ByAlisha Grauso, writer at Creators.co
Editor-at-large here at Movie Pilot. Nerd out with me on Twitter, comrades: @alishagrauso
Alisha Grauso

How performance on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google could have predicted recent box office successes and failures

This article was first published in Variety on December 31. This version contains more details about the numbers used for this analysis and the methodology behind our findings, as well as analysis of several films released earlier this holiday season that were not included in the original article.

2013 was not only an all-time record year for domestic and global box office, it was also a big year for digital marketing and social media in Hollywood. We have seen some of the biggest viral campaigns in 2013, and YouTube and Facebook have finally arrived at the center of every digital marketing mix.

Twitter has claimed a decent impact on water cooler conversations, Buzzfeed has reinvented (or at least smartly repackaged) native advertising and Tumblr has used the momentum after its acquisition by Yahoo to position itself as the new echo chamber for fan engagement. Budgets have been steadily shifting towards digital media, and digital savvy has become the new must-have. Overall levels of relevance, mass reach, sophistication and smart spending have increased tremendously in 2013.

In June 2013 Google claimed that search volume on Google and YouTube could predict box office quite accurately. No digital marketer would have argued with that, since what people punch into their Google search field in fact is a pretty good proxy for what they want. But before intent, there has to be interest. And before interest there has to be awareness.

Does digital data offer indicators that can be used to monitor marketing effectiveness, calibrate spending and predict box office success? Even before awareness has turned into intent? We at Moviepilot studied a subset of the most recent theatrical releases, focusing on four sets of data:

Facebook fan numbers are a good indicator for fan awareness for a movie in any given market, even months before the release. For mainstream movies with younger target audiences, fan counts are particularly important. However, big fan numbers can be bought and movies with older target audiences typically have lower fan counts. Fan engagement measured by PTAT (People Talking About This) is a more precise but also a fickle indicator, heavily driven by content strategy and media spending.

YouTube trailer counts are important for measuring early awareness about a movie. Movies with over 40 million views are usually mainstream and set to dominate the box office, while titles drawing 10 million to 20 million views indicate a more modest performance. If a movie does not have a solid number of trailer views on YouTube four weeks before its release, it is not promising news. But again, it is important to understand whether trailer views have been bought or grew organically.

Twitter is a good real-time indicator of excitement and word of mouth, coming closer to release or following bigger PR stunts. Mainstream, comedy and horror titles all perform particularly strongly on Twitter around release. Post-release indie titles perform strongly if they have good word of mouth, as this audience likes to spread their opinions after seeing the movie.

Search As Google argued, search is a solid indicator for intent moving towards release as people actively seek out titles that they are aware of and are thinking about seeing. Search is particularly significant for fan-driven franchises and family titles as parents look for information about films they may take their children to see. We used Wikipedia traffic as a conclusive proxy for Google Search volume. We have to consider that big simultaneous global releases tend to have higher search results compared to domestic releases.

To make the data comparable, we analyzed the seven days leading up to each release, when marketing campaigns should be at their peak. We also looked for early indicators, months before release. The same four indicators are also used by most of the digital marketing teams at the studios when they come together weekly and make their marketing decisions.

While individually these metrics may not mean a lot, compared to one another and in the context of competition and genre benchmarks they give a good impression of the performance of a movie’s marketing campaign. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish if the numbers are the result or the driver of a marketing campaign. Needless to say, there are limitations to these data points and the causalities they explain. But, hey, it’s only 2013. It’s still early days in the relationship between Hollywood and Big Data.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was far and away this holiday season’s big winner, beating the franchise’s first installment’s opening weekend total and heading toward grossing up to $800m worldwide. The digital performance proved prophetic, suggesting huge box office success with nearly 12 million Facebook fans, over 80 million trailer views, 3 million tweets and a search volume on Wikipedia of 309,000 single searches in the week before release, far ahead of the competition.

Only Iron Man 3 debuted with healthier looking numbers in social media (15 million Facebook fans and 906,000 search volume, similar YouTube numbers but behind on Twitter with only 300,000 tweets. And what do you know: only Iron Man 3 performed better at the box office this year.

But Facebook fan growth also provided some interesting insight into the domestic vs. foreign box office results. While the number of U.S. fans on Facebook only grew by 18% over the last six months, the foreign fan count has grown by over 35%. The box office mirrored these results: while domestic has so far seen a +6% increase to the first movie in a four weeks comparison, international has seen a 38% increase in box office in total already with big gains in territories like Germany and the UK.

  • Facebook: A+
  • YouTube: A+
  • Twitter: A+
  • Search: A
  • Overall: A+

Thor: The Dark World also out performed its predecessor, again with large numbers across the board. 8.35 million Facebook fans put Thor up alongside his fellow heroes; The Avengers have slightly more with 8.5 million, Captain America has 9.1 million and The Incredible Hulk 7.5 million, while Tony Stark is the most popular, with 17 million fans following his third film this summer. These huge fan counts demonstrate the powerful weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Facebook also measures how engaged fans are with a page’s content, using the metric PTAT (People Talking About This), but for Thor an apparently low PTAT score of 7% is put into context by taking the massive fan numbers into account, and is balanced by the almost 1 million tweets, over 62 million YouTube views and the largest and very impressive search volume of all films released this season – 380,000 - showing great awareness across all social platforms.

Again, the geographical distribution of fans is of particular interest for box office results: only 2 million of Thor’s 8.35 million Facebook fans are domestic. As with Catching Fire, this aligns with a very high 68% of total box office revenue coming from foreign markets and only 32% from domestic.

  • Facebook: A
  • YouTube: A
  • Twitter: A
  • Search: A+
  • Overall: A

The holiday season’s final blockbuster sequel, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, came out two weekends ago and took $73 million on the first weekend -- a huge total but down from the first installment. Digital data suggested that Smaug would not perform as well as Catching Fire and Thor - while The Hobbit has a built-in fan base, Twitter and YouTube views were comparatively much lower.

However, good word of mouth indicated by rapidly rising search numbers and increased tweets following release suggest Smaug should go on to a large overall take, especially overseas, which we’re already beginning to see happening. Just as with the other blockbuster sequels this season, Smaug’s U.S. fan count -- less than 1 million out of a 3.8 million total at release -- indicated its strong international appeal. Its box-office performance to date has been dominated by 65% foreign revenues.

YouTube gave a very positive early indication: trailer views grew very steadily, with a very high buzz rate (percentage of viewers who liked the trailer). This buzz rate continued strong and in fact was the second highest of all holiday movies after Catching Fire. It became obvious very early that the trailer worked extremely well, with the loyal global Middle Earth fanbase.

  • Facebook: B
  • YouTube: A
  • Twitter: C
  • Search: A
  • Overall: B

Frozen has been the most solid performer between Thanksgiving and Christmas so far, with 67 million on its wide opening weekend. The film is set to outstrip Disney’s last two animated efforts, Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph. The marketing campaign successfully appealed to both boys and girls by glossing over the musical nature of the movie.

A strong pre-release search volume of 170,00 indicated that there was a lot of interest among older audiences, particularly parents (Despicable Me 2 had 215,000, Monsters University, 166,000). Frozen’s 18.5 million YouTube views and 46,000 tweets is also impressive considering this movie is aimed at children.

At release, Frozen had a 545,000 Facebook fan base, which is small compared to the animated movies releasing sequels this year, but impressive for an original title. For example, Free Birds invested heavily in fans but released with only 163,000, as well as 4 million trailer views and 17,000 tweets with low search interest.

2013’s animated sequels had a considerable lead fan-wise, which makes Frozen’s performance even more impressive: Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University had upwards of 15 million each and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 has 1.5 million. Since its release, Frozen has added an additional 450,000 fans and has seen spikes in search and Twitter volume each weekend, reflecting positive word of mouth and the potential for further installments.

  • Facebook: B+
  • YouTube: B
  • Twitter: C
  • Search: A
  • Overall: B+

American Hustle brought back 2012’s winning combination of David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, this time led by additional Oscar favorites Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Last year’s Silver Linings Playbook was a success, receiving both critical acclaim and a great box office return. Hustle is on track to do the same with stellar reviews, the highest per-theater-average of 2013 grossing $690,000 from just six theaters on its initial limited release and a wide opening weekend of $19 million.

Facebook and Twitter suggested as much, with 275,000 fans, more than any other critically acclaimed film this season, and tweet volume as high as The Hobbit sequel, at 80,000. Retweets made up over 43% of that total, suggesting positive word of mouth. Given Hustle’s extremely high 190,000 search volume, it looks like this will prove to be a winning formula for the second year running.

  • Facebook: A-
  • YouTube: B
  • Twitter: A
  • Search: A
  • Overall: A

Marking the return of another winning combination, The Wolf of Wall Street reunites Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, separated since 2010’s Shutter Island, which gave Scorsese his best box office opening yet. Taking in over $9 million on Christmas Day and $18.5 million on opening weekend, Wolf has the potential to outstrip American Hustle’s initial success if the film’s controversy doesn’t deter too many theatergoers. While Facebook numbers were small in comparison, with 108,000 fans at release, a 60% PTAT means nearly 65,000 fans were engaging with the page’s content, larger than American Hustle’s 35,000 from its 13% PTAT score.

Wolf also had a lot of success early with its first catchy trailer, soundtracked by Kanye West, gaining high YouTube view counts quickly after an exclusive debut on iTunes. Now with nearly 17 million views on YouTube, Wolf was ahead of most competition at release, including Hustle. Twitter also indicates a positive echo with over 87,000 tweets, 42% of which are retweets, despite its rather disappointing "C" CinemaScore.

  • Facebook: B+
  • YouTube: A
  • Twitter: A
  • Search: A-
  • Overall: A

Ben Stiller’s first foray as a critically acclaimed director, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, had a good start over Christmas. Mitty’s digital stats suggested it might play to a smaller, older audience drawn in by Stiller’s presence and a feel-good marketing campaign. Facebook “Likes” at 233,000 and PTAT at 43% are both solid. While YouTube views were a little behind Wolf and Hustle, in part due to exclusive trailer deals with Apple and IMDb, which reduce YouTube figures, the trailer was well shared and Mitty has the highest Buzz rate (the percentage of people who gave the videos a thumbs up over the number of views) of any film releasing this holiday season.

That, plus unique and heartwarming viral content, such as a video about how director Casey Neistat spent his $25,000 Walter Mitty promotional budget helping typhoon victims in the Philippines, saw Mitty start well over Christmas with audiences looking for feel-good fare. Search at release was slightly behind competition, but has surged over the weekend indicating good word of mouth and early audiences rewarded Mitty a good B+ CinemaScore. This should see Mitty play strongly over coming weeks.

  • Facebook: A
  • YouTube: B
  • Twitter: B
  • Search: B
  • Overall: B

Saving Mr. Banks sits in ambiguous territory; a biopic about Walt Disney and his difficult relationship with P.L. Travers cannot rely on the success of other Disney productions, nor import its audience from them. The largest demographic on their over 200,000 strong Facebook page is 35-44 year olds; unsurprising given the older cast of Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell and Emma Thompson, as well as the historical nature of the film.

However, this Christmas there was a lot of competition for the older audience. The title did fairly well socially, on Facebook and with over 30,000 tweets in its final week before release. The consistently high numbers of PTAT on Facebook, which has not dropped below 20% since October, show there is real social buzz around the title. This can be attributed to the extremely active Facebook page, which posts zealously with a variety of content including interviews, videos, photos and sponsorship deals from the Home Shopping Network (HSN) -- again, tapping into the older market.

However, with an older audience, search should be higher than 117,000 because it is a biopic as well as targeted at more search-active audiences, indicating the interest didn’t quite match the social chatter. Banks will probably fall behind Hustle and Wolf, but fight it out with Mitty.

  • Facebook: B+
  • YouTube: C-
  • Twitter: B
  • Search: B+
  • Overall: B

Anchorman: The Legend Continues got off to a fair start thanks to Paramount’s decision to release it before the weekend, getting a jump on the Christmas rush. The comedy sequel has created quite a stir with its ubiquitous marketing campaign: Will Ferrell’s promotional world tour has been both wide-ranging, featuring in ads for Dodge, as well as localized to ensure his digital campaign literally applies to each territory, with personal appearances in Canada and viral videos directly addressing the Irish.

But did such a massive and intense viral campaign translate into intent to watch? With 3 million fans on Facebook, there was a great jumping-off point to get dedicated fans excited to see what Burgundy’s been up to in the nine years since the first Anchorman. The 45 million YouTube views indicate these fans were engaged and saw the wide variety of video content being regularly dropped, although the positive buzz rate was surprisingly low.

Overall, Facebook and YouTube stats put Burgundy and his news team not a huge distance behind The Hobbit sequel. But Ferrell might have expected to be looking at higher Twitter and definitely higher search numbers at release, which is echoed by the solid but not record-breaking ticket sales thus far. Anchorman 2 might not hit the same grosses as this season’s earlier blockbuster sequels like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Thor: The Dark World, but it will go on to surpass the first movie’s total ticket sales.

  • Facebook: A
  • YouTube: A
  • Twitter: B
  • Search: C
  • Overall: B

47 Ronin is not the archetypal holiday film: the troubled Keanu Reeves epic debuted to a muted reception in Japan where it was expected to play well, and was predicted to underwhelm in the U.S. too.

But Ronin’s social stats told a slightly different story. Its numbers were not on the scale needed to threaten a smash hit, but with nearly 286,000 fans, almost 50% PTAT, 19 million trailer views and 80,000 tweets, 47 Ronin looked like it could have enough social awareness to put up a fight. A good search volume also reinforced the film’s potential.

However, while a big-budget production like 47 Ronin should have had digital data closer to Hobbit, it was instead on par with more critically anticipated films like Wolf. This was echoed in its box office performance on Christmas Day, coming in with only $7 million. While not high enough to recoup its bloated production costs, it wasn’t quite as abysmal an opening as some had predicted.

  • Facebook: C
  • YouTube: C
  • Twitter: B-
  • Search: B
  • Overall: C+

Grudge Match’s digital data promised it would flop. While nearly half of the small 115,000 Facebook fan base was engaged at release, Twitter and search volume were both low - the channels where the older audience you’d expect to be interested in this Rocky vs. Raging Bull nostalgia-fest are most active. Search was identical for another recent nostalgia-leaning film, Last Vegas, at 34,000, which performed on target at opening weekend, but Grudge Match looks set to go the way of Stallone’s last movie, Escape Plan, instead. Additionally burdened with a low YouTube view count of less than 4 million, the lowest view count of the Holiday season, after the trailer was dropped very late, there wasn’t enough awareness to make Grudge Match a winner at the box office with just $4 million taken on Christmas Day.

  • Facebook: C
  • Twitter: C
  • YouTube: D
  • Search: D
  • Overall: D

Appendix:

We believe that the social echo that an upcoming movie (and its stories, reviews, fan art, buzz, pictures, trailers and promotional videos) receives on the internet is a very good indicator of awareness, interest and intent. We are trying to make sense of all this echo and are trying to find the signal within the noise. Like many studios we follow four main areas of indication. Below we explain our methodology and its limitations:

Facebook

  • Number of likes (or fans) are taken from the official Facebook fan page
  • PTAT stands for People Talking About This: The number of times a story posted in a newsfeed has been liked, shared or commented on by users
  • Both numbers are public facing and incorporate not only the organic growth of a fan page, but also the growth that has been generated by paid media campaigns on Facebook
  • The numbers are global numbers

YouTube

  • YouTube trailer view count tracks all English language original video content about the movie on YouTube, down to videos with 100 views, whether they are officially published by a studio or published unofficially by fans
  • The Buzz ratio looks at the number of times unique users on YouTube have “liked” a video and given a “thumbs up” and puts it into relation to the overall trailer view count
  • Both numbers are public facing
  • The numbers are global numbers

Twitter

  • We count all tweets over the period of the last seven days, that include the movie's title plus a number of search words, e.g. “movie” OR a list of movie-specific hashtags
  • These numbers are conducted using a Twitter API partner service
  • The numbers are global numbers

Search

  • We use Wikipedia traffic as a reliable and solid proxy for Google Search volume
  • A title’s search volume is for the last 7 days before release
  • The numbers are global numbers
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