Data Rich: ComScore’s Movie Group measures the box-office world

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Cinemas Features

comScore’s history is relatively brief but relentlessly ambitious. Founded as comScore Networks in Reston, Virginia in 1999, their original purpose was to create a very large consumer panel online to track online commerce. As client expectations and industry needs evolved, so did their measurement services.

Along the way, their acquisition of seven other companies helped them to expand their capabilities and geographic footprint, especially in Latin America and Europe. Their introduction of Unified Digital Measurement in 2009 provided an innovative solution to audience understanding by organically blending both panel-based and census-based measurement approaches into one unified methodology. Their merger with Rentrak in 2016 enabled the company to become a cross-platform media-measurement firm—and the global leader in theatrical box-office measurement.  

Today, comScore is a publicly traded company with more than 1,800 employees, 3,200 clients and a global reach into more than 70 countries. As a recognized leader in measuring advertising, audience and consumer behavior, comScore works across multiple business sectors including automotive, consumer packaged goods, financial services, retail, pharmaceuticals and the entertainment industry. In their Los Angeles office, Stephen Buck, senior VP, business relations, is comScore’s “movie guy.”

Stephen Buck: comScore’s movie group services 65 countries and has offices in 13 locations around the world including Munich, Paris, Madrid, Mexico City, Sydney—but here, our Los Angeles office is the liaison with the studios with respect to the measurement of the movies. We provide the data and the tools to do measurement, activation and planning in the movie business. Anything dealing with the theatrical performance of a product from a studio or a film company comes across our desks. We’re the group that works with studios as well as with exhibition and are a company able to combine data assets beyond box office; I don’t think any other company is positioned the way we are.

On their sources of data:

We’ve been in the business of collecting box-office information at the theatre level for over 15 years. We link to the point-of-sale systems at various theatres; in the U.S. and Canada, we connect to over 6,000 theatres. That represents over 95 percent of the North American box office. We have more than 25,000 theatres around the world in 65 countries, so we’ve become the dominant source for global box-office information; studios can see how well their films are performing around the world—not just in some parts of the United States.

We collect this information on a real-time basis and we can push it, or our partner clients can pull it for themselves; they can see what we see, when we see it. When a movie opens on a Friday afternoon, the people at the studios are sitting there with their hands on the “refresh” key. We see what’s being used—and we use those learnings to continually improve the capabilities of our system.

On real-time, integrated data collection:

Theatres send us data in real time, telling us how well the title is performing at a particular location, enabling for geographic analysis. We and our client partners use our software tools to make sense of it. We can look at how well it’s playing in particular circuits, or by state or city, on a worldwide basis—or by a number of other measures. Studios use those numbers to understand the overall performance of their movies in the marketplace.

But then, to enable them to understand the nuances of that performance, we have a network of theatres where we “poll” to get audience information. Over time, we have tripled, if not quadrupled, the traditional sample sizing of movies to get audience insights into any particular movie. Beyond understanding current performance, this data enables us to understand, for example, the likely longevity the movie will have in the marketplace—and to know what to expect from the ancillary markets. We can learn how audiences felt about the movie they saw, and how they are going to act on those feelings. Are they going to recommend the movie? Are they going to purchase the DVD? And we can see those intentions by age, gender, ethnicity or other demographics and psychographics.

On the use of the information comScore provides:

The information we provide offers a terrific way for exhibitors and distributors to communicate with one another. Studios use this information to plan, distribute and analyze their movies—and to understand the competitive landscape—to know what their competitors are doing in the multiplex. When they’re set to open a movie, they need to know if they are coming up against a strong headwind. So, this portfolio of data that we collect and offer provides background and input for executives to make key financial decisions—whether it’s marketing, distribution, publicity or any other aspect of studio operations.

The information also helps exhibitors to understand how well the different titles are performing on their screens—at both a circuit-wide and individual complex level—and to see the competitive landscape: how well they’re doing versus the other theatres that are in their zone. It also helps them with their planning—in terms of food, beverage and staffing. 

We provide an open environment to those qualified for access—and in this open environment, using the information we provide, a studio can understand the perspective of the exhibitor and the exhibitor can understand the perspective of a distributor.

On the different levels of analysis comScore enables:

We’re the only company that has worldwide box-office information collected in real time that allows for micro-analysis as well as macro-analysis. Instead of publishing a “one-size-fits-all” standardized report, we provide an amazing Interactive Dashboard that allows our partner clients to do the analytics they need in real time when they’re wanted.

The Dashboard offers micro-analysis to drill down and, for instance, see exactly how well a particular theatre is doing at a particular showtime with a particular movie on a particular day. And its macro-analytic capability lets our clients extrapolate out to look at, as an example, how well a movie is performing in Los Angeles versus New York City, or France versus Australia.

Each studio group—distribution, including domestic and international—as well as marketing, publicity and other functions has its own unique informational needs. The Dashboard provides the information for manipulation and analysis by each group. And the Dashboard is constantly being upgraded—and not just by comScore; it’s being enhanced by our clients. They’re the ones who provide feedback and we have a very collaborative dialogue with them; we modify its capabilities to meet their needs.

On using analytics to predict future box office:

Many times, analytics are done at a macro level: “I predict this movie will open to a $50 million weekend in North America.”  We predict at the theatre level. We recognize that each movie affects every other movie playing in the same complex, maybe the same city. What happens if you take a “$50-million-predicted movie” out of the marketplace? Every other movie—all things considered—may do more. What happens if, instead, you put a $75-million-predicted movie in? The other movie grosses may go down.

Studios can use those analytics to position the new movie—and determine how many prints to release—while their exhibition partners can use that data to schedule the other movies playing in the same complex to maximize the business for everyone.

There are so many factors—ratings, genre, run-time, cast—that are important attributes for consideration in predicting the box-office revenue and life of a movie. Computers have made [analysis] a lot more sophisticated. However, every movie is a nuanced product; it tells its own story in its own unique way. It’s not a commodity. Every piece of content has its own unique life.

On studios sharing their long-range plans:

Studios are our input for what movies are being planned and the marketing elements related to those movies before and during their release. We have information on our calendars quite far in advance—right now, we’re going out through the year 2025, not with a lot of specifics, but with some movies being scheduled for release on certain dates that year. We’re assisting the studios by telegraphing to the exhibitors what’s being planned. The studios want the theatres to be prepared; the popcorn machines need to be ready to go.

At the same time, when there’s a discussion at the studio level regarding which movies to greenlight, they’re not only looking at the theatrical box office, they’re considering a lot more. They have to consider their movie’s ancillary life and they’re also paying more attention to what other licensing opportunities may exist. That’s why we’re seeing things on the release calendar so far out—because there’s a much bigger play available today. The box office is still incredibly important—but it’s a component for many of these content providers.

On trends in the analytics business:

The world is moving towards expecting more information collected from more sources and aggregated in ways that it can be analyzed and understood more quickly and completely and be made more useful for more purposes.

As companies—our clients and partners who provide and use the information we collect and supply—expand and diversify and become more complex, they need different data sets beyond box office. VOD data. Digital activity through mobile devices. Television viewing. That’s something we’re able to provide.

We have over 119 million set-top boxes, for example, collecting information in the U.S. and Canada to understand viewing habits and behavior—and we’re the only company positioned to allow these other data assets to be merged with box office for multi-screen measurement. It’s not just about knowing the theatre; it’s about understanding where and when the consumer consumes media and how this is all related.

On the comScore philosophy:

We’re here to assist the industry. We have strong partnerships with the MPAA, with NATO, with every major and mini-major studio; we work with over 75 independent film companies in the U.S. alone. We work with our partners for their best interests and their unique needs.

We’re mindful that we’re trusted by our data partners with their confidential information, so the type of information we disclose publicly is aggregated or information that’s in the public domain; most of the information, in the way we collect it and analyze it, is only for the use of our client partners.

On the future:

The way movies are consumed in 2018 is very different from the way they were consumed when Rentrak began measuring the theatrical box office in 2001. There is definitely a shift in the types of movies that are performing and there’s an evolution in our industry and I think that will continue. 

Global viewing is up. Consumption of movies on mobile devices is up. Digital downloads are up. At the same time, we just had another $11 billion year at the U.S. theatrical box office. So, what does this tell you? While consumers have more options, they’re still going to the movies. Movies are alive and well, and thriving.

It’s a much more complex business, but it’s also a more exciting business and we’re proud to be able to be an integral part of it, to help our client partners make smarter and better decisions using the information we collect and the tools we provide to keep theatrical entertainment strong for the future.