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Digital Stats Foretold Which New Movies Would Fall Flat

How performance on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google could have predicted recent box office successes and failures

American Hustle The Wolf of Wall Street 47 Ronin Grudge Match

2013 was not only an all-time record year for domestic and global box office, it was also a big year for digital marketing and social media in Hollywood. We have seen some of the biggest viral campaigns in 2013, and YouTube and Facebook have finally arrived at the center of every digital marketing mix.

Twitter has claimed a decent impact on water cooler conversations, Buzzfeed has reinvented (or at least smartly repackaged) native advertising and Tumblr has used the momentum after its acquisition by Yahoo to position itself as the new echo chamber for fan engagement. Budgets have been steadily shifting towards digital media, and digital savvy has become the new must-have. Overall levels of relevance, mass reach, sophistication and smart spending have increased tremendously in 2013.

Google claimed in June that search volume on Google and YouTube could predict box office quite accurately. No digital marketer would have argued with that, since what people punch into their Google search field in fact is a pretty good proxy for what they want. But before intent, there has to be interest. And before interest there has to be awareness.

Does digital data offer indicators that can be used to monitor marketing effectiveness, calibrate spending and predict box office success? Even before awareness has turned into intent? We at Moviepilot studied a subset of the most recent theatrical releases, focusing on four sets of data:

Facebook fan numbers are a good indicator for fan awareness for a movie in any given market, even months before the release. For mainstream movies with younger target audiences, fan counts are particularly important. However, big fan numbers can be bought and movies with older target audiences typically have lower fan counts. Fan engagement measured by PTAT (People Talking About This) is a more precise but also a fickle indicator, heavily driven by content strategy and media spending.

YouTube trailer counts are important for measuring early awareness about a movie. Movies with over 40 million views are usually mainstream and set to dominate the box office, while titles drawing 10 million to 20 million views indicate a more modest performance. If a movie does not have a solid number of trailer views on YouTube four weeks before its release, it is not promising news. But again, it is important to understand whether trailer views have been bought or grew organically.

Twitter is a good real-time indicator of excitement and word of mouth, coming closer to release or following bigger PR stunts. Mainstream, comedy and horror titles all perform particularly strongly on Twitter around release. Post-release indie titles perform strongly if they have good word of mouth, as this audience likes to spread their opinions after seeing the movie.

Search As Google argued, search is a solid indicator for intent moving towards release as people actively seek out titles that they are aware of and are thinking about seeing. Search is particularly significant for fan-driven franchises and family titles as parents look for information about films they may take their children to see. We used Wikipedia traffic as a conclusive proxy for Google Search volume. We have to consider that big simultaneous global releases tend to have higher search results compared to domestic releases.

To make the data comparable, we analyzed the seven days leading up to each release, when marketing campaigns should be at their peak. We also looked for early indicators, months before release. The same four indicators are also used by most of the digital marketing teams at the studios when they come together weekly and make their marketing decisions.

While individually these metrics may not mean a lot, compared to one another and in the context of competition and genre benchmarks they give a good impression of the performance of a movie’s marketing campaign. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish if the numbers are the result or the driver of a marketing campaign. Needless to say, there are limitations to these data points and the causalities they explain. But, hey, it’s only 2013. It’s still early days in the relationship between Hollywood and Big Data.

amy adams american hustle christian bale

American Hustle brought back 2012’s winning combination of David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, this time led by additional Oscar favorites Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was a success, receiving both critical acclaim and a great box office return. “Hustle” is on track to do the same with stellar reviews, the highest per-theater-average of 2013 grossing $690,000 from just six theaters on its initial limited release and a wide opening weekend of $19 million.

Facebook and Twitter suggested as much, with 275,000 fans, more than any other critically acclaimed film this season, and tweet volume as high as “The Hobbit” sequel, at 80,000. Retweets made up over 43% of that total, suggesting positive word of mouth. Given “Hustle’s” extremely high 190,000 search volume, it looks like this will prove to be a winning formula for the second year running.

Facebook: A-
YouTube: B
Twitter: A
Search: A
Overall: A

leonardo dicaprio wolf of wall street jonah hill

Marking the return of another winning combination, The Wolf of Wall Street reunites Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio, separated since 2010’s “Shutter Island,” which gave Scorsese his best box office opening yet. Taking in over $9 million on Christmas Day and $18.5 million on opening weekend, “Wolf” has the potential to outstrip “American Hustle’s” initial success if the film’s controversy doesn’t deter too many theatergoers. While Facebook numbers were small in comparison, with 108,000 fans at release, a 60% PTAT means nearly 65,000 fans were engaging with the page’s content, larger than “American Hustle’s” 35,000 from its 13% PTAT score.

“Wolf” also had a lot of success early with its first catchy trailer, soundtracked by Kanye West, gaining high YouTube view counts quickly after an exclusive debut on iTunes. Now with nearly 17 million views on YouTube, “Wolf” was ahead of most competition at release, including “Hustle.” Twitter also indicates a positive echo with over 87,000 tweets, 42% of which are retweets, despite its rather disappointing “C” CinemaScore.

Facebook: B+
YouTube: A
Twitter: A
Search: A-
Overall: A

ben stiller walter mitty

The Ben Stiller-directed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, had a good start over Christmas. Mitty’s digital stats suggested it might play to a smaller, older audience drawn in by Stiller’s presence and a feel-good marketing campaign. Facebook “Likes” at 233,000 and PTAT at 43% are both solid. While YouTube views were a little behind “Wolf” and “Hustle,” in part due to exclusive trailer deals with Apple and IMDb, which reduce YouTube figures, the trailer was well shared and Mitty has the highest Buzz rate (the percentage of people who gave the videos a thumbs up over the number of views) of any film releasing this holiday season.

That, plus unique and heartwarming viral content, such as a video about how director Casey Neistat spent his $25,000 Mitty promotional budget helping typhoon victims in the Philippines, saw “Mitty” start well over Christmas with audiences looking for feel-good fare. Search at release was slightly behind competition, but has surged over the weekend indicating good word of mouth and early audiences rewarded “Mitty” a good B+ CinemaScore. This should see “Mitty” play strongly over coming weeks.

Facebook: A
YouTube: B
Twitter: B
Search: B
Overall: B

saving mr banks emma thompson

Saving Mr. Banks sits in ambiguous territory; a biopic about Walt Disney and his difficult relationship with P.L. Travers cannot rely on the success of other Disney productions, nor import its audience from them. The largest demographic on their over 200,000 strong Facebook page is 35-44 year olds; unsurprising given the older cast of Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell and Emma Thompson, as well as the historical nature of the film.

However, this Christmas there was a lot of competition for the older audience. The title did fairly well socially, on Facebook and with over 30,000 tweets in its final week before release. The consistently high numbers of PTAT on Facebook, which has not dropped below 20% since October, show there is real social buzz around the title. This can be attributed to the extremely active Facebook page, which posts zealously with a variety of content including interviews, videos, photos and sponsorship deals from the Home Shopping Network (HSN) — again, tapping into the older market.

However, with an older audience, search should be higher than 117,000 because it is a biopic as well as targeted at more search-active audiences, indicating the interest didn’t quite match the social chatter. “Banks” will probably fall behind “Hustle” and “Wolf,” but fight it out with “Mitty.”

Facebook: B+
YouTube: C-
Twitter: B
Search: B+
Overall: B

anchorman will ferrell

Anchorman 2 got off to a fair start thanks to Paramount’s decision to release it before the weekend, getting a jump on the Christmas rush. The comedy sequel has created quite a stir with its ubiquitous marketing campaign: Will Ferrell’s promotional world tour has been both wide-ranging, featuring in ads for Dodge, as well as localized to ensure his digital campaign literally applies to each territory, with personal appearances in Canada and viral videos directly addressing the Irish.

But did such a massive and intense viral campaign translate into intent to watch? With 3 million fans on Facebook, there was a great jumping-off point to get dedicated fans excited to see what Burgundy’s been up to in the nine years since the first “Anchorman.” The 45 million YouTube views indicate these fans were engaged and saw the wide variety of video content being regularly dropped, although the positive buzz rate was surprisingly low.

Overall, Facebook and YouTube stats put Burgundy and his news team not a huge distance behind “Hobbit.” But Ferrell might have expected to be looking at higher Twitter and definitely higher search numbers at release, which is echoed by the solid but not record-breaking ticket sales thus far. “Anchorman 2” might not hit the same grosses as this season’s earlier blockbuster sequels like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Thor: The Dark World, but it will go on to surpass the first movie’s total ticket sales.

Facebook: A
YouTube: A
Twitter: B
Search: C
Overall: B

keanu reeves 47 ronin

47 Ronin is not the archetypal holiday film: the troubled Keanu Reeves epic debuted to a muted reception in Japan where it was expected to play well, and was predicted to underwhelm in the U.S. too.

But “Ronin’s” social stats told a slightly different story. Its numbers were not on the scale needed to threaten a smash hit, but with nearly 286,000 fans, almost 50% PTAT, 19 million trailer views and 80,000 tweets, “Ronin” looked like it could have enough social awareness to put up a fight. A good search volume also reinforced the film’s potential.

However, while a big-budget production like “Ronin” should have had digital data closer to “Hobbit,” it was instead on par with more critically anticipated films like “Wolf.” This was echoed in its box office performance on Christmas Day, coming in with only $7 million. While not high enough to recoup its bloated production costs, it wasn’t quite as abysmal an opening as some had predicted.

Facebook: C
YouTube: C
Twitter: B-
Search: B
Overall: C+

robert de niro grudge match sylvester stallone

Grudge Match’s digital data promised it would flop. While nearly half of the small 115,000 Facebook fan base was engaged at release, Twitter and search volume were both low – the channels where the older audience you’d expect to be interested in this “Rocky” vs. “Raging Bull” nostalgia-fest are most active. Search was identical for another recent nostalgia-leaning film, “Last Vegas,” at 34,000, which performed on target at opening weekend, but “Grudge Match” looks set to go the way of Stallone’s last movie, “Escape Plan,” instead. Additionally burdened with a low YouTube view count of less than 4 million, the lowest view count of the Holiday season, after the trailer was dropped very late, there wasn’t enough awareness to make “Grudge Match” a winner at the box office with just $4 million taken on Christmas Day.

Facebook: C
Twitter: C
YouTube: D
Search: D
Overall: D

Tobias Bauckhage (@tbauckhage) is co-founder and CEO of MoviePilot.com, a social-media-driven movie community reaching over 15 million Facebook fans and 7 million monthly unique users. Based on community data, MoviePilot helps studios to optimize their social media campaigns, identifying, analyzing, targeting and activating the right audiences. The company is based in Los Angeles, London and Berlin.