changes that make market research in that realm an ever-evolving practice.

“The single biggest change we’ve seen this year is that language has morphed into visuals,” says Ben Carlson, co-founder and president of social-listening firm Fizziology, referring to recommendations on such mobile and online apps as Tumblr and Instagram. “Research isn’t dry analytics,” he adds. “It’s finding a story and telling it.”

Ultimately, analysts agree that film tracking was never meant to be a method of predicting box office.

“The real intention (of tracking) was to gauge advertising materials and where a film falls within the competitive landscape,” says Catherine Paura, who co-founded the industry’s first market research firm, National Research Group, and now runs Capstone Global Marketing and Research.

Paura says industry analysis must grow to reflect changing demographics and consumer habits. For instance, the U.S. birth rate hit a record low last year, with Hispanics — the largest segment of frequent moviegoers in the U.S. these days — experiencing the greatest decline.

“What does that mean for the movies going forward?” Paura asks.

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