Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is projected to post a strong, but possibly not strong enough opening weekend (between $100m-$140m) when it debuts in three weeks, but that information is coming from the same tracking agencies who were absolutely wrong about Deadpool. So why are we paying attention to this?
Before you answer that, let’s take a moment to look back at how often the projections have led us astray in recent years. The following is a list of some of the more notorious projections vs. actual opening weekends for big movies since 2013. In the interest of fairness I included some instances where the projections were fairly spot-on. After the list, I’ve included an explanation of where exactly these estimates come from in the first place, and why there have been so many big misses recently.
Iron Man 3
Actual Opening: $174.1 million
Man of Steel
Actual Opening: $116.6 million
World War Z
Actual Opening: $66.4m
Actual Opening: $37.2m
Actual Opening: $53.1 million
Actual Opening: $55.7 million
Thor: The Dark World
Actual Opening: $85.7 million
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Actual Opening: $95 million
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Actual Opening: $91.6 million
Actual Opening: $93.1m
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Actual Opening: $90.8 million for the 3-day weekend, $110.5m for the 4-day Holiday
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Actual Opening: $100m
Actual Opening: $43.8m
Guardians of the Galaxy
Actual Opening: $94.3 million
Actual Opening for Interstellar: $47.5 million
To be fair, they were pretty much spot-on for Big Hero 6, which debuted to $56.2m.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1
Actual Opening: $121.8m
Actual Opening: $89m
Actual Opening: $67m
Actual Opening: $147.1 million
Avengers: Age of UltronActual Opening: $191.2 million
Actual Opening: $208.8 million
Pitch Perfect 2
Actual Opening for Pitch Perfect 2: $69m
They were right about Mad Max, though. It opened with $45m.
Ant-ManActual Opening: $57.2 million
Actual Opening: $25.6 million
Actual Opening: $15.3 million
Actual Opening: $70.4 million
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2
Actual Opening: $102.6 million
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Actual Opening: $247.9 million
Actual Opening: $132.4m for the 3-Day weekend; $152.2m for the 4-Day President’s Day Holiday
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Actual Opening (UPDATED 7/15/16): $166m
Here’s how this works: Prior to the release of every big movie, the film studios contract out to one of the leading tracking agencies (e.g., New Research Group, Box Office Analyst, MarketCast) to conduct surveys measuring how aware audiences are of the film in question and how likely they are to see it. The agencies compare the survey results to historical data from similar movies, and report their initial projections to the studio several weeks prior to the film’s release. Those projections are repeatedly updated right up to opening day.
For example, when projecting Jurassic World last summer the agencies used Man of Steel as their historical comparison because the two movies shared a similar release date (6/12 for Steel, 6/14 for World) and were both regarded as nostalgia-tinged franchise reboots. Comparing the two theoretically gave them a good idea of where Jurassic World seemed to be heading. I say “theoretically” because Jurassic World’s opening weekend ended up soaring $85m over pre-release projections. Was it really that stunning? Two years earlier, Man of Steel‘s opening weekend came in $40m above expectations.
There is another level to consider here. The studios usually devise their own internal projection, always airing on the more conservative side of what the tracking agencies are telling them. This intentionally feeds into a familiar narrative where the press tells us that the studio is expecting a relatively modest opening whereas the tracking suggests a much better opening. If the film’s actual opening ends up dwarfing both estimates it makes the studio’s success look all the more impressive.
That’s the game the studios have to play now, but once upon the time the tracking agency projections were completely secret, a mere tool used by the studio to determine where they might need to allocate more ad dollars. Let’s say a movie is not tracking well with women of a certain. The studio can try to address that through more TV ads during Shondaland on ABC.
However, thanks to The Hollywood Reporter the tracking agency projections never stay a secret anymore, leading people from the agencies to remind the press, “We’re not paid to predict box office, rather identify pockets of strength, threats and opportunities in the marketplace for the studio. … It’s a five-week journey with daily phone calls.”
Those phone calls aren’t nearly enough anymore. As I previously covered in more detail (here and here), pre-release ticket tracking continually struggles to contend with the fickle whims of the youth market. Plus, the historical models are all breaking down in this age where big movies are coming out in increasingly non-traditional release windows and routinely breaking box office records in the process. For example, R-rated comic book movies aren’t supposed to perform like summer blockbusters in February, and movies released the week before Christmas aren’t supposed to set all-time box office records. It’s hard to properly predict that type of performance when there’s nothing remotely close to a historical precedent.
As we get closer to March 25, 2016, the tracking agencies will gradually narrow down their Batman v Superman projections from the current, almost comically wide $100m-$140m range. Whatever they end up settling on could be somewhat accurate, give or take $5m-$8m either direction. After all, they weren’t too far off with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Cinderella, Mad Max: Fury Road and Ant-Man. However, as of late when the pre-release tracking misses it misses big.