William Goldman once famously said in his insider look at Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, ‘Nobody knows anything... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.’
Movies are big business, and big money is spent on trying to find a box office hit. The number of other industries that spend the sort of exorbitant sums the film industry spends based so much on guess work could be counted on one hand. The film industry may have seen many massive successes, with films like The Avengers and Avatar grossing well in excess of a billion dollars, but it has also seen a number of cataclysmic failures. Keunu Reeves’ 2013 bomb 47 Ronin lost roughly $150 million, while critics' ‘favourite’ John Carter lost in excess of $100 million. And the impact for studios can be devastating. Cutthroat Island, Carolco Pictures’ bombastic pirate adventure, tanked so colossally in 1995 that it put the studio out of business. Interestingly, Carolco is making a comeback this year, embracing the trend for 90’s nostalgia.
Predicting whether or not a film is going to be a hit is an exceptionally imprecise science. Analytics have had a massive impact across a range of industries, but such is the nature of the film industry that most are sceptical as to their potential applicability - especially at the early investment stage. However, as the market gets tighter and more competitive, and studios rely increasingly on their blockbusters to carry their less profitable films, they are looking at analytics to predict the box office success of a film at earlier and earlier stages.
Social media analytics in particular is helping studios to judge how to go about marketing a film. Wilson Raj, global customer intelligence director for SAS, notes that: 'Social is just another stream of unstructured data to us. We see it as an opportunity and challenge to integrate it with other business insights such as web behaviors, campaign interactions and purchase histories.' This philosophy is now being widely applied.
Fizziology is one company data-mining social media to predict how a film goes down with audiences. Fizziology uses a number of different metrics to evaluate the sentiment towards a movie. These range from the more obvious, such as how many times a film is mentioned, to deeper metrics such as the demographic of those mentioning the film and what other topics are being mentioned in conjunction with it.
Pitch Perfect is one example of their methods being successful. Having been asked by Universal to analyze how the film was being discussed on social media, analysts at the marketing firm discovered that, rather than drawing positive remarks predominantly from a female audience with an interest in its supposed spiritual cousin Glee, as had been expected, they found that it was actually males showing an interest - mainly college students, and mainly not Glee fans. They found that people were referencing certain characters, such as ‘Fat Amy’, and that people were already widely quoting the film, suggesting that it had a good chance of becoming a cult hit. This allowed Universal to change its pre-release strategy for the film, which they did with great success.
The use of analytics is not just limited to Hollywood. The world’s biggest film industry, Bollywood, is also getting in on the act. IBM has applied analytics models to a number of Bollywood films, looking at social media to build what it calls a social sentiment index (SSI). SSI revealed a number of things about which films would be successful, including the high probability that films with a political bent would do well. By adopting such techniques, studios may even be able to get an idea of how successful a film will be from conception. While it could be argued that this will hamper creativity in the movie industry and neuter risk taking, it is also the case that studios need blockbusters to pay for a large percentage of their films, and the better the chance they have of success, the more small films they will be able to afford to take a chance on.