How Mobile Phones Are Giving Hollywood a Better Understanding of Its Audiences

Hollywood Uses Mobile Phone Data to
Tim McDonagh for Variety

Fox had it wrong.

The studio thought that “The Greatest Showman,” a song-and-dance ode to circus impresario P.T. Barnum, would be a hit with the crowds who embraced musicals such as “La La Land” and “Les Misérables.”

But when executives looked at the data, they found that 75% of the people who viewed the trailer online bought tickets to “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Cinderella” and “Wonder.” “We had to peel it back and think, what is this all about?” says Julie Rieger, Fox’s chief data strategist and head of media. “What is the data telling us?”

What Rieger and other Fox executives realized was that all of those films featured characters who were shunned by society — perhaps because of physical deformities or a lack of social cachet — and who ultimately found themselves embraced by certain communities. The same holds true for “The Greatest Showman,” a large part of which centers on Barnum’s efforts to build a show featuring bearded ladies, dwarfs and other people who were considered “oddities” in the 19th century. In response, the studio altered its advertising campaigns and leaned into a message of inclusion. The film has earned nearly $380 million globally.

That kind of granular insight into the composition of the audience for the Hugh Jackman musical wouldn’t have been possible at Fox even a year ago. But it’s becoming more common across the entertainment business as more content consumption moves to mobile platforms, which is enabling marketing executives to get a deeper understanding of the user base than other media afford.

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For years, studios have operated with only a vague understanding of who’s buying tickets to their films even as their leadership has publicly claimed to have an indelible connection with consumers. Part of the ignorance stems from the makeup of the business. Movie studios have largely been wholesalers that ship their product to movie theaters and later, when their films premiere on home entertainment platforms, to digital and physical retailers such as Amazon and Walmart.

That arm’s-length relationship with consumers is beginning to change, however. In the process, a business that relied on instinct is becoming empirical; it’s a shift that’s analogous to the one baseball underwent when sabermetrics overtook scouting reports.

Fox, for instance, has put an emphasis on data collection. One of Stacey Snider’s big pushes after taking the reins as studio chief was to apply Silicon Valley know-how to an industry that was painfully behind the times. Since being upped to her present position at Fox a year and a half ago, Rieger has developed several proprietary data sets (most named after X-Men characters) that give the studio insight into 25 million moviegoers. These use various algorithms, but Fox is pushing beyond and has developed artificial intelligence, dubbed “Merlin,” that runs on Google’s technology. The studio believes Merlin will give it greater insight into whether or not its marketing campaigns are resonating with consumers.

“The machine is still getting smarter, but it’s ultimately going to help us understand if we’re going down the right path or the wrong path with our customers,” Rieger says.

Studios’ efforts in this bold new world of data gathering are being augmented by ticketing companies such as Fandango and Atom Tickets, a relative newbie on the block, having launched just over a year ago. The mobile ticketing app is the brainchild of Matthew Bakal, a former Lionsgate executive, and Ameesh Paleja, a former Amazon engineer. The two men believe that movie studios were flying blind, spending tens of millions of dollars on ad campaigns to bring customers to theaters and then going through the whole costly process a few weeks later when their next movie debuted. The problem, Bakal and Paleja argue, was that they lacked any data on their customer base.

“Consumers expect more now,” Bakal says. “They have preferences that we can track. We know if they saw the latest ‘Star Wars’ and what format they saw it in and if they bought a Coke and Junior Mints and invited friends.”

That gives Atom the ability to suggest movies that are similar to ones its customers previously enjoyed and to help them customize their experience (buying snacks ahead of time, for instance), so there are fewer steps along the way.

Fandango has fully embraced the phone-based world, not only by providing mobile ticketing options but by designing its apps to be more smartphone-friendly. The company has launched a Fandango functionality into Apple iMessage and Facebook Messenger, because it believes that’s how younger consumers are communicating with friends. It’s also streamlined its payment options by introducing Google Pay on its Android app.

“Mobile phones are allowing all of us to have an instant, always-on relationship with the internet and with content,” says Paul Yanover, president of Fandango.

A recent study by analytics firm Flurry reported that U.S. consumers spend five hours a day on mobile devices, and smartphone ownership has become widespread. Seventy-seven percent of Americans have smartp

hones, according to Pew Research Center, and ownership of these devices is nearly ubiquitous among younger consumers. Ninety-two percent of 18- to 29-year-olds own one, Pew reports.

“Consumers expect more now. They have preferences that we can track. We know if they saw the latest ‘Star Wars’ and what format they saw it in and if they bought a Coke and Junior Mints and invited friends.”
Matthew Bakal

“Mobile is where marketers need to turn their energy to,” Bakal says. “It’s where people spend the bulk of their time. You unlock your phone 200 times a day, and 92% of your day your phone is right there with you.”

Of course, digital players such as Amazon and Netflix have been scrutinizing user data for years, deploying algorithms to suggest shoes to buy and shows to stream. In the entertainment industry, the television business is far ahead of its film counterpart. But the process of catching up is under way, including on the exhibition side of the business.

Much of that push is being propelled by loyalty programs, such as AMC’s Stubs, which added 10 million members when it did away with membership fees, giving the country’s largest theater chain access to a massive amount of consumer data. It also allowed AMC to reach a different audience.

“We felt we’d gotten to a point where we’d sort of plateaued,” says Stephen Colanero, AMC’s chief marketing officer. “We were mostly attracting parents with families. Making the program free let us reach younger, single moviegoers. We were able to be more inclusive.”

The explosive growth of mobile devices is also reshaping media companies’ approach to programming and monetizing their content. CBS, for example, is putting its weight behind premium subscription offerings such as CBS All Access, a $5.99-a-month package that lets users view content in the Eye network’s programming library as well as exclusive shows such as “Star Trek: Discovery.” “It creates a more direct relationship with the brand,” says Jim Lanzone, chief digital officer for CBS.

It also gives CBS proprietary data on consumers it can use to tailor programming and advertising messages — allowing the network to know what devices customers are watching shows on, how long they’re engaging with content, and at what point in the day they’re tuning in. That’s a boon to Madison Avenue because it gives advertisers a better sense of who’s viewing their commercials and also allows them to better understand how effective their spots are in convincing people to buy their products.

Viacom chief data officer Kern Schireson says the level of insight is so precise that the company can tell automobile advertisers what percentage of some 10 million viewers exposed to a particular commercial will show up at a dealership and buy a car. “It allows us to demonstrate the link between the power of TV to shape hearts and minds and the point at which that influence delivers impact,” he explains.

Despite that kind of insight, most data gurus are quick to stress that technology can only take the content business so far. It’s not a substitute for a writer with a novel idea or a filmmaker with a unique vision.

“It’s not going to replace the instincts of a programmer,” Schireson says. “We’ve put our programmers in Iron Man’s suit to make them stronger. But Iron Man is only Iron Man because Tony Stark is underneath the metal. That’s where the genius comes in.”