Big film, big data: how analytics is shaping the business

Data analysis is changing the landscape of an industry in which experience and instinct are still heavily relied on, but the analysts argue more can be done.

At a recent financial conference, Walt Disney Company chairman Bob Iger made a surprising admission. “We don’t have any idea who went to see Star Wars in the cinemas,” Iger said, noting that since Disney products such as last year’s blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens reach the public through cinema exhibitors and other third parties, for the studio itself “our access to the consumer is very limited”.

So does Big Film need Big Data to help it learn about its customers? A handful of companies around the world touting data analytics products to the global film industry think so. Film distributors and exhibitors, the data boffins suggest, need to move beyond the blunt instrument of quad segment audience profiling — which tags movie-goers as male or female, over or under-25 — and create more finely sliced profiles that can feed into more accurately predictive models of audience behaviour.

Step one is to tap into the torrent of audience data provided by social media, online ticketing and cinema loyalty programmes (which in the US can work with third parties to legally capture missing data such as members’ ethnicity).

Marketing data analyst Movio, for example, runs its Movio Cinema product on top of an exhibitor’s own loyalty programme. “We pull through all the data that relates to a loyalty transaction — who they are, how old they are, how many tickets they bought, the genre of the film,” explains Movio founder and CEO William Palmer. “Once we’ve got this ID, we tie that to all their web activity — when they click on a link in any of the cinema’s websites, their e-mail activity, social activity, if they’re on Facebook or Twitter — so that the profile gets richer.

“That’s a big part of the audience,” Palmer goes on. “Some 25% of all transactions come from loyalty programmes and indirectly it’s nearer 45%, when you think they’re bringing another person with them. So you’re getting a huge percentage of the film-goers that use some form of loyalty programme, and you’re certainly getting the avid film-goer.

“Then we weight it, because the loyalty programme member does not necessarily reflect the overall film-goer. Then we analyse it and profile it and serve it back to the cinema in a way they can use.”

For exhibitors, the uses might include comparisons of how specific genres or events play on their screens, comparisons of the profitability of different concession items, even an analysis of staffing levels. “We allow people to look at trends and really get forensic about how their cinemas compare to the rest of the world,” says Richard Power, CEO of Showtime Analytics, whose Insights tool is aimed at exhibitors. “They can pull all their customer data into a single view, giving you a visual of who your audience is and how you can target them.”

An informed release schedule

Distributors can benefit, analysts suggest, by making more use of data to inform release date decisions and fine-tune marketing campaigns. Where release scheduling is concerned, “the market doesn’t work as efficiently as it could”, says Jim Zak, vice president, international, at comScore, the cross-platform measurement company that earlier this year merged with movie and TV data operation Rentrak. “We have access to all types of data sets that a studio doesn’t have.”

“We can help studios determine the optimal release date,” Jim Zak, comScore

New data outfit Gower Street Analytics is working in partnership with comScore on the development of Forecast, a release date optimisation tool that will predict the performance, down to the individual cinema level, of every film in a given national market for the next 12 to 18 months. “By doing this,” says Zak, “we can help studios determine the optimal release date for every one of the films in their slate.”

The data players insist they are not trying to displace traditional industry assets such as experience and gut instinct. “Analytics is just another tool,” says Dimitrios Mitsinikos, the former Universal Pictures vice president, international research, who co-founded Gower Street. “The decision-makers are the decision-makers and the better tools they have, the better decisions they’ll make.” But, Mitsinikos adds: “Instinct is basically experience built on data. From our own experience, machine-learning systems can actually beat gut feeling.”

By amassing data and sharing it across sectors, analysts suggest, the film industry might arm itself against outside competition. Power, whose Showtime Analytics is working on a data-sharing tool called Collaborate, says he has been surprised by wrangling among exhibitors and between distributors and exhibitors. “The real threats are streaming TV, Netflix, VoD and so on,” Power maintains. “If the industry would club together and tie all these data sets together, it would benefit everybody and allow them to compete better with the emerging technologies.”

Cinema operators may be first to embrace the data revolution. Exhibition, says Palmer, “is almost 100% on board. There were always cinema chains that were big advocates of loyalty programmes and were doing good things with their data. Now it’s at that tipping point where it’s the norm rather than the exception”.

Studios and distributors, however, may be more difficult to convince. Major distributors gather some data of their own, through focus groups, exit polls and advertising tests. Some also get information through online US ticket sellers such as Fandango and experimental forecasting systems for international markets.

Yet Palmer says he has been “dumbfounded by how little media and research information they have. They do run focus groups and tests on different trailers and endings. But you’re normally pulling together 10 or 20 people [for those], all from Burbank. It’s not very sophisticated data analysis.”

Different disciplines

Apparently protective of the data techniques they already employ, the Hollywood studios are wary of discussing the issue and the attempts of new entrants to bring supposedly more scientific data practices into the industry. Privately, some studio executives complain that the new data analytics companies do not understand the specific discipline of marketing movies (as opposed to packets of soap or cans of soda) and use data — most of it derived online or from cinema loyalty programmes — that represents extremes of the movie-going audience rather than a representative sample.

The new data players, suggests producer Randy Greenberg, a former head of Universal Pictures’ international theatrical division, “are trying to supply more data but the infrastructure of the marketing system for theatrical films is built on an old way of buying media”.

He notes: “Data is not going to solve every issue,” but it might help film marketers “get smarter in how and where they buy media” in an increasingly fragmented entertainment universe. In the end, that might be enough to make studios, as well as exhibitors and other theatrical players, wake up to the force of Big Data.


US-based comScore merged in February with Rentrak, which has recently been expanding from its core business of cinema data collection into analytics, with products such as PreAct and PostTrak. The combined entity monitors behaviour in 40,000 US cinema screens as well as on VoD, TV, tablet, mobile phone and desktop screens.

Gower Street Analytics
London-based Gower Street was launched recently by former NBC Universal international executives Dimitrios Mitsinikos and Matthew Eric Bassett. Under a partnership with Rentrak, the company is preparing to launch a theatrical forecasting product, initially in the UK, Mexico and Australia with future plans for Spain, Germany and the US.


Founded and headquartered in New Zealand and now owned by cinema exhibition software company Vista Group, Movio operates in North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, China and Southeast Asia, measuring the behaviour of 34 million movie-goers. Its products include Movio Cinema, Movio Media (aimed at distributors and studios) and Movio Experts.

Showtime Analytics
Based in Dublin, Ireland, and run by a team of executives with backgrounds in management consultancy and data analytics, Showtime offers products including real-time visual analytics software Insights and customer data tool Engage. In development is Collaborate, designed to share data along the cinema value chain.

In a recent research white paper called ‘Breaking the Blockbuster Code: Audience Evolution Patterns Revealed’, data analytics company Movio challenged the notion that the opening-night audience for a tentpole film is a good indicator of the audience for the film’s full theatrical run. The paper, by Movio’s chief data scientist Bryan Smith, compiled data collected by the company on 10 of 2015’s hits in three classes — tentpoles such as Jurassic World, male-driven releases such as Ant-Man and female-driven offerings including Fifty Shades Of Grey — and more than 8 million cinema loyalty programme members from cinema chains across North America.

Behavioural patterns revealed by the research, according to Movio, include an over-indexing by avid young male movie-goers on opening nights; an over-indexing by young movie-goers at discounted Tuesday night screenings; a growth over time in female audience share; and a proportional domination by 30 to 50-year-olds on Saturdays and Sundays.

When they first saw the research, says Movio chief William Palmer, “the studios all went bananas. For the first time they could see that the profile of the audience changes significantly at key moments during the release. And it’s predictable.”

Such data could allow distributors to shift the direction of their marketing campaigns while a film is still in early release. “Studios will be able to see how a film is tracking against a key demographic and change their [marketing] spend accordingly,” says Palmer. “They will be able to pivot very quickly based on the information they’re getting back in real time.”

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