The word-of-mouth index Matt 04 Aug 2005

26 comments Latest by Andy Sernovitz

I predict Dukes of Hazzard will be the #1 movie this weekend. I also predict it will suck. Yet the media will fixate on its big opening and strong sales. That’s because the media always fixates on big openings and what’s #1.

But is that what consumers really care about? The strong word-of-mouth on Wedding Crashers — and the ensuing upwards box office trend for the film (it climbed to #1 from #2, a rare feat) — has got me wondering why there isn’t more attention paid to sales trends instead of just overall sales rankings for movies, records, books, etc.

Big openings are an indication of marketing success, not artistic success. Sure, the latest American Idol album or Will Smith flick debuts with huge sales. But that’s often followed by a rapid dropoff when word gets out that the actual film/album/whatever is crap.

Where’s the chart that shows which products have legs and are getting positive word-of-mouth buzz? Something similar to the buzz index at Yahoo but using hard financial data instead of the less meaningful indicator of search queries. Which album is making that steady climb (Norah Jones or David Gray’s slow-burn success comes to mind)? Which movie hopped from #4 to a higher rank (like “Something About Mary” did)? For consumers who care about quality, a pattern of increasing sales is more noteworthy than the big-opening/rapid-slide that garners most media attention.

26 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Jeremy Flint 04 Aug 05

These days, it seems the bigger the hype (product placement, advertising, etc.), the more of a bomb the movie (or whatever) is going to be. It creates such a huge amount of hype that if the product doesn’t live up to it, failure is immenant.

All I can think about is the Godzilla movie that came out a few years ago. It had an incredible amount of hype around it and in the end basically flopped.

Sam D 04 Aug 05

I think one of the problems in comparing openning weekends the way that they do (by $) is that ticket prices just keep going up. I would love to see the # of people that see a ‘blockbuster movie’ now vs. say 15 years ago, rather then them compairing x millions of dollars. I agree that the trends are much more telling about a film then the open. One of the nicest things since having kids is that I don’t rush out to see a movie, and I have seen a much higher percentage of movies I have enjoyed ever since.

pete 04 Aug 05

Big opening weekends are also when the studios make the most money (in terms of ticket sales).

With studios and theaters, a movies revenues are split on a sliding scale as time goes on. For example, on the first week the studio/theater split for a given movie will be say 80/10 (80% to the studio, 10% to the theater). As time goes on, a larger percentage of revenues are given to the theater and less to the studio. For theaters, this works out fine when the movie turns out to be “Something about Mary” or “Wedding Crashers”, but sucks when the movie turns out to be “Godzilla” or “Dukes of Hazard” (why do you think your popcorn is so expensive, theaters need to re-coup the cost for these types of movies ;) ).

So in truth, a word of mouth film like �Something About Mary� may be great for both parties in the long run (theaters make money from tickets and studios make money from dvd popularity), trying to recreate that success is much harder than putting a 24 year old girl in short-shorts and marketing it to the teenage boys that have no other access to a girl in short-shorts.

kev 04 Aug 05

Actually, I have high hopes as some from the Broken Lizard (of Super Troopers fame) crew had a hand in making it. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Tristan Dunn 04 Aug 05

I might see the Dukes of Hazzard just because portions were filmed in my state, Louisiana. They actually were down the street from my office a few times and we walked down once to see everyone. We’re not the stereotypical Louisiana people, but seeing movies being filmed around here is still a rare occurance, even though it’s beginning to pick up.

Scott Yates 04 Aug 05

A great example of this was Sixth Sense, which did better in it’s fifth week than it did in the first. Another is my favorite movie Memento, which did better every week for 11 straight weeks! Now, it wasn’t on many screens when it opened, but the reason it got wider release was that so many people were clamoring to see it because it was so good. (That, and a lot of people needed to see it again to figure it out. It’s one of those rare films that gets better the more you see it.)

Brady Joslin 04 Aug 05

Sort of like how products with poor usability can have whopping sales figures coming out of the gates and possibly even for quite some time afterwards. Typically, the user experience has to be extremely poor to put the breaks on things.

Adam 04 Aug 05

Yeah, that always bothers me too. Why do they think I care how much money the film made? I feel this way about sports too, there’s so much discussion about how fan friendly the games are. Or during the playoffs, Sportscenter time is wasted lamenting how low the ratings will be because the big market team didn’t make it. Who cares? I certainly don’t. Why do they think I care if other people are watching the game? All I care about is if I’m watching it.

I think part of it is journalistic laziness. Its easier to report these figures, than to do real analysis.

Toby 04 Aug 05

Not sure if you’re aware of it, but there’s a site called that has box office data, by day, for just about every movie.

They don’t have the buzz-index that you’re talking about, but with all the data there, you could calculate something like average drop in weekend takings over the first 2 months. It’s actually kind of surprising that this doesn’t already exist.

Nick 04 Aug 05

Nice post. The only flaw in your theory is that “There’s Something About Mary” was a terrible, terrible film. It deserved to dwindle at number 4, but was inexcplicably ressurected.
I am in the 37Signals cult by the way. Is there a t-shirt for that?

Dan Boland 04 Aug 05

The only flaw in your theory is that �There�s Something About Mary� was a terrible, terrible film.

That’s pretty much how I feel about everything Ben Stiller has ever done.

Brad 04 Aug 05

The only flaw in your theory is that �There�s Something About Mary� was a terrible, terrible film. It deserved to dwindle at number 4, but was inexcplicably ressurected.

That’s because Cameron Diaz was incredibly, incredibly hot.

Yeah, it was a stupid movie, but it was good dumb fun. I enjoyed it and I normally detest almost everything that comes out of Hollywood (I walked out of “A Beautiful Mind” after the first 45 minutes; I thought it was one of the most overrated movies ever.)

victor 04 Aug 05

> Why do they think I care how much money the film made? I feel this way about sports too, there�s so much discussion about how fan friendly the games are.

Because the panelists/VJ’s/sportscasters assume that you treat all of your favored entertainments the way you treat the home sports-team - that you identify with it PERSONALLY, like somebody with a borderline personality disorder.

Jack 04 Aug 05

If only there was some way to play the box office like it was a stock market. We’d become millionaires! …and then the market would adjust.

jehiah 05 Aug 05

Check out the netflix top 100 chart. It has clear indication on what changed from week to week, and how much. I find that “whats moving up” and “whats moving down” information usefull.

Andrew K 05 Aug 05

i agree. however, you can’t lump dukes in with wedding crashers. that movie is a classic, hype or no hype - it is flat out good comedy.

Variety Columnist 05 Aug 05

Do you think that the people at the labels and studios have never thought about this? They aggressively track these data and try to create products with strong word of mouth or “legs”.

With movies, specifically, big openings make economic sense for a variety of reasons. Studios get a bigger split of profits from the distributors early in the films’ life. Also, the resulting PR storm cements the film’s DVD and other success.

Also, exhibitors (and distribs) often kill a movie if it doesn’t have good early success (plenty of product for them to exhibit, so why should they take a chance hoping a movie does well down the line? Especially given that they are making their money from the candy teenagers buy, and teenagers come to see anything, provided they haven’t seen it before). One way studios try to get around this problem is by “platforming”— they release the movie in a handful of theaters that they hope will be frequented by “tastemakers” (you know, people with widely-read blogs and what not) in the hopes that it will generate enough momentum to start really earning as they widen the release to more theaters. Sometimes, the studio will start the movie on as little as 3-4 screens (typically, NY or LA) and then work from there.

This strategy is killer when it works, but it’s hard to get right. One: the movie actually has to appeal to people in that “I want to tell my friends how good it was” sort of way. Two, it’s time consuming, it requires a lot of effort and coordination. Studios can only really focus on platforming a handful of movies a year. Further, it doesn’t get around the fundamental problem that if no one sees the movie early on, if it doesn’t build momentum, the distribs and exhibitors will yank it, it just allows a little more leeway. Most of the time, it’s not enough.

As to your point about the rapid dropoffs that follow big openings, the studios are completely aware of this, it just doesn’t matter. Obviously, it would be better to not have the drop-off, but building up the opening and making it an “event” (sometimes people call tentpole movies ‘event’ movies, meaning people go not so much to see the movie, but to take part in the cultural phenomenon and be able to talk about it at work on monday), they can pull as much revenue as possible before the bad word of mouth gets around on the movie. You see the effects of this with studios becoming more competitive about staking out three-day weekends and finding other ways to lengthen the “frame” (wednesday night premieres, etc.) So you make a $80 million movie, make $40m opening, you know you’ll do about $40 again in DVD and $40 in foreign, you’re at breakeven (IIRC total marketing spends for tentpoles are around .5 total budget of film, also, these aren’t crazy numbers: War of the Worlds did like $60m domestic opening wknd, $120m budget).

ML 05 Aug 05

_Do you think that the people at the labels and studios have never thought about this?_

I figure this chart should come from a publication, not from studios/labels. Why can’t Variety, or some other publication, offer this type of valuable information for its readers?

Variety Columnist 05 Aug 05

Variety publishes a summary of box office trends every day.

Variety Columnist 05 Aug 05

Actually, the music side of the business is where the real heavy sales trend quantification and analysis goes on. Beyond the Billboard and HITS! Magazines of the world, there are a wealth of third-party vendors that aggregate and sell this data, ranging from companies like SoundScan (soundscan sends you a weekly CSV file containing total sales of the top few hundred records, as well as sales that week, as well as relative change. They also sell access to their database for deeper coverage.) to Big Champagne (they sell access to a database that covers filesharing trends).

There are also pricey consulting firms that do general “word-of-mouth” reports, but they are generally intended more for strategic use: ‘here’s what the kids in Dearborn, MI, are into these days, broken down into lifestyle goods, music, video games, film, food, etc.’ Companies like Look-look, for example.

Worm 09 Aug 05

The strength (what there was) of Something About Mary wasn’t Ben Stiller or Cameron Diaz, it was Matt Dillon. He was, and still is, the primary reason to like this movie. Not just because he still has indie cred, but because he made the character and the movie.