‘If I Stay,’ ‘Sin City 2’ and the Trouble With Tracking

Sin City a Dame to Kill

Hollywood studios rely on tracking firms like Greek generals once enlisted oracles — to shine a light through the fog and predict an unknowable future.

To some, the most sophisticated data sets and intricate algorithms have proved to be about as scientific this month as the soothsayers of yore in determining who will emerge victorious at the box office. One by one, the weekends have ticked by only to see initial estimates of how a particular film will perform exposed as wildly over-inflated or overly conservative.

“Research is expensive and it’s wildly inaccurate,” griped a senior level distribution executive.

August kicked off with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which had many projecting a debut in the $70 million range. Instead it put up $94.3 million. That was followed up by “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which the most bullish firms had topping $50 million. It did $65.5 million of business.

Last weekend, both “The Expendables 3” and “Let’s Be Cops” were looking at openings of more than $20 million, but both fell short with $15.8 million and $17.8 million, respectively.

This weekend’s indignities include “If I Stay,” which pulled in $16.4 million, but was expected to hit $20 million or more, and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” which was pegged for a $15 million to $17 million debut, but came in at $6.5 million.

“You’ve got to listen to the conversation that’s going on and what’s being said about the movie,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.

To their credit, tracking firms began peeling back their estimates on “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” as the weekend approached and it became clear that fanboys were going to give this comicbook adaptation a pass. But it was too late.

Old habits die hard. Contrino argues that firms are often too eager to look for a historical comparison, matching up a current film with another from the same genre or release date to get their numbers.

“The old factors that came into play with traditional tracking, they don’t work any more,” said Contrino. “Things pop at the last minute now. The way people make decisions in terms of what they’re going to see is more in the moment.”

Part of the explosion in interest is being driven by Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets — platforms that tracking firms often turn to for data, with varying degrees of success.

In the case of “The Expendables 3” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” both films may have benefited from a high level of awareness, since audiences were familiar with their predecessors, but that knowledge didn’t translate into ticket buying. Dreadful reviews didn’t help, nor did concepts that appeared rickety by their second and third go-rounds.

There are also more films entering the marketplace this month than at the height of summer — three or four new wide releases each weekend as opposed to one or two. That invariably means that one film or more is going to eat into the box office of its competitors.

For studios, eager to massage the results of their films so they appear in line with or ahead of projections, this presents an unwelcome challenge. Even a film that does well, such as the low-budgeted “If I Stay,” can look like a disappointment when measured against expectations.

“The tracking has been remarkably unreliable,” said the distribution executive. “It certainly puts a lot of pressure on the studios and unfairly on the filmmakers when they’re this far off.”

Another studio executive said that traditional tracking firms such as NRG and Marketcast should only be viewed as a part of the picture, and that companies should also be pulling data from IMDB, Flixster, Twitter and Fandango’s pre-sales in assembling their predictions.

“If you’re still looking at just tracking, you’re going to be surprised most Sunday mornings,” said the executive.

That’s to say nothing of the tricky business of defining the audience for a particular film. Take the case of films such as “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Heaven is for Real,” two recent examples that proved difficult to peg down when it came to box office predictions because they appealed to certain religious and teenage subsets.

“Under-represented groups are not being accounted for accurately,” said Josh Lynn, president of Piedmont Media Research, a statistical analysis firm. “If there’s a passionate minority, whatever they may be, that really feels strongly about a film, it may not be adequately represented in the general population.”

Tracking firms say that surveying audiences is more about gauging the effectiveness of a marketing campaign than it is stating definitively how a film will perform.

“Tracking should point to predictiveness, but it’s not inherently a predictive model,” said Ben Carlson, president and co-creator of Fizziology, a tracking firm that relies on social media responses. “Tracking, in a lot of ways, is about a moment in time in terms of what people are thinking.”

Of course, media outlets seize on tracking as a measuring stick for a film, an opportunity to peel back the curtain on tightly guarded projects to discover which films will flop and which will soar, all backed up by numbers. But the numerical nature of the data can be deceiving.

As Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, puts it, “Like astrology, tracking is hugely entertaining, and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s not.”

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  1. White Taco says:

    With the way your fellow journalist at VARIETY shredded Sin City, it’s no wonder it did poorly. I have seen it twice already and I think it’s a visually stunning movie. The prototype 3D PACE camera system used in making this film is fantastic, this is one of the best looking 3D movies made to date.

    • Jacques Strappe says:

      Beyond the stunning visuals, the film disappoints. With 68 Rotten and 54 Fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, Variety was merely one of a majority of reviewers trashing the film. The ratio of top critics not showing the love to Sin was even far worse. But what do critics know!

  2. Ben Carlson of Fizzology offered doublespeak to define tracking: I’m surprised Fizzology is still getting paid. Nobody intends to make a flop, no one knows what film will shoot off like a rocket; every movie is a gamble. Except TRANSFORMERS. Never bet against TRANSFORMERS: it’s teflon, baby; it’s so money! :D

  3. Parkour says:

    Hey I saw Sin City 2 this afternoon. It’s cool, grisly and plays like a thrilling comic book.
    I loved it. Give a chance. If you like the first one, you will like this one too.

  4. David_C says:

    Yes, Theresa, timing is everything. As in, the timing of deciding a $50 million P & A spend for a film, as well as the accompanying logistics that have to be worked out over a year ahead of time.

  5. Theresa says:

    From an average working woman who loves the movies:
    What these firms and formulas fail to take into account is the general emotional state of the audience based on world events. The war in the Middle East so angers most of us that anxiety levels are high and movies that offer escape and laughter will prevail. Movies that make us cry will be cathartic. Movies where bad guys (in this case middle eastern bad guys like Hamas or ISIS or looters/burners in Ferguson) get blown up and scraped off the face of the earth will make us happy because as regular Americans we are powerless to do anything about it and our government stands by in many cases with arms limp at their sides. Those movies give us virtual power.
    Production houses need to learn the art of holding movies until the emotional state of the average movie-goer is ripe for the action or plot instead of planning release dates that are carved in stone, come hell or high water.
    Happy to help them with this!!
    Also, when world security is threatened, family-friendly movies will do better because it provides opportunity for families to be together and bond around a good story which makes them feel more secure.
    I doubt even scary movies will do very well this Halloween because adults just need to feel happy and content. Give them a scary movie with humor and you’ve got a blockbuster ghost story on your hands.
    The biggest reason scary movies do well in the Fall is not Halloween…it’s mid-term exams! A good scream brings clarity to that algebra calculation like no amount of studying!
    Wars over? Ferguson peaceful? ISIS no longer raping, pillaging, and murdering? Then Scare the hell out of us and you’ll make money hand over fist.
    The only franchises I can think of that might transcend any of these “soft” rules are Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, and Mission Impossible and Star Wars.
    Emotional state of the union matters. You need to have people who have their finger on the pulse, not robots who guess.
    Just my opinion, but I’ve always thought that the timing of many film releases was just so ridiculous and have wondered what “suit” thought the timing was right when it was obviously so wrong!

    Movies should meet a need. But who is deciding what they think we need? Whoever it is, they are disconnected and out of touch with the heart of America (& the world) at least half the time. And that’s a lot of money you could be making but miss because you’re so out of touch and/or impatient to make a buck.
    I love movies and will choose a theater over the small screen most of the time. But more and more I choose to wait to rent or buy because I know the storyline / plot will only bring me down or is not even worth the price of an overblown matinee.
    I just think you would make a lot more money if the timing of your movies were more precisely coupled with the emotional state of world events. Does that mean product you have ready to release may sit on the shelf for a couple more years? Yep. But it also means that movie that’s been gathering dust since 2012 might be just the thing we need to see…and tell our friends about.
    I know ya’ll think this is crazy. But I guarantee the words “it just wasn’t the right time for this film” are spoken a lot around the country time and again. That’s fixable! Not with formulas. Timing is everything.

  6. Jacques Strappe says:

    There will always be suckers who pay for so-called expert advice. When it’s spot on, they’re considered brilliant. And when they’re wrong, they are mostly forgiven as human and not being able to be perfect all the time. Those who pay them so freely and generously don’t want to be seen as squandering precious studio money or viewed as inept and expendable personnel, either. Monkeys throwing their excrement at a board of numbers would probably hit their target with the same degree of accuracy as these box office researchers. Whatever..

  7. Ann says:

    Sin City 1 had great visuals in the ads and trailers. Went to see it, but was totally turned off by the sick gratuitous violence — truly perverted, especially the violence against women and the implied torture. What might be okay on a printed page is not okay on the big screen.

  8. Sick says:

    I am being forced to live in a country by financial abuse for the past two years I being held hostage against my will and want to leave.

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