You Can’t Track Black: How Box Office Predictions Fail Diverse Movies

Straight Outta Compton
Courtesy of Universal

Films with African-American leads topped box office charts for five consecutive weeks in August and September, yet with every “Straight Outta Compton” or “War Room,” Hollywood continues to act stunned by the power of black audiences.

Analysts and distribution executives have been wildly inaccurate when predicting the opening-weekend results of these films. “Straight Outta Compton’s” $60.2 million debut was roughly $20 million more than most trade publications had predicted. “War Room,” a faith-based drama about the power of prayer, more than doubled predictions with its $11.3 million launch. And last weekend’s champ, Sony’s “The Perfect Guy,” exceeded expectations by nearly $15 million when it kicked off with $29.4 million. In each case, black audiences made up between 36% and 60% of the opening weekend crowd. Perhaps it’s time to retire the shock-and-awe charade.

The breadth and influence of African-American moviegoers is apparent on both the big and small screen. Appealing to the demographic has made Tyler Perry a millionaire many times over, turned Kevin Hart into one of the movie business’s most bankable stars, and made “Empire” a broadcast television phenomenon. Yet, if “Creed,” a “Rocky” spinoff starring Michael B. Jordan, or “When the Bough Breaks,” a psychological thriller with Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall, become hits and significantly over-index among African-Americans, headlines could well continue the surprise act.

Jeff Clanagan, CEO of CodeBlack Entertainment, believes tracking of movies with black lead actors is inaccurate because of outdated techniques. “Studios are using the same methods that they have for the last 15 years, which is already hit and miss — and it’s more miss with black films,” he noted. “What we say is, ‘You can’t track black.’ ”
But the underestimating isn’t reserved only for films with black actors. Movies geared to churchgoers (“God’s Not Dead”) or Latino moviegoers (recent success “Un gallo con muchos huevos”) have significantly outperformed estimates.

The reasons for the consistent miscalculations are cultural as well as statistical: Wilson Morales, editor of Black-Film.com, noted that few box office reporters or analysts are black, and studio distribution chiefs tend to be a monochromatic bunch.

“You have no one predicting the box office who’s African-American,” he said. “You have no one out there engaging with the black audience and understanding what’s appealing to them.”

There are issues, too, with how studios and analysts read tracking. Privately, distribution and marketing executives say that traditional tracking is better for assessing how films play to broad audiences, as opposed to targeted demographics. Predicting the inclinations of a specific band of prospective filmgoers requires drilling deep into the data.

Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian affirms that pre-release tracking has become difficult due to shifts in audience composition and behavior. “The traditional norms that have been ingrained in tracking — such as 18- to 24-year-old males being the dominant group — are less applicable,” he noted. “Audiences are demanding films that represent them.”

Traditional tracking makes it easier for studios to underplay box office expectations, the better to tout how an opening weekend smashes projections.

Analysts believe that social media offers a more accurate snapshot of sentiment within narrower audience groups.
“It’s not just one platform, but the totality of the conversation across social channels and the intensity of the conversation that allows us to be less surprised,” said Ben Carlson, co-creator of social-media trackers Fizziology. “The world is changing, and the buying power of different demographic groups is changing. They want more diverse stories to be told.”

While some executives and analysts complain there continues to be a lack of familiarity concerning how to employ social media as a predictive tool, CodeBlack’s Clanagan asserts it can hold the key to box office prediction. “The audience becomes ambassadors for successful films,” he said. But the exec is quick to give credit to Sony and Universal for being able to reach the historically underserved black audience. In the case of “Straight Outta Compton,” he said, it was particularly helpful that Universal marketed the movie as a landmark in cultural history.

And although there’s been a Twitter backlash against the “surprise” headlines generated by overperforming pictures, the scale of the numbers can still stun even execs who work in that area. “I know that no one was expecting “Compton” to do over $150 million,” Clanagan said.