Tracking Movies: Hype in Hollywood

A couple of days ago, I was reading an article about Pacific Rim, a film we worked on that’s being released this weekend, only to learn that it had been tracking abysmally. projects a $41M opening for Pacific Rim second to Grown Ups 2. Forbes reported around $30M. Both are bad when you take into account that Pacific Rim probably cost around $200M to produce before print and advertising (P&A). For every dollar spent on production, studios spend an additional 51-58 cents on average to release and market a film in the United States and Canada according to Baseline Intelligence.

“What is tracking?” you ask. Good question.

In the Forbes article I mentioned earlier, Scott Mendelson defines tracking as “a way to measure the effectiveness of a marketing campaign and/or possibly signal where and how additional marketing dollars should be spent.” The tough part being where and how to allocate ad spend (see: attribution problems).

In any case, tracking works to gauge audience interest in a movie.

For distributors and movie marketers, the not-so-fun-part is that once you near a release date and reach the point of no return, there are no second chances to regroup or reposition a movie. Two examples off the top of my head of campaigns gone awry include Green Zone and, more recently, John Carter. Green Zone made about $15M in its debut weekend. How did it fare after? Not great. Marketing fizzled out, and the movie yielded a tepid $20M through its theatrical run for a domestic total of $35M on a $150M budget. The kicker: Matt Damon passed on a role in Avatar to make this film. John Carter proved to be an epic disaster for Disney when it yielded $282M worldwide on a $250M production budget. Why? Because no one knew anything about the film.

“How is tracking done?”

In part, through pre-release surveys and focus groups. I can’t find specific metrics currently used in forecast modeling for box office numbers, but I imagine it’s based on parameters like demand, market testing, ticket prices, number of exhibitors, rating, screening reviews, marketing/advertising budgets, etc.

Last month, Google announced that by measuring search volume, franchise status, time of year and other factors, it can predict a movie’s opening weekend with 92% accuracy. Wikipedia boasts high accuracy as well taking into account: page traffic, edits, links, etc., but Hollywood is less than impressed.

Kind of surprisingly (to me at least) is that social media isn’t a very good standard to use when testing the water whether that be for predicting box office numbers or award show winners. Dr. William J. Ward found that if Facebook were used to decide best picture at the 85th Academy Awards®, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (40M likes) would’ve won by a landslide. The same would be true if follower count on Twitter had been used. Is it a good thing the Academy isn’t run by tweens? I’m undecided.

But what strikes me as insane is that with exception to brand new releases (tracked here via seven-day-results and not weekend to weekend), every other movie is down at the box office. Monsters University, World War Z, Man of Steel, etc., each is losing steam, and will continue to do week by week, but the general outlook for Pacific Rim remains bleak despite early positive reception.

Grown Ups 2 is its big competitor as it’s the only other movie with a wide theatrical release this weekend. Its predecessor, Grown Ups, raked in $270M worldwide despite less than stellar reviews. Its greatest strength was its sheer star power, featuring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Steve Buscemi, Norm MacDonald, Tim Meadows, etc. The sequel has gone down the same vein boasting twice as many new celebrities (sans Schneider) that range from Taylor Lautner to Shaq to the Lonely Island and so on.

The only thing is that Grown Ups 2 is holding steady at a 7% on with 55 reviews, only four of which is positive. projects a $47M opening, but I’m not so sure. The Lone Ranger had a 20% approval rating this time last week, and it debuted to the tune of $29M. Granted, there are going to be people who buy in knowing full well what to expect but $47M?

“What does any of this mean?” I’m glad you asked.

A few months ago, I was reading about a major production that was plagued with setbacks. Described as “a nightmare from top to bottom,” it lacked any semblance of clear creative direction, was over budgeted, behind schedule and already in need of extensive reshoots. The problems seemed to never end, which more or less culminated in one very public setback where a Hungarian counter terrorism unit confiscated 85 prop guns on a location shoot.

If you haven’t guessed, the movie was World War Z. Early on, it looked like it was dead in the water. The bad press surrounding the film led to a consensus that it was unlikely to take in more than $55M in its opening and less likely to recoup its production costs in the long-run.

World War Z opened at $66.4M and has since earned $165M domestically and $207M abroad for a total of $373M worldwide. I mean, come on. It’s Brad Pitt vs. zombies, two things moviegoers around the world love.

Part of me thinks that Pacific Rim might do spectacular just for the fact that the premise is centered squarely on giant robots punching monsters that threaten the existence of humanity right in the face. And from what I’ve seen, fans will shell out cash to see gratuitous giant robot violence. That said, I also think it’s possible that Guillermo del Toro et al. set the standard for the genre moving forward. So in my mind, projected openings mean very little.

After the dust settles, what do you think box office numbers correspond to? Quality or hype? Tell us in the comment section below. 

Photo Credit:,, Filmcrithulk