How Data Drives Studio Decisions as Much as Gut Instinct in Netflix Era

TheGrill 2018: “You want to start knowing and having less guessing to keep the business healthy,” 20th Century Fox’s Julie Rieger says

Data is driving studio decisions just as much as instinct in the era of Netflix and other streaming services, according to studio executives.

Paramount Motion Picture Group president Wyck Godfrey, IMAX Chief Marketing Officer JL Pomeroy and 20th Century Fox chief data strategist & head of media Julie Rieger spoke about the future of movies and marketing strategies at TheWrap’s annual media conference TheGrill, which took place at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2.

“You’ve gotta have both,” Rieger said when asked about finding a balance between gut instinct and data. “You can’t let one thing ever rule… you have to be able to look at things and say, ‘I think we have to take a chance.’ In the end, it’s all about humans — data gives humans more information.”

“I think that insight is the part that people sometimes overlook when it comes to data,” added Pomeroy. “There’s also that extra insight piece of what you actually do with the data. Sometimes, you ignore the data, and sometimes, it helps you coil your thinking.”

Specifically, Rieger spoke about the studio’s data analysis when developing “The Greatest Showman,” which Hugh Jackman fought to get on the big screen for seven years. When evaluating comparative movies, they realized people didn’t want to see a movie about P.T. Barnum. Instead, they wanted to see a movie about “loving the unlovable” and “the underdogs.”

“Of course, when you are direct to consumer, you can look and see, what are they watching. We all get very drunk on our talent and filmmakers, so we started using the data from a directional standpoint about what customers were saying,” said Rieger. “This is storytelling, this is understanding. If we don’t start understanding our customers, we may be making the wrong stuff, we may be marketing the wrong way, or have it right, but you want to start knowing and having less guessing to keep the business healthy. We’re using data to help us navigate the shifting sands as we go down the marketing path.”

Netflix, which is known to collect a lot of data about its consumers, has been categorized as both a competitor as well as a distribution partner for major studios. Paramount Pictures, for example, partnered on releases like “Annihilation” and “Cloverfield Paradox” with the streaming service. Godfrey said that Netflix is a great platform for films that deserve to be seen, but maybe don’t deserve the millions of marketing budgets.

“There are stories I love that I don’t feel are theatrical,” he explained. “There are situations where I read a script and I love it but I don’t believe it’s worth $100 million of marketing spend and the returns won’t benefit the studio and yet, I want to see it on screen, so we’ll go to Netflix. If they want it, I’ll help them facilitate it.”

In recent years, there has been talk that streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are negatively impacting theatrical distribution, and that the traditional moviegoing experience, as well as legacy media conglomerates, is being pushed out in a crowded landscape. However, Godfrey, Pomeroy and Rieger don’t agree.

“In this age of everyone being in their screen, swiping and being solo on social media, I think there’s a craving for shared experiences more than ever,” Pomeroy said. “The movie business is actually thriving — we’re actually on fire and exciting things are to come!”

“I think there are a lot of people out there who love going to the movie theater and love having communal experiences of stories in an environment that increases their emotional involvement in the story,” added Godfrey. “I’ve always found it a kind of church, a place I like to go to, to feel the most deeply. There’s a place at home for consuming content, and there’s a place for consuming content in a more communal environment.”

Rieger concluded, “I hope this industry doesn’t end in three years because if we sit at home with muted emotions, that’s not a really great life.”