Boxoffice PRO LIVE Sessions: The Art and Science of Box Office Forecasting

Boxoffice LIVE Sessions have brought you information on social media, sanitation, movie theater tech… and, last week, experts from Universal Pictures in France, Sony Pictures in Spain, and our own Boxoffice PRO gathered to break down the how’s and why’s of box office forecasting—put simply, predicting how much a movie is going to make during its theatrical run.

First, the whys: box office forecasting can help a studio make decisions relating to print formats, electronic delivery, and release date strategy. The how’s are a lot more complex.

As laid out by LIVE Session co-host Romeo Duchene of The Boxoffice Company, the process of box office forecasting begins long before a movie’s release—in many cases, before anything more than basic information like title, director, or star is available. [Editor’s Note: The Boxoffice Company is Boxoffice PRO’s parent company.] As soon as any information is available, says Rafael Otermin, business development manager at Sony Pictures Spain, “we are beginning to think about what’s going to happen”—taking into account factors like star power, genre, and what other films are on the calendar around the same time. 

“Our first thought is to optimize the potential of the release by reducing the risk of failure,” explains Julien Bernard, business analyst manager at Universal Pictures International Entertainment. “Our second thought is to leverage on the elements we receive—maybe just a title or a director. Based on this information, we need to adapt our strategy to the local environment.”

As more information begins to trickle in—say some teaser photos or a trailer—box office analysts begin to hone their forecasts. A huge asset here, says Boxoffice PRO chief analyst Shawn Robbins, is social media. Especially if a film is based off pre-existing IP, fans often take to social media to share their enthusiasm (or trepidation) for a film before a trailer is released. Robbins uses as an example Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, slated for release in the U.S. on December 18. “We don’t have a trailer for that yet. But it is a film that is based on IP. The book itself is over 50 years old, or close to it. There has been a previous film. There’s been different mini series [and] other sequel novels. So there is a fan base out there that talks about it, and we can observe something like that on social media.”

The social media factor is “even more prominent,” Robbins argues, for a franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For example, even if most moviegoers aren’t hugely familiar with the characters and storylines The Eternals (slated for February 2021) is based on, the film is still the subject of social media chatter from the fanbase Marvel has built up over the past decade-plus. And social media itself has to be analyzed—new platforms rise as others fade, and demographics shift over time. “Twitter, over the years, has probably been the most consistent,” while Facebook has begun to skew towards “a little bit more of an older demographic, probably more like 40 or 50…. The younger social media users have migrated to other platforms. That’s one of the things we have to monitor over the years is: Where these audiences are and what they’re using.”

On top of that, social media reaction isn’t necessarily indicative of eventual performance. “Maybe there are some haters, or some extra powerful fans that maybe [create] an unfocused image of what is going to happen,” argues Otermin. Robbins recalls the backlash that surrounded the release of Aladdin’s first trailer, with social media users roundly criticizing the look of Will Smith’s genie character. “But then that movie comes out and beats every expectation and stays in theaters pretty much all summer.” 

Even with a deep knowledge of the industry and numerous data points at their disposal, Otermin says, the forecaster’s job isn’t a science—there’s no button you can push to tell you how much a film will make. The closest the forecaster can come is by utilizing “comps,” or comparable titles.

Bernard used as an example looking at Dunkirk, American Sniper, and The Darkest Hour to predict 1917’s box office performance—specifically, using The Boxoffice’s Company organic audience tracking tool to keep an eye on interest from potential moviegoers in the weeks surrounding the film’s release. “Tracking is an important part of our forecasting. We start with tracking maybe eight to 12 weeks before release. Tracking allows us to measure the efficiency of a marketing campaign,” he explains.  “1917 started below American Sniper and Dunkirk, but with time the interest became bigger and bigger. [By] the end, we were just below Dunkirk and American Sniper. … So [organic tracking] gives you a real photo of where you are supposed to finish.”

Audience tracking information—being able to see, as Bernard explains, whether a film’s marketing campaign connects with customers—is key in the months leading up to a film’s release. But there are other factors at play that shift from market to market. In Italy, explains Otermin, people don’t tend to go to theaters in the summer, whereas in Spain mid-July and August are high-traffic months. But even within those months, be careful of scheduling your films to coincide with a major sporting event—no matter how big the film is, Otermin says, a big soccer match is “something that is going to be move the entire cinemagoing” population away from the theater. Weather, too, is key: “In Spain, everybody wants to be outside,” and on a given weekend you can generally guess where it rained by looking at regions where moviegoing numbers were particularly high. 

The number of showtimes a movie gets is “generally important” when it comes to forecasting its opening weekend, Robbins explains, but you shouldn’t take it into account too much. “Say, if we see a big film getting X number of screens with X number of showtimes, [that’s] based on [the] expectation” of how much money it will make—which means that turning around saying the number of showtimes means it will make that much money turns the whole thing into a chicken-and-egg situation.  “Further out from release, especially when presales start to kick up—at that point, anybody selling tickets and assigning showtimes is going to have a really good read on the demand. So it can be useful to watch at that point, I would say.”

Another piece of information that typically comes out in the weeks or days leading up to a film’s release: reviews. While they can have an impact—positive or negative—on word of mouth, affecting a film’s holdovers in the weeks after its release, both Oterim and Robbins caution against letting critical consensus impact forecasting too much. “If you rely only on those kinds of things, maybe it’s going to give you a blurry image of what is going to happen in the end,” Oterim says. “The audience is sovereign [when it comes to box office numbers]…. In the end, [moviegoers] are the ones that are going to make your holdover longer or shorter.” Robbins agrees, adding that in certain cases “the fan community of a certain franchise will flock to a movie rating website to either give [a film] positive reviews or negative reviews, skew[ing] the perception of that film entirely.” 

The release of a given film—first in previews, then to the general audience—doesn’t mean it’s time to set your forecasting numbers in stone. Bernard recalls the previews of Despicable Me in France—while they were “not strong,” the “end of the story”  is that the “Minions and everything [that] come with them are now part of pop culture.” Otermin reflects on the opening weekend of The Adventures of Tintin: A “very weak Friday, and we said, ‘Oh my God, this is not what we were expecting.’ And then, on Saturday, there was a compete jump. And it was because animation titles in Spain work extremely well on Saturdays, more than Fridays or even Sundays. That’s the point: Things can be tricky in the beginning.”

“Tricky” about describes the forecasting situation now, as with the changing situation around the COVID-19 pandemic it’s possible for film releases to shift radically on any given day. Still, while Bernard and Oterim believe that presales and online tales will become ever more important in the coming months, Bernard is unsure what impact the current situation will have on box office forecasting. “You have to have a close look at the calendar, because it’s going to be really close between two blockbusters or big, independent movies.” On the other hand, he notes, there might be a big end of year boost, so “we don’t really know if it’s going to change our forecasting.”

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