Film News Lists

The Pre-Release Tracking Is Usually Wrong: A Recent History of Misleading Box Office Projections

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

“Based on tracking, Iron Man 3 could open between $135 million and $145 million in North America.” –THR

Actual Opening: $174.1 million

Man of Steel

“Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are suggesting a domestic debut of $75 million-plus. Internally, a number in the $85 million to $90 million range is being thrown about.”-THR

Actual Opening: $116.6 million

World War Z

Paramount is predicting an opening in the $40 million to $45 million, but more bullish box office observers with access to tracking believe the movie could open in the $50 million range. –THR

Actual Opening: $66.4m

Pacific Rim
Variety reported that early tracking of Pacific Rim suggests it will only take in about $30 opening weekend. –Amog

Actual Opening: $37.2m

The Wolverine

“Pre-release tracking shows the movie opening in the $65 million-plus range domestically.”-THR

Actual Opening: $53.1 million


In pre-release tracking overseen by THR, Alfonso Cuarón’s 3-D space film is poised to gross between $35 million and $40 million domestically this weekend – CheatSheet

Actual Opening: $55.7 million

Thor: The Dark World

“The sequel is pacing to open north of $75 million, according to rival studios with access to tracking.” –THR

Actual Opening: $85.7 million


Captain America: Winter Soldier

“Box-office observers believe the sequel will open north of $80 million domestically. More bullish forecasters believe it will hit $85 million.”-THR

Actual Opening: $95 million

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

“Heading into the weekend, pre-release tracking suggested the Sony tentpole might cross $95 million and best the opening of recent blockbuster Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” –THR

Actual Opening: $91.6 million


Going into the weekend, “Godzilla” was said to be on pace to earn between $65 million to $70 million – Variety

Actual Opening: $93.1m

X-Men: Days of Future Past

“Prerelease tracking indicates it will cross $100 million over the long Memorial Day weekend, with more bullish observers suggesting $125 million. Fox is being more cautious in its projections, saying $95 million to $100 million.” –THR

Actual Opening: $90.8 million for the 3-day weekend, $110.5m for the 4-day Holiday

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Those with access to tracking suggest the fourth installment in the action franchise will hit or cross $100 million in its North American debut – THR

Actual Opening: $100m


Lucy ScarJo
Pre-release tracking suggests Lucy will race past $30 million in its debut — many think it will cross $35 million – THR

Actual Opening: $43.8m

Guardians of the Galaxy

“Guardians of the Galaxy is expected to open to at least $65 million this weekend. Some believe it has a shot at approaching, or crossing, $70 million.”-THR

Actual Opening: $94.3 million


“Most tracking services have Interstellar and Big Hero 6 grossing between $50 million and $55 million for the three-day weekend.” –THR

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

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is heading for an opening weekend north of $130 million – TheWrap

Actual Opening: $121.8m



American Sniper

American Sniper
American Sniper is currently on pace to open with $35 million, according to pre-release tracking. –Wrap

Actual Opening: $89m


Thanks to females of all ages, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella could dance past $65 million in its North American debut in a needed boost for the box office. –THR

Actual Opening: $67m

Furious 7

“Furious 7 — the final film from the late Paul Walker — is expected to gross $115 million or more” –THR

Actual Opening: $147.1 million

Avengers: Age of Ultron

“Most are betting that Age of Ultron will launch to $210 million or better for the weekend, setting a new threshold for how high a film can open (one tracking service even has it at $224 million).” –THR
Actual Opening: $191.2 million

Jurassic World

“Opening 22 years after Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park stomped into theaters, the sequel is tracking to open to $125 million or higher.” –THR

Actual Opening: $208.8 million

Pitch Perfect 2

Tracking suggests both Pitch Perfect 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road will open in the $40 million range, but many believe Perfect 2 could exceed expectations – THR

Actual Opening for Pitch Perfect 2: $69m

They were right about Mad Max, though. It opened with $45m.


“Tracking services have [Ant-Man] debuting in the $55 million-$65 million range, but may believe it will come in on the high end, considering Marvel’s track record.” –THR
Actual Opening: $57.2 million

Fantastic Four

“Fantastic Four is expected to win the weekend with a debut of $40 million or more.” –THR

Actual Opening: $25.6 million


“Two of the major tracking services have Pan debuting at $21 million to $22 million, while a third has it opening between $26 million and $31 million.” –THR

Actual Opening: $15.3 million


“While Sony is predicting a more conservative opening around $65 million, other box office tracking services are expecting a debut as high as $85 million.” –EW

Actual Opening: $70.4 million

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2

“Mockingjay – Part 2 is heading for an opening weekend north of $125 million.” –Wrap

Actual Opening: $102.6 million

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“Tacking services project somewhere between $185 million and $210 million, with some of the most optimistic sources approaching $300 million. Within Disney, the predictions are apparently a little bit lower, closer to $170 million.” –SlashFilm

Actual Opening: $247.9 million



Deadpool Seat
“The Merc With A Mouth is predicted to bring in between $60 and $70 million, with some estimates going as high as $75 million.” –TrackingBoard

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

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 08.08.52.article_x4
The superhero movie debuted on tracking to huge numbers, suggesting an opening of $140 million if not more. WB insiders are being more cautious in suggesting a range of $110 million on the lower end – THR

Actual Opening (UPDATED 7/15/16): $166m

The Explanation

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.

Red, white and blue..and 7-Eleven

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.


  1. I thought the pre-ticket sales of BvS are higher than for Age of Ultron but lower than for Force Awakens (which is not really a surprise)? Oh, well, we have to wait and see. A lot hinges on the question, if the movie is actually good. Shouldn’t press screening start soon?

    1. The actual pre-ticket sales are similar to, but different than what I’m talking about. and are sources more people are looking to for predictive qualities since the traditional polling services offered by the tracking agencies don’t seem to work that well anymore. However, just like anything else I’ve seen examples of movies where the pre-ticket sales anticipated a bigger-than-expected opening, and movies where the pre-ticket sales were completely misleading.

      Right now, the tradtional tacking agencies have Batman v Superman making somewhere between $100m and $140m. Anything Batman v Superman does is going to be compared to Deadpool, fair or not, and as of right now Deadpool and its $132m opening could end up embarassing old Affleck and Cavill. Of course, that depends on how much faith you actually put into the tracking agencies, and though they are actually right from time to time the more advisable reaction is skepticism.

      As for the press screenings, I just did a quick Google search and I came up with nothing. So at this point I don’t know when it will screen for critics. I’m assuming it’ll be just like any big movie, and we can expect an embargo on reviews until a week or a couple of days before the release.

      1. Yeah, I know, but I somehow assumed that if pre-ticket sales are high, the awareness of a movie should be, too.
        I am ready to bet that at least Civil war won’t have much of an embargo. After the first rumours of the positive test screenings hit the web, Marvel suddenly moved the release date in my country. It will now be out over here one week before the US release (and I tell you, I will ensure that I am for once one of the first who gets to see it). Marvel usually does this, when they are confident in their property and want to create some early buzz, and it would be pretty useless to tell critics to stay quiet when people all over the web will already share their opinion about it.
        I guess it depends on how positive the reaction to BvS. The better the press react, the earlier they will lift the embargo.

    1. Yeah. There’s a fair bit of creative accounting going on here as well as underhanded moves by rival studios. If one studio knows it has a hit they can fuck with the press by letting them find out both what the tracking agencies think the movie will make and what the studio itself thinks will happen. The studio always airs on the conservative side, and when the movie inevitably beats all projections it makes them look all the better. However, if a studio knows it has a lemon they’ll try to guard their secrets. That’s when rival studios will try to get a hold of the tracking numbers and release it to the press to further a movie’s bad word-of-mouth.

      Or at least that’s been my understanding for how this plays out sometimes. I think that’s all normal, but when the tracking agencies keep missing so big on so many movies everyone gets mad because so much of what they do with marketing in the home stretch is keyed off the tracking. If those numbers are off $5-10m, that’s workable, but when they’re off $40-$90m everyone’s left asking, “WTF!?!”

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