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Podcast: The Guy Who Predicts Whether A Movie Will Bomb, Months Before It’s Made

“What we do is very similar to what Nate Silver does. It’s equalizing out the polls and supplementing them in a further model with other factors. The only difference is that polls don’t really exist for movies — so we’re the ones creating the polls.”

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Every year, Hollywood takes an educated guess on what moviegoers want to see in the theaters — with $10 billion in box office revenues at stake. Josh Lynn of Piedmont Media Research has an algorithm that he says can help. Months before a movie even goes into production, Piedmont conducts surveys based on a film’s basic plot and cast to determine a “Consumer Engagement” score. The score, which goes from 1 to 1,000 but usually tops out around 500,1 has a high correlation to how a movie will end up performing at the box office. Piedmont’s algorithm predicts that anything scoring a 400 should open to about $90 million to $100 million and that anything scoring about a 300 will make $50 million to $60 million.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, we look at how data is changing Hollywood and whether it can help open up avenues for new types of movies — or simply reinforce conventional wisdom.

This week’s show is a special co-podcast with Andy Greenwald of Grantland, who joined in for the interview with Lynn. Be sure to subscribe to Greenwald’s podcast and the Grantland Pop Culture channel in iTunes.

Stream or download the full episode above, and find video and a partial transcript below.


Video: Hollywood’s undervalued and overvalued assets


Video: What happens when data says your movie is going to bomb


Nothing could save “Fantastic Four”

Josh Lynn: We’ll run movies two different ways. The first is we’ll run the concept of the movie on its own, and then we’ll also run the concept with the names of actors attached. So, we can actually start to quantify and figure out how much actors are either adding or subtracting from any given particular project.

Andy Greenwald: So, specifically in the case of “Fantastic Four,” there’s a moment, whether it was two years ago or a year and a half ago, where what you’re testing is people’s interest and desire in engaging with another “Fantastic Four” movie? Here’s the concept — maybe you’ve seen it before, maybe you haven’t — would you want to see another one?

Lynn: We’re going out to a representative sample of the ticket-buying population. Some people have seen the earlier movies; some people haven’t. That’s not a question that we’re asking. We’re breaking it down by demographics, and all we’re getting to once we scale our numbers together is how are people responding, how people are feeling about what this movie is. And then we’re basically giving it a number. In the case of “Fantastic Four,” as a concept, the movie scored about a 385, which is pretty good. [That translates to a] 70-plus-million-dollar opening weekend box office. Now, that movie, with the actors attached, dropped it down to about 320. So what that basically means is you’ve got these actors who are being paid to essentially lose the film money.

Jody Avirgan: So what you’re saying is that if it had had complete no-names, neutral actors, it would have done better?

Lynn: I don’t want to say that if it had, like, stick figures in it. But as long as you’re making a comparison between similar items and you’re changing one thing, which in this case is the names of the members of the cast and the director, you can isolate what the impact is. And it went from a 380 down to a 320.


Somehow, Denzel Washington may be undervalued

Avirgan: You’ve mentioned a couple of times that actors can move the needle. I’m sure you get the Moneyball analogy all the time. Anyone who works in data gets the, “It’s the Moneyball of X.”

Lynn: The elevator pitch for this is literally “Moneyball for movies.”

Avirgan: And one of the things that Moneyball was really good at was pointing out how it’s about identifying undervalued and overvalued assets. So when I think about Moneyball and the analogy to you, I think about actors and whether you can point and say, “OK, here’s an overvalued asset in Hollywood” or “Here’s an undervalued asset in Hollywood.”

Lynn: I would say that from all the movies that we’ve looked at, the one actor that comes to mind is Denzel Washington. Every movie that we’ve run with his name in it has increased the score of that film as a concept by anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent. Didn’t matter what it was.

Sandra Bullock is a really good example of it being very project-dependent. Her and Melissa McCarthy, the alchemy of the two of them together in that movie “The Heat,” that was the single biggest jump that we’ve ever seen. That movie jumped about 90 percent in its scoring from [just the] concept. Now, you can start to figure out: Was it Melissa McCarthy? Was it Sandra Bullock? How would this score if it was Melissa McCarthy and Jenny McCarthy? How would it score if it was Sandra Bullock and Sharon Stone? You can start playing around and making comparisons.


If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on iTunes, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Footnotes

  1. The upcoming “Hunger Games” movie received the highest score ever, at 514; “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and the new “Star Wars” also scored near 500. The lowest ever score was a 51, for kids movie “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.” Most movies fall within the 100-200 range, with certain genres like thrillers and horror movies scoring higher.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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