One of the distinct benefits of tracking social media for all major theatrical releases is that it allows us to spot trends and nuances within the data that help us draw conclusions about entire genres, seasons, and stars. The flip side, however, is that the social media landscape is constantly changing, which can call into question those very same conclusions.
What is often the most difficult to wrap our heads around is that pre-release demand for films fluctuates. Four weeks out, tracking might suggest that a film will open to $20 million; if it then actually makes $10 million on release, it doesn’t necessarily mean tracking was off. It could mean that another variable changed—whether it be competition from another film, the weather, or early critical reviews—and affected the audience’s desire to see the film.
Over the past seven years, our team at BoxofficePro.com has come up with various social media markers that greatly help predict grosses as far out as possible—you could call it a secret sauce—that have become the cornerstones of our long-range forecasts. These include, but are not limited to: expansion ratios in the weeks leading up to release, genre and target audience, and sentiment.
Expansion of (or an increase in) both tweets and likes in the weeks leading up to release is a great marker of the public’s awareness of a given film. Simply put, this is a way to measure a film’s buzz on social media, and it tells us whether that buzz has effected a film’s bottom line at the box office. This is especially useful for films that have a built-in audience, such as book adaptations or star vehicles. These types of films have a very vocal, often relatively small base of fans (often referred as “fanboys”), who inflate buzz in their anticipation of the release.
The hallmark of these types of films is a weak expansion from four, three, or two weeks out up to their week of release—a marker that generally indicates a film’s difficulty in expanding beyond its core audience. Examples of this include Tomorrowland, which had a four-week ratio of 1.64 (measured Monday to Sunday) ahead of its release. That is to say, it only saw 1.63 times the number of tweets in the four weeks leading to its debut. Other examples include In the Heart of the Sea (1.96), Point Break (1.97), and Ted 2 (2.31). On the other end of the spectrum, we saw promising early buzz in the same metric for vastly more successful films such as Mad Max: Fury Road (24.78), The Visit (21.73), and Jurassic World (16.35).
It’s also important to understand genre and target audience before social media numbers begin to make sense. Films can behave very differently according to their genres, mostly because of demographics and their respective social media usage patterns. For instance, a film appealing primarily to young kids will have less buzz than a teen-friendly coming-of-age story—fortunately, eight-year-olds don’t have a particularly strong social media presence.
For the ease of comparison, we attach numeric values to the opening grosses of a film and its number of likes or tweets leading up to release. Then by grouping together films of similar genres and considering their averages, we see a clear pattern start to emerge. For instance, horror films tend to have the greatest number of tweets for each box office dollar (often 20,000 tweets for each $1 million in box office revenue for its Monday to Sunday release-week totals), while films targeting older males and families generally have the lowest (under 3,000 tweets per $1 million). Knowing these trends helps us spot hits and misses well ahead of time; it’s rarely ever a good sign if a horror flick has poor social media numbers, whereas if a family film is posting huge numbers over and above similar competition, it’s most likely reaching outside its main demographic—always a good sign ahead of release.
Lastly, sentiment involves looking specifically at the positive and negative tweets for a new release. This can give useful insight into how well its trailers are received by audiences in real time. It is also a marker of how trailers were received across the life of the marketing for a film, letting us see if progress is being made on improving sentiment. A good example is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which had 5 to 1 positive to negative sentiment for its first trailer last July. That doubled to 10 to 1 by the release of its final trailer ahead of an extremely successful opening weekend. Since its release, however, sentiment has fallen to an average of below 5, which anticipated the film’s drop-off in subsequent weekends.
No one metric is ever a silver bullet, and that certainly applies to those listed above. A well-timed promotional interview can artificially inflate a film’s social media buzz, while quantifiable elements such as screen counts or unpredictable factors like inclement weather can override the conclusions reached from months of pre-release tracking. Overall, however, the markers discussed in this article are important complements to the insights derived from our team of analysts at BoxofficePro.com.