This article was originially published on Den of Geek UK.
The process of marketing a movie is now an operation that lasts many months across all sorts of media, from bus stop posters to social media campaigns, all in pursuit of making sure the movie makes an impact in its opening weekend. Tracking and analytics can give an indication of how audiences are responding before the movie even hits cinemas, but it’s only in that opening weekend, once they’ve actually seen the movie, that you can get a more accurate read on public opinion.
Box office aside, one way in which Hollywood’s studios reads public response after release is Cinemascore, the Las Vegas-based market research firm which conducts nationwide exit polls. Billed as “Hollywood’s Benchmark,” the company’s researchers gather information from filmgoers and the results, expressed as letter grades, are published on their website and in Entertainment Weekly. More importantly to studios, the company also forecasts box office receipts and multiples based on their findings.
Exit polling has taken a larger role in marketing post-release with tweets and quotes from average Joe film fans taking prominence in TV spots and on posters in recent years. We don’t really have anything similar to this in the UK. In the US, however, it can provide important insight into the nebulous and unpredictable realm of word of mouth.
What is Cinemascore?
In 1978, data processor Ed Mintz and his wife went to the cinema to see The Cheap Detective, a wry parody of Humphrey Bogart movies The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. As Mintz told the LA Times in 2009, they weren’t fans.
“We went because the critics had given it good reviews and we all loved [the screenwriter] Neil Simon, but we walked out going, ‘What was that? That wasn’t what we expected at all.’ It’s a problem you still have today, with movies like Funny People, that just didn’t deliver what people expected.”
And so, Cinemascore was founded on the principle that filmgoers should have a public voice for their opinions and developed a direct polling system to measure how films play in their opening weekend.
The company has a number of dedicated teams of pollsters in 25 of the biggest cities across America, and each weekend, they select five cities and one cinema in each of those cities and go out with a goal of collecting between 400 and 600 ballots. Cinemas are selected based on coverage of every film in wide release (upwards of 1,500 screens) released that Friday, at random, so as to reduce any possible demographic bias.
After cinema attendees leave a screening, they’re given a simple ballot card (pictured), which gathers your age and gender, your letter grade from the movie from A plus to F, and your reason for seeing the movie in question. The pollsters collect these ballot cards and report the results back to Cinemascore, which publishes an overall grade each Friday night.
The studios also pay Cinemascore for access to their information, including which cinemas and demographics they have polled. They can also hold free test screenings in advance of a film’s release to get the same sort of information, but that’s not the same as a reckoning with the paying public.
The ballot card is simple enough that it’s hardly been changed since the 1980s, except to add the section about whether the respondent would buy the film and watch it again on DVD, Blu-ray, or OnDemand when the home entertainment market became more of a consideration. This is one way in which the company’s function as a public voice seems to have evolved towards finding out what studios need to know, rather than the consumers.
Six hundred ballots from five cinemas is still a relatively low sample size, but the margin of error is accordingly lower, estimated at six percent by Mintz. Nevertheless, for over 34 years, the system has been effective in taking a temperature reading of a film’s target audience, i.e. the kind of people who would be likely to see it on its opening day.
Why is a Decent or Middling Cinemascore Considered Bad News?
One factor which could skew this survey method is the hype that comes with that aforementioned months-long marketing campaign. In the current era of franchise filmmaking and movies adapted from other sources, people who see a movie like Captain America: Civil War on its opening day are likely to give a great score if it’s any good. Sure enough, Civil War holds an A score.
This is evidenced by the particularly sensitive scale of superhero movies – Cinemascores were recently in the news when Batman v Superman got a B, a score that’s probably less than ideal but doesn’t sound terrible on paper. Yet, it was still deemed to be a poor result.
For context, last year’s Fant4stic got a C-, the “worst grade ever” for a modern comic book movie, but other B-scoring comic book movies include Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, and the first two Fantastic Four movies.
There’s a wide spread of box office results and budgets across those Bs, but if you think back on those earlier movies, you can see how a B from the target audience translates as a lukewarm temperature reading when taken in the fever pitch of opening weekend. The ballot doesn’t lead respondents about the intrinsic value of those grades – A could be for ‘Awesome,’ B could be for ‘Bad,’ C could be for ‘Crap.’ In short, B is a ‘meh’ at best.
Civil War‘s score more or less aligns with the critical consensus, (as per Rotten Tomatoes, which we’ll freely admit is just as screwy in its aggregation) while even a ‘meh’ for Batman v Superman is more positive than what most critics had to say about it. But we all know that box office receipts are no indicator of a film’s quality, and the studios and Cinemascore know it too, given how the Transformers movies (the reigning franchise of movies we know are bad but apparently go to see anyway) routinely get As from Cinemascore data. If a B is a ‘meh,’ an A can translate as ‘exactly what I expected’ and not necessarily a great movie.
There are plenty of articles bashing on Batman v Superman, but this is by no means our way of empirically ‘proving’ that the movie was bad. Seriously, nobody who wants to see Batman fight Superman will be put off by a B, but we use it here as an example of how sensitive the scale is.
It also shows how studios find Cinemascores valuable as an accurate measure of overall word of mouth, which travels a lot faster than it used to back when Mintz got started. A lukewarm response suggests you won’t be telling your friends to go and see it and the 69 percent drop in the film’s second weekend business bore out that prediction – for how much it cost to make, the film is ‘under-performing’ at the box office.
Incidentally, the top Cinemascore grade of A+ would indicate an ecstatic response from those polled and is usually reserved for either Best Picture candidates like Titanic, The King’s Speech, and The Imitation Game. Between 2004 and 2014, only 22 films got the grade. The Avengers is the only comic book movie ever to score an A+, and the only film this year to is Miracles From Heaven, a faith-based movie that naturally comes with its own avid fans of the source material. If your movie gets an A+, it indicates that your movie is either a home run blockbuster or at the very least, a sleeper hit, depending on how much it cost.
Despite the intended function as a public voice, Cinemascore doesn’t seem to actually affect whether or not people go to see a movie as big as Batman v Superman, as much as it measures what they’re already thinking in the opening weekend. The studios are listening though, and although public accessibility of rankings is a double-edged sword for them, Cinemascore doesn’t seem to be a widely consulted resource for the public. This means that its influence in the short-term and beyond is on an industrial level.
The main benefit for studios comes in tweaking marketing campaigns in the days and weeks after a big movie is released. With the provided breakdown of information, they know which demographic groups enjoyed the movie and more importantly, which ones they could have appealed to more. For example, if Batman v Superman isn’t playing well with teenage girls, Warner Bros. might have edited a new TV spot geared towards young women and book slots on shows that do well with that demographic.
It’s comparatively rare for a decent or middling Cinemascore to signify instant death for a movie, but it provides an indicator of word of mouth, and can even help studios course-correct a marketing campaign after release. But for a lower Cinemascore, it’s a different story…
Has Any Film Ever Scored an F?
“Movies don’t rate lower than a C,” says Mintz. “A C is a failure. And it’s so rare that a movie is an F. I mean, if it’s an F, it shouldn’t even be released.”
That said, 11 films in history have earned the dreaded F Cinemascore, and here they are in chronological order:
– Darkness (2002)- Solaris (2002)- Wolf Creek (2005)- Bug (2006)- The Wicker Man (2006)- I Know Who Killed Me (2007)- Disaster Movie (2008)- The Box (2009)- The Devil Inside (2012)- Silent House (2012)- Killing Them Softly (2012)
That’s definitely a mixed bag of films in tone and quality, but what most of them have in common is that they’re not particularly multiplex-friendly and they’re not based on previously popular source material. Disaster Movie is the outlier in both cases, but most of us were wise to Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s pop culture cockery after Epic Movie and Meet The Spartans.
What’s also interesting to note is that they’re almost all R-rated movies, which means the F score was doubly bad news. Teenagers are broadly accepted to be the main target audience for Hollywood movies with disposable time and income to spend on the multiplex, but they wouldn’t factor into the scoring of a movie aimed at adults. There can’t be many under-18s going to see grown-up films, so a low score on an R-rated film doesn’t speak well of its box office prospects.
But among the horror films on that list, The Devil Inside was one of the infamous F-grade movies and it made back its low budget in the first weekend before word of mouth sunk it. If we stick with the analogy of Cinemascore as a temperature reading, it can’t have helped to measure an audience who were likely seething at a film that ends with a URL directing them to find out what happens next.
The trailers leant heavily on those night-vision audience reaction clips that horror movies like to throw out, but the Cinemascore spoke more to what audiences really thought of it – it dropped 76 percent in its second weekend at the box office, having taken the money and ran.
Meanwhile, the indie films on that list, like Bug, Solaris, and Killing Them Softly don’t belong on such a sensitive scale at all. It’s preposterous to say that William Friedkin, Steven Soderbergh, or Andrew Dominik made films that should never have been released, but entirely reasonable to say that their respective films weren’t exactly compatible with Cinemascore’s sample size of multiplexes.
Cinemascore’s system of exit polling acts as a thermometer for word of mouth about a movie, but it’s not a perfect system and it has only become more flawed as movie marketing has been ramped up. It’s reliability as a forecasting system is proven, but as a public voice, it serves to reward conservative studio practices and overlook the unexpected.
What’s worrying about its reliability to the studios is that they’re already taking bigger bets on projects with less risk. In the wake of Batman v Superman‘s box office performance, it has even been reported that Warner Bros. is looking to go more like Disney by producing more proven franchise movies like Harry Potter, LEGO, and the rest of their DC cinematic universe, and even fewer mid-range properties. This is troubling precisely because it’s one of the few studios that has consistently produced more of these lower-budgeted, grown-up movies outside of the obvious awards season roster.
Word of mouth is difficult to measure, and in an industry that still prizes the narrow window of the opening weekend, Cinemascore provides as good a metric as any that is currently available to studios. But no matter what, Hollywood will give us many more Transformers movies in years to come – we just hope it’s not at the expense of the Killing Them Softlys.