Renowned for its cutthroat methods, ageing white male dominance and reluctance to adapt, Hollywood would not be everyone’s first guess as one of the most proficient industries using big data to revolutionise their business. In recent years the studios have attempted to sideline their total risk aversion, by trusting the voices of the twenty-first century to guide them. For all it’s flaws (and there are many of them), Hollywood could be somewhat forgiven for its past behaviour, in its annual dubious quest to to create the next summer blockbuster or cult comedy by following a strict process. As a result of numerous tried and tested formulas, studios have whittled down the factors to an exact science, to be replicated with minor tweaks. Many may squirm at the thought of vacuously empty sequels that simply demean the magic of the original, but Hollywood continues to churn out replica’s.
Why? Because in the past they had little else to base audience reaction on, save the odd focus group but even this cannot by any stretch imitate worldwide audience sentiment. For years their stance has remained firmly in the formulaic bracket, not unreasonably continuing to assume that because they liked the first they must like the second, perhaps even the ninth. Unpredictability and high uncertainty has plagued studio heads for decades, but with a worldwide focus group at the tip of their fingers, online data has created leverage for some much overdue experimentation in the film business.
Gone are the days of unrefined billboard advertising. Data has arrived in its droves and shows no signs of depleting. Such a development has resulted in an endless stream of information funnelled directly into studio executive’s hands. While they have yet to directly link audience sentiment with the contents of a script, online information has opened up the business of marketing films like never before. Specialist companies have been created specifically for the purpose of managing these large quantities of data.
The process of gauging audience reactions begins as far in advance as a year prior to release. PreAct, a service supplied by Rentrak commences conversation analysis and feeds the results back to studios. After the release of an initial trailer PreAct can gauge the reaction of audiences, compile analyses and inform the studio in order to tailor and improve the subsequent trailers based on these breakdowns.
Big Data Reveals Suicide Squad’s Hidden Audience
Suicide Squad’s anarchic first trailer sparked chaos in the online realm. PreAct accounted for over 1.3 million conversations relating to Suicide Squad’s initial trailer release, compared with a mere ninety eight thousand cumulative conversations for Spielberg’s summer offering, The BFG. After the initial trailer, numerous factions of society where crucially DC comic fans were not the sole drivers of conversation, backed the film. Warner Brothers now had a HD picture of their audience. PreAct harnessed this information and Suicide Squad’s hype cemented its place as one of the most talked about films of the year.
Not only did this anticipation drive much sought after word of mouth, it equally granted Warner Brothers the opportunity to tweak its marketing before release. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody accompanied the first Suicide Squad trailer released in January, offering fans a first glimpse of ‘the squad.’ Considerable changes were made to the second teaser trailer that followed shortly after in April. Margot Robbie’s hugely popular Harley Quinn was featured more prominently, with twice the number of snappy lines than in the original trailer. Whether this is one step of analysis too far or not, The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz may have subconsciously aided in placing a greater emphasis on Harley Quinn and the female members of the squad, in an attempt to tap into the equally lucrative but more elusive female demographic. In a crucial swing, one of the most hotly anticipated, male-targeted movies was opened up to appeal to women after Warner Brothers took heed of the information that flooded in from the initial trailer.
Online data shoots information directly into the studios, indicating preferences that ultimately dictate the direction of marketing campaigns. It begs the question whether this monumental industry shift will spill into other areas of the business. Studio executives are infamous for their grimaces when faced with the creative elements of their products. The creative process of creating a script, collaborating with directors, actors and crew is difficult to translate into the harsh climate of the business world. If studios truly take note of the gold mine of insight readily available in the public domain, we may witness an institutional overhaul whereby the audience indicates and the studio reciprocates. If our opinions and interests are being taken heed of to direct marketing campaigns then only time will tell if public consensus can sway Hollywood in ways previously unimaginable such as hammering down on their diversity problem. Audience-directed marketing campaigns may only be the beginning. Of course, it is with trepidation this new toy should be lauded. An audience-directed Ghostbusters reboot for example would have made for a perfect demonstration of the term ‘the audience is not always right,’ given the initial critical response and eventual unequivocal praise for the studio.
“When used effectively, Big Data has the potential to alleviate a portion of the risk aversion the film industry has internalized for decades.”
Hollywood could be forgiven in the past for its reluctance to deviate from the known, given that the success of a film can never truly be predicted. With the advent of big data however, where the world’s largest focus group is now at their fingertips, blind, impersonal marketing may no longer be a viable scapegoat. Online sentiment may be the coveted formula that studio executives have been in pursuit of, it is now a matter of competently utilising this information to tailor audience expectations to their offering. Warner Brothers revolutionary marketing campaign for Suicide Squad set pulses racing with every tailored teaser in the lead up to release. Fans swarmed the movie houses worldwide, contributing to the most successful August release ever. While the film was received poorly and reviews were teetering on suicidal, without a doubt, Warner Brothers hit the zeitgeist with its delicately constructed marketing strategy.
This article was initially published by the author of Film For Thought in the Irish Independent.