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David Poland

By David Poland

What Is Tracking?

I encountered a proposition on Twitter this morning that, somehow, tracking on Trainwreck as reported by the trades, was lower than what the Friday gross suggests the weekend number will be, in some attempt to damage the film because it centered on a woman.


There are many absurdities piled on others to get to that presumption. But I am not writing this to mock the smart person proposing this notion, but to simply clarify the layers and what is real versus what is completely imaginary.

Tracking is a marketing tool. There are a lot of numbers and math involved, but to simplify, it is a survey-based projection of awareness and interest in seeing movies that are being released in the near future. It was formerly done by phone surveying, which has inherent flaws. Reaching teens on home phones became challenging once cell phones took off. These days, reaching a group that is representative of the ticket-buying audience on home phones is almost impossible. Which is why they all switched to internet surveying in the last few years. But ethnic audiences still seem to be harder to reach. Younger moviegoers are poorly represented in these surveys.

Of course, these problems are supposed to be adjusted for statistically. Sometimes it works better than other times. But you will find, if you look at tracking or even just read what is reported, that guesses at box office based on tracking are consistently wrong. Sometimes by a little. Sometimes by a lot.

For instance, in early June, Melissa McCarthy’s Spy was guessed to open at $30 million and came in only 3% off of that estimate. On the other hand, that same weekend, Insidious Chapter 3, was “tracked” at 10% more than its actual opening. A few weeks before release, Minions was reported to be tracking at one-third less than its actual opening. By the days before opening, the range of trackers had the opening at $95 million to $110 million… a wide berth that was still $6 million shy of reality. Two days before Ted 2 opened, the tracking alleged the film would open to between $45-$55 million. It opened to $34 million, missing by 25% in the kindest reading. Likewise, Magic Mike XXL allegedly tracked to open to $28m over 3 days and missed by $12.9m or 54%.

Some well-informed readers will either comment or send e-mails about how the tracking numbers I am citing are wrong. I can’t and won’t argue. As noted before… different people read tracking differently. I am pointing out published claims about tracking. No question, others saw it differently before, during, and after.

In reality, we non-insiders – even we well-educated guessers of the media – don’t know how well tracking works. We know the number that someone manufactured as the guess at box office at one or more studios. But we don’t know whether the studio had fairly accurate detailed information about each film going into those opening weekends.

If you are watching the marketing, you can often see tactic shifts in the weeks leading into a release. Part of Universal’s strategy on Trainwreck, for instance, was to make the film more accessible to guys with plenty of ads emphasizing LeBron James and the Bill Hader character’s relationship to sports. This led to some reviews overstating the sports element of the film, actually criticizing the film. But if guys going to the movie with their female beloveds this weekend were willing – unlike Magic Mike – then Universal won… and that seems to be the case. Tactically, sometime last week, the studio may have seen reasons to push male or female, older or younger… all looking to maximize the opening. That is what tracking is for.

Studios do, to some degree, feel the zeitgeist. But tracking and other tools are there to quantify the situation, as the bubble most studio execs live in often leads to false reads of the national audience.

Tracking is meant to let marketing departments know whether the public is aware of their movies. It is meant to advise them as to which elements in their marketing are connecting with audiences… and which element with which demographic. And as they get closer to release, it is meant to give them some idea how the marketing message us translating into Must See and Want To See and disinterest in seeing.

How the raw numbers are crunched means a lot. And every studio reads them a little differently.

And yes, every studio has projected internal estimates of what the weekend box office might be, based on these figures. But historically, each studio’s estimates do not match the others.

And historically, tracking was (and is still meant to be) a private document. The first reason for this is that the price of tracking is very high and it is sold to subscribers, not given away for free. But as we have learned in recent years, the reason to keep tracking private is that it is wildly misused and misunderstood by the media.

In the years before Nikki Finke set up a “Studios tell me to say…” faux box office analysis that got its weekly Drudge link (making her pieces on box office valuable marketing real estate), those of us who wrote about box office would occasionally get so interested in a particular title that we would seek and usually get tracking info on Movie X from sources at studios. Sometimes we would even get the raw tracking, which was of little use to most.

But to get the edge, Finke started two horrible habits that have now metastasized across media. One is “reporting” tracking before movies open. The other is “reporting” Friday east coast matinees numbers and projecting the whole weekend’s box office on Friday early afternoon, LA time. The Friday habit is just bad journalism. Yes, those numbers can tell you if a film is in a lot of trouble or doing a lot better than expected. But they after often 20% or more off in terms of projecting Friday’s numbers, much less the weekend’s. But the tracking thing is much more insidious.

Since media is now “reporting” what they think – usually, “have been told” – the tracking means early in the week or even the week before, it is now the job of the studios to spin those numbers even before the first dollar hits the box office. The most obvious ploy is selling the idea that a film is going to open as softly as possible, so if the film does a lot better, it’s a big positive surprise and if it remains modest, it is not a “disappointment.”

So, in a case like Trainwreck – I have no specific knowledge of how this played out with press – Universal would likely be out there, on background, explaining how poorly the film is doing in tracking… looking like it would do mid-teens numbers, all the while thinking it would probably be mid-20s. After encouraging Friday matinee numbers, the studio would surely still be advising that media maintain an even strain… don’t get carried away… it could be an illusion.

This morning, with studios doing official Friday estimates (another phenomenon in published box office which really didn’t happen until Finke made it a habit), the story is that Trainwreck is doing better than tracking but not as good as Friday east coast matinees expected. See… there is a tinge of negativity in there… for no real reason… other than a story ran overreaching reality on Friday afternoon. That is what studios work to avoid. No one wants negativity.

So now the bar is set again. The film did an estimated $10.6 million, including $1.6m on Thursday night… so the pressure is on to get to/near $30 million… or at least close enough to estimate a number that will be seen as a big win when Sunday estimates are reported all day on Sunday. Today the problem for Universal is if the film doesn’t hit $30 million, will it be positioned as “disappointing,” for no logical reason at all… except that some journalist stepped up their personal, unfounded expectations.

Spy opened to a $10.3 million Friday and hit $29 million back in June. But then again, Spy opened against Insidious Chapter 3, which was a horror film that did $23m that weekend, not Ant-Man, a very family-friendly comic book movie that will do something around $60 million. The market can expand enough for box films to do whatever number… but one wonders what the Saturday bumps for each will look like and if date night will lean to the Ant for some couples. We don’t actually know. So we guess.

But it’s not a game, of course. There are real numbers that will occur. When they happen, they will be news. But that would only be one page view… not 6 through weekend updates.

And unfortunately, the difference between how Trainwreck opening to $20 million and $30 million is reported in a much more dramatic way than reality would demand.

The now-classic cautionary tale of a summer movie whose opening was “a disappointment” was Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, which opened to $2 million more than half what The Heat opened to and $13m less than Identity Thief. But the film went on to do 4x opening and cracked $100m worldwide, turning a strong profit against a $20m budget. (Yes, I was one who kicked the film too early.) By the way… as long as I am ripping on misused stats… CinemaScore came up with a C+ for the film, which would do 4x that opening weekend.

All of this rolls back to the original issue… extrapolating subtext in tracking based on the misuse of tracking. Silly. And a result of readers thinking they are now familiar and/or have an understanding of tracking by reading about it each week, but by reading writers who also know almost nothing about tracking except for what they are told by marketing departments… which is not just a problem of subject-generated news, but of not asking the deeper layer or questions where real issues can be addressed.

I have been writing about box office for longer than any working box office writer except for Len Klady, who works here at MCN. I am not an expert on tracking. None of the writers who I see out there – at the trades or elsewhere – is an expert on tracking. Nothing personal… just the fact.

And of course, this doesn’t start to touch on the absurdity of counting the money while it’s sitting on the table, focusing almost exclusively on domestic, rarely examining costs, etc.

If you are upset about a movie and how it is tracking, you are just looking for a reason to be upset. It is in no one’s interest – not the tracking companies nor the studios nor the press – to be wrong about how a movie is going to do. Even when a studio is trying to get a producer off its back, trying to prove that they are doing everything they can, false expectations within that private circle can lead nowhere good after opening weekend.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

(Edited to note the shift to online surveying.)

One Response to “What Is Tracking?”

  1. RR says:

    I enjoyed this article and have one quibble. “Tammy” opened on a Wednesday. Films opening on Wednesdays tend to have much better multipliers when comparing the first weekend the the entire film’s run.

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