CinemaScore in Retreat as Studios Turn to PostTrak

5:00 AM PST 10/18/2013 by Pamela McClintock
Illustration by: Skip Sterling

The upstart polling service from RenTrak and Screen Engine threatens a three-decade monopoly on grading Hollywood movies.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the gritty drama Prisoners received a B+ CinemaScore on its opening night in September, the grade didn't make sense to Warner Bros. So the studio went back to the research firm, which for three decades has surveyed Friday moviegoers, and asked for a recount. By Sunday morning (and in time for media calls), Warner Bros. was reporting an A- CinemaScore.

The unprecedented redo irked rival studios and came at a critical juncture for CinemaScore, whose influential letter grades of moviegoer sentiment have been criticized for relying on outdated polling techniques and too limited a sample. Insiders say CinemaScore even apologized when box-office smash Gravity received an A-, saying it should have polled only 3D showings instead of a 2D-3D mix (Gravity is playing like an A+ movie).

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At the same time, box-office tracking service Rentrak and partner Screen Engine have been testing PostTrak, a real-time, in-theater polling service that begins at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon and runs through a film's second weekend. As Hollywood scrambles to assess moviegoers' shifting habits, PostTrak presents perhaps the biggest challenge ever to CinemaScore, which has been the industry standard for assessing a film's "playability," or whether word of mouth will help or hurt it. For instance, an A+ CinemaScore signaled that The Blind Side and The Help were headed for long and profitable runs. F scores are rare -- Brad Pitt's violent crime drama Killing Them Softly joined the club last year -- and, in fact, anything in the C range (sorry, Runner Runner) is considered failing (except for horror films).

Ed Mintz founded CinemaScore in 1979 and today runs the company with his son, Harold, out of their suburban Las Vegas home. Every Friday, they dispatch pollsters to about five theaters around the country. By 11 p.m., studio clients who pay between $30,000 and $50,000 for annual subscriptions receive a report listing the grade, along with a demographic breakdown by age and the main reason each moviegoer turned out.

PostTrak, by contrast, polls 20 theaters in diverse markets across the country. Rather than a grade, the service provides more detailed demo information, including an audience's ethnic breakdown. It also probes a film's marketing campaign and whether trailers, TV ads or social media helped lure someone to the theater. (Rentrak won't reveal the cost of a subscription.) Screen Engine's Kevin Goetz, who ran test screenings for years for the studios, is the architect of PostTrak.

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"That information is invaluable," says Paul Dergarabedian, who recently joined Rentrak as a box-office analyst. "A studio can be much more informed in terms of what kinds of movies they release and their marketing strategy. Just having a score and an age doesn't tell you much."

Mintz says he isn't worried. "We are a studio company. I know PostTrak exists, but that's it," he tells THR. "I can't compare it to CinemaScore."

Rentrak and Screen Engine are coy about which studios have signed on, but one known client is The Weinstein Co. Insiders say 20th Century Fox, Universal and Sony aren't far behind, if they haven't subscribed already. And sources say Universal quietly dropped CinemaScore last year.

One distribution exec complains that CinemaScore is outdated. "The methodology hasn't changed in years and the sampling is too small. They are sort of yesterday's news," he says. "PostTrak is far superior and a much more thorough product."

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But longtime Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman disagrees: "It gives you good direction on how your movie is playing, and to whom. For years, we've been doing our own research, and it is very close to CinemaScore results." Chris Aronson, distribution head of 20th Century Fox, says CinemaScore remains a valuable poll, but adds that PostTrak is "looking great. The market size is four times bigger, and it gives a very thorough snapshot."

Most studios could end up using both services, but Rentrak's Steve Buck cautions, "Without this, a studio is flying blind."

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