SXSW 2015 Re-Cap: Predicting Box Office Performance

The first notable case or example from SXSW that I would like to share with you in more detail is from the session “The Link Between Social Media and the Box Office“, presented by David Herrin, Head of Research at the United Talent Agency. Herrin and his team have developed a tool called “Preact” which allows them to monitor social media conversations surrounding an upcoming movie, up to 365 days in advance.


Tracking Dimensions

Preact doesn’t measure views but what UTA calls “engagement”, i.e. the volume of posts regarding the movie. The resulting hits are classified into positive and negative comments and can be used by UTA and the producing studio as a status check to see what the public opinion regarding the movie in question is like at and up to that point. Based on the volume of posts and the sentiments expressed in them, Preact assigns the movie a number between 1 and 100 to predict the movie’s box office performance (1 predicting a bad performance and 100 predicting an extremely good one).

As a result, studios and producers can see 12 to 6 months ahead of a movie’s opening weekend how the movie will perform, and adjust their communication tactics if necessary to improve performance.


Ideal Conversation Balance

In the ideal case, there is a balance between three factors: The volume of posts, a positive sentiment, and organic conversation. Organic conversation refers to posts that were created by users themselves, and not “push”/advertising messages from marketing departments. If there is an imbalance between push and organic conversations, it leads to bad results. For example, if there is too much push communication in relation to organic conversation around an upcoming movie, it means that the users don’t care about the movie enough to post about it themselves and to join online conversations about it. If there are too many organic posts, a studio’s communication department might have to step up their game a little bit to make sure the users’ interest in the movie is met with relevant information about it.

Consequently, analysing both the Preact score of a movie and the nature/content of the online conversation surrounding it allows producers to spot potential messaging and overall communication issues early on. There are a variety of drivers of online conversations about a movie: Online trailers, early & smart TV buys, film festivals showing the movie, conventions, posters, and theater displays, for example. At the same time, however, the message from the producing studio must be clear, otherwise, the online conversation dies out or turns bad.


Preact Example: 21 Jump Street

In the case of the recent adaptation of 21 Jump Street (2012) for example, evaluating the online conversation via Preact showed that the consumers didn’t understand what the movie was supposed to be about, as it was not only a new adaptation, but had also changed the tone of the movie significantly. Sony reacted to these news by repeating trailers again and again and by showing different clips and trailers that gave consumers a better understanding of the new adaptation. 21 Jump Street went on to make over $200 million at the box office.


Preact enabled Sony to adapt the communication tactics and message for 21 Jump Street
Preact enabled Sony to adapt the communication tactics and message for 21 Jump Street (2012)


At the moment, Preact only evaluates the conversations taking place on Facebook and Twitter, but Herrin’s team is already working on a tumblr integration. They are also planning on expanding the tool from the US American and Canadian market to other English-speaking regions soon (e.g. UK), and also to other key, non-English-speaking regions, such as China.


Personal Thoughts

The case of Preact struck a particular chord with me due to its universal applicability. It is not very surprising that such a tool was developed by the movie industry; after all, Hollywood has desperately tried for years to find a formula or predictor of success for their multi-million dollar investments. Now, thanks to Preact, Hollywood seems to have taken a big step into that direction.

However, the use of Preact extends far beyond the entertainment industry. Consumer brands could also make very good use of it and predict the performance of a new product launch, while news services could use the tool to detect the stories most relevant to their audiences. Needless to say, there are also countless applications for detecting trends early on; this knowledge could be useful for companies, investors, or anyone else running a business based on the prediction of trends and user behavior.



SXSW 2015 Key Entertainment Trends


As some of you may have gathered from my Twitter feed, I was back at SXSW this year. Just like last year, my time at SXSW has been incredibly inspirational and educational, and there are a few key entertainment trends that I would like to share with you. On top of that, there will be summaries of two panels that I found demonstrated the current entertainment trends according to SXSW best. Let’s jump right in.


There are three key entertainment trends that I was able to identify at SXSW:


  • Continued efforts to create immersive experiences
  • Trying to create marketing that is entertainment
  • Taking community management to the next level



Immersive Experiences


Both entertainment and consumer brands are continuing their efforts to create immersive experiences for their fans. While entertainment brands lend themselves to such experiences a bit more easily, producers are still experimenting with different methods of immersion to varying degrees of success. Television shows are among the key drivers in this regard. Here we see continued attempts to create second screen experiences, mostly via smartphone and table apps, but also the exploitation of social media and of new technologies for both unconventional marketing and storytelling methods.


The main examples in this respect are the SyncScreen app by the company of the same name, and the Immersion platform by Portal Entertainment. SyncScreen is a second screen app for smart devices that you can use anytime; it syncs with the happenings on screen via the show’s audio stream and offers different content at different storytelling points. Immersion, on the other hand, contains a feature that reads the user’s facial reaction, creating the possibility to adjust the storytelling to the user reaction – among other things.


Example of the Sync Screen app for Gory Games
Example of the Sync Screen app for Gory Games




Another interesting example are Phillips Hue Connected Lightbulbs, which can connect to the TV change color and are dimmed and lit according to the happenings on screen, as in the case of Sharknado.



Marketing as Entertainment


This year, SXSW has also shown how the line between marketing and entertainment becomes increasingly blurred. While this happens both in consumer goods branding and in entertainment branding, entertainment once again lends itself to this trend rather easily. The obvious intention behind this trend is to market to audiences without the message feeling like marketing but more like entertainment. This trend presents great opportunities for transmedia storytelling, of course, if the entertainment content presented as part of the marketing is additional content or a new experience not found in the content of the advertised driving platform. In this trend, the brand almost takes a backseat to the primary entertainment experience, in hopes that the feelings the entertainment experience generates become linked to the brand in the audience’s mind, and that it leaves the audience wishing for more of the same story or universe.


The main example here is the “Three-Eyed Raven”, an entertainment (or marketing?) experience created by HBO and Elastic to foster engagement among Game of Thrones fans while the show was out of season (I will cover this panel in more detail in a later post). Geico’s pre-roll YouTube ads that both are and aren’t ads also fall under this category.


One of Geico's "Unskippable" Pre-Roll Ads
One of Geico’s “Unskippable” Pre-Roll Ads




The Next Level of Community Management


The importance of community management and social media use to create and engage with loyal fans is of course no longer news to consumer and entertainment brands. However, this year at SXSW was all about how this community and fan engagement could be taken to the next level. This trend essentially forms the basis of the first two trends mentioned: In order to create immersive entertainment experiences, an entertainment brand must first have a dedicated fan base that follows the brand on different channels, and that is actively looking for any new piece of content, whether it is disguised marketing or not.


The SXSW 2015 sessions were full with both company and entertainment executives who monitor online conversations surrounding their brands closely in order to make predictions of product performance (see coming post about the “The Link Between Social Media and the Box Office” presentation), identify crucial influencers and torch-bearers, and to leverage existing and new audiences and fan communities. There was also a lot of talk about how brands can become integral parts of their user’s lives, from the concept of “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.“ (Simon Sinek) to turning brands into movements by offering consumers the possibility to create their own narratives surrounding a brand (and to put the narrative into action within a local community; John Hagel).


Needless to say, there was also a lot of talk about what to do when an online community crisis (e.g. a shitstorm) hits.




The Common Denominator

All in all, it becomes clear that these three trends have one thing in common: The wish to completely encompass the user, to meet them wherever they go, and to fundamentally fuse the identity of the user/consumer with the brand. From a marketing standpoint, such a fusion would of course be the Holy Grail. However, I have also heard a few critical voices throughout SXSW regarding this trend. After all, a brand is a careful, artificial construct, and one should probably ask themselves if it is a good thing to integrate something designed with very specific purposes in mind (i.e. mostly profit) into one’s identity. This is definitely a thought that I will ponder over a little in the next few months and years, especially when we get to see just how intertwined personal identity and a brand can become.



Having talked about the broader trend context, I will offer a bit more detailed insights into the following two panels in the next few days, as these sessions represent the trends mentioned above particularly well:


Game of Thrones: Creating Immersive Entertainment (SXSW schedule)” and “The Link Between Social Media and the Box Office” (SXSW schedule).