How do you predict a box office bomb versus a blockbuster triumph? It’s the oldest question in Hollywood, and anyone who has a real answer has got the golden ticket. Now, realistically, nobody does – it can never be that simple, right? So instead, what studios are stuck with is a mix of factors – critical reception, audience response, and good old-fashioned timing and marketing. But as it becomes easier and easier to synthesize all these competing collections of data into a single whole, the question appears a bit easier to answer. In this blog post I’m going to compare two methods of evaluating a movie’s quality and the degree to which that data can predict success at the box office.
The first tool I’ll take a look at is “Cinemascore”, run by an independent market research company based out of Las Vegas. Operating since 1978, this company polls moviegoer reaction to theatrical releases with a very simple survey that gauges their overall impression of the movie (F to A+) and their likelihood to buy or rent the movie afterwards. Cinemascore prides itself for “establishing the simplest, most effective, and most reliable means of gauging audience response”. No tech, no frills, and most importantly, no critics – this is purely the immediate audience response.
One look at recent Cinemascore calculations and one thing becomes clear: if you grading below a B, something has gone horribly wrong. The vast majority of films grade in the B- to A range, signifying that most audience goers are either easily entertained, or generally know what movies they’re going to like when they head to the theater. So the real appeal of Cinemascore is looking at the extremes: as Matt talked about in his presentation on online reviews, often people revert to the stark negative or positive. If someone isn’t even willing to give a movie a B-, it might as well be an F. It has become a scarlet letter to receive the dreaded “F” from Cinemascore, an “honor” that has been granted to only 19 films in the entire history of the site. As an aside, Cinemascore slams some critically acclaimed movies: Darren Aronfosky’s “Mother”, released in 2017 and with a fresh 69% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of the films to receive the dreaded F. Another example: the 2012 crime thriller “Killing Them Softly”, a 74% on RT, also scored an F. But a bust is a bust, whether it’s 2009’s “Land of the Lost” (a C+) making $68 million on a $100 million budget or Mother (F) with $45 million on a $30 million budget. There are a lot of factors at play here, whether it’s poor marketing, lack of star power, or a movie that just plain stinks. But whatever the cause, the scores are good at predicting the “box office multiplier”, or the total box office gross divided by opening weekend gross – a measure of the film’s staying power with audiences. At the other extreme, films earning an A+, most recently achieved by Marvel’s “Black Panther”, are almost uniformly blockbuster hits, with high gross and high multipliers.
It should also be said that Cinemascore can help us look past the sometimes-reactionary backlash that hits some major films. “The Last Jedi” created controversy among Star Wars fans, reflected by a scathing 48% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, but Cinemascore tells a different story, giving it a solid A rating. And it doesn’t take a lot of research to see that “Last Jedi” made quite a bit at the box office. The people that Cinemascore surveys may or may not tuned in to the internet politics of movie criticism and fanboyism, but that’s probably helpful in the long run. Cinemascore’s methods may be rooted in the past, but it’s easy to see why it’s still looked to as the gold standard.
But how about some of the newer tools of the trade? Let’s take a look now at Metacritic, a review aggregator that allows for both critic and audience reviews. Unlike Rotten Tomatoes, which assigns either a “fresh” or “rotten” rating to each critic review, Metacritic is a raw average for both users and critics, making it a closer analogue to Cinemascore. Metacritic did their own in-house study on critics’ ability to predict box office success, and their conclusion was eerily similar to that of the Cinemascore.
Once again, the “box office multiplier” effect is very evident. The better films are received critically, the better their multipliers and overall gross. The multipliers also seem relatively consistent with the Cinemascore study, in the same 2 to 4.5 range and with the same upward trend. One difference is towards the very top: whereas the A+ Cinemascore carries with it a dramatic multiple increase, Metascore plateaus a bit earlier. Small sample size could certainly be the culprit here. Critical consensus is obviously a major factor in audience behavior.
It is important to note the distribution difference: whereas the majority of Cinemascore ratings were in the Bs or higher, Metacritic appears to have a far more normal distribution of ratings, with most films falling in the middle of the pack. It’s interesting then that with such different pools of data, Metacritic and Cinemascore reach basically the same conclusion: good movies make money. Hardly seems like a revolutionary concept.
But neither system is perfect, and predictions become hazier when the audiences and critics disagree, which they often do. I mentioned some examples earlier, but how about one from a box office near you? Take “Annihilation”, a movie released just this past weekend: well received by critics with an 80% Metacritic score but rocking an unsightly Cinemascore of C. So far, indicators point to a bomb, another win for the tried and true method of exit polling. The distributors seem to accept this conclusion, as the film is only receiving an official theater release in the U.S. while international markets have to wait to see it exclusively on Netflix (Netflix’s ability to save potential “bombs” is another topic entirely, but I digress).
The age of review aggregators has made it easier than ever to go into a movie with bias entrenched. If the critics or audience liked a movie this much, shouldn’t I like it too? It ties to the “wisdom of crowds” concept that we have talked about at length in class. Assuming a bit of trust in critics, it takes 5 minutes to take a quick look at a movie’s Metascore or RT rating, a move that can save you $15 and your valuable time of a Friday night. It’s no surprise that those scores to an extent can predict box office potential. But Cinemascore’s enduring success is proof that Hollywood shouldn’t leave old methods behind anytime soon. The digital-based methods of the present serve as just another tool in the search for the Holy Grail of box office predictions.