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Tracking puts marketing on rough terrain

THE ANCIENT GREEKS had the oracle at Delphi. The Romans had Fortuna, the goddess of good luck. In Hollywood we have tracking, a research tool invented 25 years ago to manage marketing campaigns that’s lately come to serve a different and more dubious purpose: divining the weekend grosses.

Every Friday morning, the purveyors of tracking, NRG, MarketCast and OTX, use the data they’ve gathered over several weeks of customer surveys to hazard a guess about the weekend box office. Then they sit back like bleary-eyed racetrack junkies and hope for the best.

Sometimes these predictions are uncanny in their accuracy. But on a few big weekends in 2006, they’ve missed the mark.

All three research companies overestimated the grosses of “MI3,” with MarketCast (a corporate sibling of Variety) furthest afield at $64 million, and OTX the closest, with $53 million (the film opened to $48.5 million).

All three were low for “Poseidon,” with MarketCast the nearest at $18 million and NRG the laggard at $16.5 million. The results for other big films this year have varied wildly. When “Saw II” came out, MarketCast predicted it would open to $26 million, and OTX predicted $19.5 million. The actual first-weekend gross was $31.7 million.

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Disparities like these are inevitable in a business governed by art and blind luck, particularly at a time when new communications channels are changing moviegoing habits in ways that are defying the expectations of even the best trained futurists.

But they lead to conniptions among studio executives who depend on tracking to manage expectations among their colleagues, filmmakers and stars. What do you tell Tom Cruise when his film opens to a $15 million shortfall?

LIKE POLITICAL POLLS, tracking is an indispensable tool for marketers, allowing them to gauge and tweak their ad campaigns. Let’s say the tracking on “Cinderella Man” is sluggish among older women (it was). One solution: a new flight of TV ads pushing the love story. Younger guys aren’t interested? Cut a bruising new spot with plenty of blood.

Tracking surveys are a brutally labor-intensive process, and nothing bugs research mavens more than seeing their data in the hands of people who don’t know the first thing about how it’s gathered. “Research is a tool,” one told me. “It’s not a definitive answer to anything.”

But for a growing number of amateur box office astrologists, tracking is loaded with other functions.

It’s the ultimate insider’s commodity, a code word for being in the know in a town that puts a premium on such things. It’s a tool for managing success or failure, allowing those on the hook for a hit or flop to plan their next move — “should I be preparing my victory brunch or do I start saying I never planned on making that movie,” as one studio exec put it.

IN THE WORST CASE SCENARIO, tracking is used as a weapon to club noncompliant filmmakers. One executive I know refers to it as pornography.

But that practice is hardly new. Political pollsters are famous at devising surveys whose aim isn’t to gather information but to convince voters of a certain point of view.

Washington pollster John Zogby was once hired by PETA to survey American eating habits by asking questions like: “Would you eat less meat if you knew that within days of birth, in order to make veal, male dairy calves are taken from their mothers, chained inside tiny crates to keep their muscles from developing, and fed an iron-deficient diet so that their flesh remains pale?”

The questions on tracking surveys are far more vanilla — “What movies are you interested in seeing?” “How interested are you in seeing movie X?” — and the purpose far more benign.

When I conducted my own highly unscientific poll of studio marketers, most said that tracking works just fine, though they’d like to see a few adjustments to it.

NRG, MarketCast and OTX have all sought to update their tracking studies with “buzz metrics” to measure things like viral Internet buzz and word of mouth. One studio exec also suggested they create trendsetter panels to compensate for the inevitable limitations of traditional telephone surveys.

“There isn’t a single person in my life who would answer a phone call from a stranger and agree to take five or 10 or 15 minutes to talk about movie options,” he said. “That fact gives me some pause.”

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