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Tentpole focus drives pic research

Internet opinions take over polling methods

Test screeners cut out middle man | Disney’s lab studies people | H’wood dives into data

Just how early in the filmmaking process should a studio begin positioning a tentpole?

Prevailing wisdom says it’s never too early to marshall the market-research artillery. With studios increasingly eyeing the bottom line and desiring to leave fewer factors to chance, they’re leaning early and often on the handful of outside firms that offer tactical advice on how to best open a movie.

But as much as the array of research can help a studio hedge its bets, the realm is still limited in its ability to forecast and position films that don’t fit a standard mold. From “Borat” to “Cloverfield” and, more recently, “True Grit,” market research has had trouble getting a handle on some genres and audience sectors.

Still, studios continue to increase their reliance on data and market guidance they can gather as an essential tool.

In some cases, early positioning studies hit the studio chief’s desk months before a project is even greenlit, marking one of the most significant changes in the field in the past few years.

“Market research is more important than ever before,” explains the marketing prexy of a major studio. “The (data provided) is most accurate when you’re talking about the big brands — the Spider-mans, the Batmans. For the middle-of-the-road movies, the research isn’t as helpful, but the studios are increasingly moving toward smaller slates full of big brands.”

Warner Bros., for instance, aims to make eight to 10 films a year, most of which come with built-in recognition. Ditto Paramount, which slashed its slate significantly two years ago, leaving little room for unfamiliar entities. Disney, Sony, Universal and Fox are operating along similar lines, with a heavy emphasis on established brands and franchises.

Filmmakers and producers are seeing their projects scrutinized sooner. While Sony conducted no formal research for helmer David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” according to insiders, the studio did commission an early positioning study before greenlighting Fincher’s upcoming “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” to see how aware U.S. auds are with the bestselling Stieg Larsson books on which the property is based. Turns out they’re not as aware as one would think, with less than 30% familiar.

“We are increasingly involved earlier in the process,” says Henry Shapiro, general manager of showbiz market research firmMarketCast, sibling company of Variety. “This early involvement is especially fruitful for studios in the case of branded, or franchise material, where the legacy of the source content — like a book, a comicbook, a TV show, a videogame or a previous movie — needs to be understood, and the motivations of the fans, fence-sitters and rejectors need to be identified and profiled.”

MarketCast, which was acquired by Variety parent company Reed Business in 2000, is best known for its positioning studies, which have become de rigueur for the major distributors looking to attract customers amid an array of entertainment choices that include cable TV, event TV, Internet-only programming, vidgames and social media.

The firm — like its competitors Nielsen NRG, OTX, Penn Schoen Berland and upstart Screen Engine — boasts extensive databases culled from years of conducting focus groups for thousands of films. The information, which helps marketing divisions determine everything from which demographics to target to what spots and key art to feature, has become indispensable for strategizing a film’s release and predicting its box office potential.

While much of the market research biz is shrouded in secrecy, with firms unable to disclose their studio clients, the general public is becoming increasingly familiar with its work and impact. Box office tracking, which typically comes out three weeks before a film’s release, is now being reported by news outlets beyond the Hollywood-centric stalwarts. Test screenings, once the bread and butter of the field, now represent roughly 10% of the market-research pie. In fact, face-to-face and telephone contact have largely given way to surveys that center on the Internet and mobile devices.

“Market research used to be conducted at the mall,” says the studio marketing president. “That wasn’t very accurate, because it only reflects the opinof the person who is willing to stop and answer questions. We see online (surveying) as much more accurate.”

Market researchers are also fine-tuning many of their methodologies, including the survey instrument itself.

“?’Yes’ to a survey question comes cheap, and is a very low bar against which to make high-stakes decisions such as the choice of a poster, trailer or TV spot or the direction a campaign or media buy should take,” says MarketCast managing director Kevin Yoder. “You need to place ‘yes’ or definite intent in competitive context and attach economic value and consequence to the response.”

But even as the practice evolves, the results still aren’t foolproof.

Marketing gurus insist one of the most challenging type of projects to track are those that have low awareness but high interest among young men, creating holes in the data. Such was the case with Paramount’s “Cloverfield,” Sony’s “Superbad” and, notably, Fox’s “Borat.” The Sacha Baron Cohen starrer was tracking so poorly the studio opened the film in just 837 theaters, yielding a $26.5 million weekend haul. Fox almost certainly left money on the table due to the inability to effectively gauge the film’s demand before opening.

Similarly, urban auds are tough to track, reflecting another flaw in the current practice, says Joe Farrell, the godfather of market research. “Ethnic groups don’t have a large participation on the Web and in social networks as much as other sociodemographic groups, which is where much of the data is coming from now,” notes Farrell, who started the trailblazing firm NRG in the late 1970s with partner Catherine Paura. “This is an important hole in the way market research is done on the Web. With black and urban audiences, you don’t get the real good data you would like.”

Screen Gems’ “Stomp the Yard” opened huge for a January bow, with $22 million despite poor tracking. Fox’s live-action/CG film “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which attracted large numbers of Hispanic families, far exceeded its prerelease tracking with a $44 million bow.

Other genres are similarly susceptible to imprecise predictions, including Paramount’s recent remake of the oater “True Grit,” whose $25 million opening weekend came in at double the studio’s expectation.

“There are a lot of new challenges today,” adds Farrell, who has segued to producing movies but still consults on marketing matters for studios. “The last decade demonstrated the strength of the Internet, which dramatically changed the impact of word of mouth, among other ways movie marketing has changed. People are in the theaters telling everyone how great or terrible the movie was. There’s no more Monday watercooler.”

Regardless of the accuracy, some filmmakers resist the practice being conducted on their films. Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” Warner Bros.’ “Superman” and Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” are among the films that skipped the test-screening process. And, notably, creative bastion Pixar says it has built its long streak of B.O. hits despite largely eschewing the practice.

“Our films are not driven by any market research,” says a high-ranking Pixar exec. “I mean, we make movies about things like a French rat in a kitchen. These aren’t ideas that test well in the early stages.”