The Problem With Film Tracking

Data isn't being interpreted correctly, says Capstone's Catherine Paura

Film Tracking Data
Jasper Rietman

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” And while the phrase is well-known, what comes immediately after it in McLuhan’s 1964 work is not: “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium … result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

If McLuhan were writing in the 21st century, he might say, considering the increase in scale, that the media are the messengers; both are more varied and more abstruse than could have been imagined in 1964. The scale of new technology and the “extensions of ourselves” contribute to the challenge of interpreting market research data in any industry, but in an industry that introduces new products every week, that challenge is even more daunting. Businesses, whether movie studios or other enterprises, cannot completely control the message or messengers.

Market research in the movie industry took root in the early 1980s. The moviegoing audience was younger, under 25, but beginning to age up along with baby-boomers. The oldest boomer in 1987 was 41. That was the year industrywide tracking, as it is known today, was born. Today, the oldest boomer is 67, and still going to the movies. In 1987, forms of entertainment that competed with movies were limited. In 2013, movies represent just one entertainment choice among many.

In 1987, television commercials did not have to navigate their way through the space-time continuum of the DVR. Pre-opening word-of-mouth chatter was publicity driven, and the studios controlled the messaging. Earned- vs. owned-content was not an issue.

Moreover, moviegoers were not texting in their seats or immediately texting friends about the movie they just saw. Word of mouth began at the “water cooler” the Monday after opening. Movies had at least a weekend to remain viable; now, it’s sometimes not even a day.

While it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply every 21st century variable to the interpretation of movie market research, the systems of research are not broken. It is also important to point out that market research is one of the many tools in the war chest of marketing’s battle to break through the clutter of entertainment options.

The data that are produced by research into moviegoing, whether a test of advertising materials or tracking, require skilled interpretation, not only of the interest levels they measure, but also of the messages communicated within those interest levels. In today’s world, given the complexities of social media and their impact on preand post-opening word of mouth, messaging is crucial. The holy grail of “definite” interest can be more misleading than ever. There is a very good chance that definite interest in a like/not like world has been cheapened. For instance, are moviegoers who are asked to use the measure of “like” vs. “not like” truly declaring a definite interest in seeing a movie in a movie theater?

There has been much debate about how tracking is broken, even though there are now several tracking services providing such data to movie studios. As with all research carried out for clients on a confidential basis, tracking is a proprietary system that should be conducted confidentially. Its interpretation requires expertise in the field of research and in the movie industry, as well as subtlety and discretion.

While tracking was never intended to be a box office forecasting device, it is currently utilized as such, and therefore much maligned. Movie tracking continues to reflect the effectiveness of marketing campaigns in a competitive landscape.

In sum, it is most important to remember that the interpretation of the numbers as “a point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding,” or so stated McLuhan in the late 1960s.

This is a guest column from Catherine Paura, co-founder of the industry’s first market research firm, National Research Group, and now runs Capstone Global Marketing and Research.