Summer Box Office: How Movie Tracking Went Off the Rails

Jurassic World Still 7 - H 2015
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jurassic World Still 7 - H 2015

Projections said 'Jurassic World' would do 60 percent of what it made opening weekend. 'Terminator: Genisys' fell short by 25 percent. Meanwhile, poorly reviewed movies tanked as Twitter buzz and Rotten Tomatoes destroyed careful marketing campaigns and execs began to question prerelease surveys: "Maybe we need to re-examine the methodology."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Summer 2015 will go down as the box-office season of the haves and have-nots. Universal, which until this year had not released a billion-dollar-grossing film, opened three from April through July (Furious 7, Jurassic World and Minions). Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and Sony — the former kings of warm-weather hits — suffered a mostly chilly summer. The season's lone constant was that tracking, the prerelease radar of the movie business, malfunctioned weekend after weekend, appearing altogether broken. Summer domestic box-office revenue may hit $4.48 billion, making it the second-biggest summer of all time after 2013 ($4.8 billion), but it was an especially bumpy ride.

A slew of films opened to a third or half of what prerelease tracking suggested despite pricey marketing campaigns. Jurassic World, on the other hand, flew clear past domestic opening-weekend forecasts of $125 million. The lack of predictability can strain a studio's relationship with talent and prompt internal finger-pointing as to what went wrong.

Tracking has become increasingly unreliable during the age of social media, when poor reviews and buzz can derail even the most carefully calculated marketing campaign. But insiders say the problem has reached a tipping point. "This was a summer completely designed by reviews and word-of-mouth," says Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of worldwide distribution and marketing. "I would actually hear people in the grocery store talking about Rotten Tomatoes scores."

Indeed, many titles that failed to reach tracking projections had poor scores on review-aggregation sites. Paramount and Skydance's Terminator: Genisys was expected to clear $55 million during the five-day July 4 holiday; instead, Genisys, with a 26 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, opened to a disappointing $42.5 million. Warners was blindsided repeatedly as Entourage, Magic Mike XXL, Vacation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and We Are Your Friends came in well behind tracking. None was particularly well received. Fox's Fantastic Four, savaged by reviews and its director's own tweet, lagged far behind initial tracking.

The opposite was true for movies with strong marks on Rotten Tomatoes, including Trainwreck (85 percent "fresh"), Straight Outta Compton (90 percent) and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (93 percent). Each came in well ahead of projections. Universal and Paramount promoted Rotten Tomatoes scores rather than individual critics in ads for Trainwreck and Rogue, respectively, a Hollywood first. "There is a point where traditional tracking can't tell you everything anymore because of word-of-mouth," says Universal domestic distribution chief Nicholas Carpou. Adds Fox domestic distribution head Chris Aronson: "We're seeing these wide swings because of immediacy of social media. Maybe we need to re-examine the methodology."

The main authority in tracking remains the National Research Group. MarketCast is another trusted firm, but on a smaller scale. (Both declined comment.) The two companies' main focus is testing marketing materials months and weeks out, although it is tracking that generates the headlines. NRG and MarketCast have changed their process during recent years, using the web and mobile phones to survey consumers rather than land lines. Now, facing pressure from studios, they intend to make more tweaks. For example, both survey only avid moviegoers, defined as those who attend six to eight films a year. But casual moviegoers could be more important than previously thought. "That's where the surprises come in, like Jurassic World," says a studio research executive. NRG is considering incorporating reviews into its final prerelease surveys.

"The inherent flaw with tracking is that they are using it to come up with a number to satisfy this need studios have to guesstimate what a movie will open to, but the unpredictability of the social conversation can change your fortunes," says Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak, which in 2013 launched the social listening service PreAct, which can monitor a film a year out.

The hard lesson of the summer is that neither tracking, testing marketing materials nor social listening can capture word-of-mouth on opening night. Says Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis, "You don't have the luxury anymore of bad buzz not being immediately known."

Below is a look at which films and studios fared best. Since the summer box-office frame, commencing May 1, doesn't officially end until Sept. 7 (Labor Day), final numbers aren't yet in.

Sept. 7, 6:30 a.m. Updated with revised summer revenue estimate.

Box Office Numbers