Box Office Projections: Is Tracking Becoming Unreliable?

by F.

Variety has a story about how tracking polls aren’t yielding accurate predictions of box office receipts. Here’s the problem:

with the tracking data, studios have mistargeted ad budgets and have been pummeled in the media. Two weeks before its release, Universal’s “The Break Up” posted such dismal tracking numbers that some Internet bloggers had all but dismissed the picture’s prospects. More recently, tracking addicts were caught off-guard by the success of “The Devil Wears Prada,” which managed a strong opening despite the bow of “Superman Returns” on the same weekend.

The pre-opening numbers for the “The Break Up:”

A month before its bow, a blogger for got ahold of the raw numbers in the latest tracking polls. Noting that 30% of people polled had a “definite interest” in seeing the film, and only 5% said it was their “first choice” to see that weekend, the blogger asserted “the game is pretty much over” for the pic.

A few days later, the New York Post’s Page Six picked up on the blog and predicted that Aniston would have serious career problems after the weak opening. And the impression that “The Break-Up” was “in trouble” quickly spread.

When the pic opened June 2, it earned $39 million, well above the mid-20s range the tracking firms were predicting. Since then, it has taken in more than $112 million domestically.

Why aren’t the tracking polls accurate any more? Some possible explanations:

Methodology. Since traditional tracking relies on phone polls, it cannot reach the younger, tech-savvier types who have abandoned their land lines. Other methods, including online surveys meant to get around that problem, are being tried but the newer techniques raise their own reliability issues.

Demographics. With more movies depending on niche audiences, the old technique of breaking the movie audience into quadrants (male/female, over/under age 25) may be too imprecise a measurement. Studios also complain that movies that appeal to, for instance, ethnic minorities don’t track as well as other pics.

Genre. Romantic comedies and kidpics are notoriously difficult to measure in tracking. Pics like “The Devil Wears Prada” may not win many male fans in tracking polls, but can go on to cross over gender lines.

Personnel. The audience research firms are going through something of a generational shift since NRG founder Joseph Farrell segued to a production deal at Disney in 2002. Tracking now is in the hands of a new group of execs.

Some speculation:

“The media consumer has changed so dramatically that to track people just based on demographics misses a large spread of what’s going on,” Bruzzese says. “You can look at two males under 25 and they’ll be completely different. One is into sports and the other is a high school senior into literary things.”

Seems consistent with the long tail economy hypothesis. The entire Variety article is here. (Not sure if it’s free or not).