Three short days ago, Advertising Age ran a column titled "Why The Hunger Games Won't Make $100 Million Its Opening Weekend." The article was right -- the movie pulled in $155M through Saturday, and is still racking up the box office numbers. Oops.
Controversial headlines and contrary opinions are the stuff of online commentary (I know, I often write them myself). But this particular article stuck with me, for two reasons: 1) It was published in Ad Age, the grand doyenne of advertising, and 2) I knew the view it expressed was totally, completely and utterly wrong.
The author, Seraj Bharwani, is the chief analytics officer for Visible Measures, which tracks the effectiveness of shared online media. I appreciate his bravery for going so far out on a limb. But, in making his predictions, he may have forgotten the first lesson that every good marketer seems to grok intuitively: Know Thy Audience.
Know Thy Audience, part 1: The movie studios. Studios have a tried-and-true prediction model, developed from their favorite pre-release tracking tool: consumer surveys. The model said that John Carter would be a domestic bust. Guess what? It was. The model predicted a plus-$125M opening for Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows 2. Guess what? It hit $169M. The model even got The Dark Knight right, with a plus- $130M forecast (the movie pulled in $158M). Why suddenly would the tried-and-true be wrong? Because Visible Measures assumed that Lionsgate didn't know their audience.
Boston-based Visible Measures is far, far away from Hollywood, so one might assume that the company is not incredibly familiar with the butts-in-seats marketing tactics that are SOP for every movie release. Those tactics, interestingly enough, still include a huge amount of not-so-online media, which means that an analysis driven solely by online media metrics is going to omit a significant chunk of pertinent data. If Twitter feeds and online trailers were the only things driving movie attendance, Hollywood would have dropped their other expenditures long ago. Making and marketing movies is expensive, brah. Granted, Lionsgate spent a mountain of money online, but the campaigns were much more sophisticated than usual: not many kids' movies do product tie-ups with Rodarte and create Tumblr blogs focusing on fashion. It bears mentioning that Lionsgate went a step further, and didn't create a single trailer showing the action in the actual Hunger Games themselves, which possibly reduced the significance of the metric given the most weight by Visible Measures' analysis: online trailer views.
Which brings me to Know Thy Audience, part 2: The consumers. Yes, The Hunger Games (THG) books are a young adult (YA) franchise. Yes, they have some superficial similarities to the Twilight series, and perhaps an even stronger relationship to Harry Potter, which spanned gender and ages when it came to popularity. But the depth and breadth of the audience for THG books meant that it was a mistake to assume that the movie audience would not follow the same pattern - which is what happened in the Visible Measures analysis: they discounted the grownups.
Forbes' Meghan Casserly does a much better assessment, and she does it by starting in the right place: with the audience for THG books. Casserly notes that adults consumed the books in almost equal numbers to the kids (I myself read all three in four days after my teenage daughter handed them to me), meaning that the base for the movie moved way beyond the assumed click-happy YA contingent. Which also meant that Hollywood's plus-$100M estimate for the opening was right on the money, and then some.
To be fair to Visible Measures, the movie business is often a total crap shoot, where - to quote Shakespeare in Love - the success of any endeavor in the biz "is a mystery." THG could have been a bad movie (it's not), there could have been a massive East Coast blizzard opening weekend (there wasn't), girls who kick ass could be a theme whose time has passed (it hasn't). Lionsgate has got a massive hit on their hands: they knew the odds were in their favor, because they put both online and traditional media to work for them, and because they knew their audience.