August 25, 2011

What's in a CinemaScore?

Every so often, an entertainment journalist rediscovers CinemaScore and declares it to be a near-perfect predictor of box office performance. For the unfamiliar, CinemaScore is a simple survey passed out to filmgoers who give the movie in question a letter grade (typically administered in the very beginning of a film's run). Recently, much fuss has been made over the fact that The Help received a coveted and rare A+ rating, and the guaranteed box office success that entails. It's a tempting analysis to make - what better indicator of a film's resonance can you find than man-on-the-street opinions?

It's true that many high-rated releases performed well and vice versa - you can't overlook the correlation. But I think for the most part, analysts aren't looking at what CinemaScore data actually measures. They're a bit too hasty in dismissing the results that don't support their hypothesis. The entertainment industry at large likes to rely on shortcuts and trends to guide their decisions, and they hear what they want to hear. It's a lot easier, for instance, to interpret the success of The Dark Knight as an audience hunger for an easily replicated "gritty feel" than to admit that a particular film had a certain alchemy that people responded to. Similarly, it's nice to be reassured that your newly released film will have a long and fruitful run. But I think they're missing the point.

First, let's look at the participants. These are paying customers that want to see the film anyway, and so much so that they're there on opening weekend - predisposed fans, essentially. I'm guessing that Justin Bieber: Never Say Never got an A not based on its objective merits, but because the audience was filled with diehard Bieber fans. Tyler Perry films always have glowing CinemaScores, because the man has a devoted empire. Most kids' movies score pretty high too, probably because they're mostly attended by kids.

So what about the failures? It's true that there aren't a whole lot - on the whole, the reviews typically hover between A- and B-. Because of that fact, a C or less is considered a kiss of death. Here's a list of some films that haven't fared with with CinemaScore: The American (D-), Rango (C+), Hanna (C+), Priest (C+), the remake of Solaris (F), The Box (F). Do you notice anything these releases have in common?

I do - these films were all either deliberately or accidentally misrepresented to audiences in their marketing campaigns. The American, which plays like a contemplative European film of the 60s, made a risky grab for its opening weekend by marketing itself as an action movie with lots of running. Rango was assumed to be a kids' movie because it's animated, but it's a bizarre spaghetti western full of grotesque characters. Hanna features a slew of elegant Oscar-nominated talent coming together for an violent action thriller. The very title of Solaris conjures up images of a space adventure, but it's really a moody melodrama that's rather coincidentally set in space. I haven't seen the other two films listed, but my understanding is that their advertising contained ambiguities that left people disappointed.

From this data, it's hard to see CinemaScore as anything other than an evaluation of expectations versus reality. I suspect that the A+ for The Help stemmed from the fact that it was based on a best-selling book, and fans of the book rushed out and received exactly what they expected and wanted. I'm not being cynical - many films receive the CinemaScore they deserve - but with this system set up as it is, I can't really fathom what else it might measure. 

The best objective measure of any film's quality would probably be to show it to a group of people in some remote tribe that was unfamiliar with it and all affiliated talent. After all, how often are our feelings toward a film just a reflection of our expectations or preexisting prejudices? Audiences were downright angry with Inception when, despite being a solid film, it failed to be the savior of a remake and sequel-filled industry. Conversely, movies that people have low expectations for often turn out to be hits.

And what about that outlying data I mentioned? Not every well-CinemaScored film is a hit - far from it. Many films garner enthusiastic responses in niche or sparse audiences and nowhere else. Akeelah and the Bee, Cinderella Man, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Lottery Ticket, Life As We Know It, Burlesque, Soul Surfer, and Monte Carlo all scored within the A range (many with a perfect A+) but failed to set the box office on fire - some didn't even make back their budgets. There's also plenty of films that scored in the B range that didn't gross a fraction of what comparable B-scoring films did (True Grit and The Next Three Days both received a B+).

Will The Help be a hit? Yes, but I'm guessing it's because it's based on a book that just about every woman in America has read. Unfortunately for studio bigwigs, there's no crystal ball - sometimes you just have to sit back and see what happens.

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