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How Hollywood Is Using Social Data to Better Reach Audiences — Or Not

There’s a link between the volume of buzz on social networks for a movie and how well it performs at the box office — and some studio marketers have been better than others at exploiting the social landscape leading up to a film’s release.

“Does social media affect box office? The simple answer is yes,” said David Herrin, UTA’s head of research, speaking at an event at the C Space marketing conference at the 2015 International CES in Las Vegas. The session was sponsored by Twitter.

UTA has developed a proprietary social-ranking tracker, on a scale of 1-100, that measures social-media conversations about specific movies 365 days before release based on data provided by Twitter.

Herrin presented social data for five comedies from last summer, noting that the two biggest winners at the box office were also clear leaders in social buzz. Universal’s “Neighbors” (pictured, above) never had a score below 90 on the UTA index — and was at 98 when the movie opened, raking in $51.1 million on its first weekend. The studio was “hitting all the notes they wanted to in the social campaign,” Herrin noted. Sony Pictures’ “22 Jump Street” also scored well, with a score of 93 on opening day; the movie took in $60 million in its opening weekend.

By contrast, three other summer 2014 comedies — which opened in the mid-teens — performed far more poorly on UTA’s social-media meter. Universal’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” had a score of 32 on opening day, while Adam Sandler’s “Blended” from Warner Bros. was at 31 and Columbia Pictures’ “Sex Tape” was at 30. Each of those started deviating from “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street” about 180 days prior to theatrical release.

That said, it’s not fully clear if social chatter simply reflected the fact that audiences were less interested in seeing the three lower-performing comedies — in other words, the lower level of chatter may just have been an effect, not a cause.

But to Herrin, the takeaway is that managing social marketing is critical. “Now it’s about building long leads, six months or even a year ahead of release… and keeping that momentum going all the way through release,” he said. UTA is now offering the social tracker as a commercial product, dubbed PreAct, in conjunction with Rentrak.

Brent Weinstein, head of digital media for UTA, said Hollywood agents are relying heavily on data now to understand the popularity of particular artists and then how to leverage the resulting numbers into business opportunities. He related a recent experience in renegotiating an actor’s deal with a TV network (without identifying any of the parties). The network was looking at the show as having two stars, but UTA came back with social data showing that passionate fans regarded the agency’s client as the lead.

“We’re using data all day, every day, which quite frankly didn’t exist a few years ago,” Weinstein said.

Matt Marolda, chief analytics officer for Legendary Entertainment, said the production firm uses social data on a daily basis to tweak marketing plans. He called out Michael Mann’s hacker thriller “Black Hat,” which opens Jan. 16: Originally the campaign was “a little edgier and emphasized personal threats” — but in the wake of the cyber-attack on Sony, that was toned down. “We were watching and having to tweak it every day,” he said.

Legendary does not use data in any way to craft a film, according to Marolda. “For ‘Godzilla,’ films like that, we are not saying, ‘Put this scene in.’ The creative process is completely sacrosanct.”

However, Legendary does analyze social data to inform the creative process, to gauge audience demand and tastes, and to change marketing messaging and creative elements. “It’s almost like day-trading: We are constantly reallocating (marketing spending) based on what we are learning,” Marolda said, particularly heading into the last four weeks of a campaign before theatrical bow.

YouTube star Justine Ezarik (aka iJustine), who is repped by UTA, said at the session that Twitter is her service of choice through which to have conversations with fans and others. “You don’t realize how much it means to people,” she said, mentioning that she’s had fans bring her framed tweets to sign.

Weinstein said UTA advises clients that they absolutely must be active on and engaged with social media. “If you can’t do this, don’t apply,” he said. “We’re seeing a shift: You have to be an expert in (social) to be a superstar.”

Chris Moody, Twitter’s VP of data strategy, noted that the reach of the company’s service has an amplifying effect as posts are retweeted. Sony’s “The Interview,” for example, was recently the subject of about 4 million tweets — which were seen by 426 million people worldwide on Twitter, he said.

Also at the event, Fred Graver, head of TV creative for Twitter, revealed that the social company on Thursday night at CES will receive a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award from NATAS for “innovation in improving engagement around television in social media.”

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