How Social Media Is Revolutionizing the Flailing Movie Tracking Industry

How Social Media Is Revolutionizing the Flailing Movie Tracking Industry

It's not just a matter of "likes" and retweets — several market-research firms are shaking up the way they track how potential moviegoers are responding to upcoming films

A dismal summer for box-office tracking — with estimates for big studio films like "The Great Gatsby," "World War Z" and "The Wolverine" falling badly off the mark — has caused a mounting sense in the industry that movie tracking is in dire need of an overhaul.

Enter social media.

More than two decades after National Research Group first revolutionized the prediction game, a new player is poised to step up to the plate. 

And it's not just a matter of all those "likes," "shares" and retweets, which don't necessarily translate into actual ticket sales.

Several market-research firms are shaking up the way they track how potential moviegoers respond to upcoming films.

And it's happening just in the nick of time.

Also read: Online Movie Chat Translates to Ticket Buying in Big Way, Survey Finds

"We're going to look back on this as the summer that traditional tracking died," BoxOffice.com editor-in-chief Phil Contrino told TheWrap. (It's worth noting that Contrino has a horse in the race, as his company puts out a daily report on social-media activity surrounding soon-to-be released movies.)

Of course, tweets and other forms of online interaction come with certain caveats.

While it's true that the snide remarks on social media in the lead-up to "Lone Ranger" led some box-office analysts to alter their predictions downward, other films — especially genre products like "Pacific Rim" — generated massive enthusiasm from the Twitter set without attracting comparable crowds. 

Also read: 'Pacific Rim' Proves You Can’t Take Fanboy Buzz to the Box-Office Bank

But that is changing. In 2009, roughly 33 percent of adults age 35 to 54 were using social networking to find information. Today, that number has climbed to 51 percent, according to Kristen Simmons, senior vice president of Worldwide Motion Picture Group.

Worldwide Motion Picture Group is one of the companies overhauling its tracker. Its approach is two-fold: It will soon begin monitoring social networks 24 weeks before a film hits theaters, instead of a month in advance, as many firms do.

It's also sharpening questions it asks in surveys and focus groups so it can find a deeper correlation between when moviegoers say they intend to see a film and how much that manifests itself in actual ticket-buying.

Also read: The Summer's 6 Biggest Payoffs – and 5 Biggest Bombs

Silicon Valley is eager to prove it can help. Google, for example, released a study last June that found that searches for movies — and especially trailers — can help predict box-office performance with 94 percent accuracy.

Other relatively new players are embracing social media even more aggressively.

Marketing firms Penn Schoen Berland, which runs the tracking service Reel Pulse, and Fizziology gather much of their data from social media, then analyze it using many of the same processes traditional trackers do to make their projections. 

Also read: 'The Purge' Surges on Social Media Ahead of Friday Debut

Fizziology says it already has tracked more than 500 films since launching in 2009, mixing up the volume of social-media discussions while also taking into account factors like the time of year a film debuts, the number of screens it will show on and the competition it will face.

"Any movie can look great or horrible in isolation; it’s who you are lining up against that matters," Ben Carlson, co-creator of Fizziology, told TheWrap. "You have to make adjustment for context."

He also believes it's critical to capture information about more niche films, as well as the younger-oriented blockbusters. "While it’s true that more mature-skewing films don’t get the same amount of social-media activity, there is still plenty to be drawn from what is there," Carlson said.

Also read: Google Says Search, Ad Data Predict Box-Office Performance 

Reel Pulse offers tracking eight weeks before the release of a film, believing that critical signs coming that early don’t require a lot of analysis. A teaser trailer for “Despicable Me 2” in March of 2012, for example, generated more than 60 million views. That animated film went on to become the most profitable in Universal's history when it opened on July 3.

Penn Schoen Berland also believes there's more for studios to learn in social media than just what's box-office bait. "It's a tactical tool that can allow studios to improve your marketing campaign in real time,"Jon Penn, president of media and entertainment at Penn Schoen Berland, told TheWrap. 

The only stumbling block may be the rapid pace of change.

"Something that works in February may not in March," Kris Longfield, director of fanthropology at the now-defunct Cimarron Group, added. "Because the evolution is happening so fast, that there's no such thing as a stable algorithm." 

For the record: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jon Penn as president of Reel Pulse instead of Penn Schoen Berland.