Can Google Predict Box Office Success?


Blockbuster or flop? That is the question that burns in the minds of movie studios and marketers prior to a film’s release. Although they invariably hope for the former, it’s generally a crap shoot until a film’s opening weekend. No more, however. Google’s Think Insights group just released its report, “Quantifying Movie Magic with Google Search,” which reveals how a movie’s level of success can be determined up to a month before its opening by examining trailer-related searches.

According to the report, analysts can compare the searches, considered a “key leading indicator,” with the status of a film’s franchise, which measures whether a movie is part of a successful franchise such as James Bond or Star Trek. In fact, the Google team believes it can predict the box-office revenue with 94-percent accuracy.

“While we’ve always known that trailers are an important aspect of the movie decision-making process, we were surprised at how strongly trailer search volume is linked to intent at this particular point in time,” Jennifer Prince, Google’s head of industry, media and entertainment, told Wired in an email. “While news articles or movie reviews can give you the facts from another person’s perspective, movie trailers allow individuals to experience the film firsthand, and that’s what can really help a moviegoer form an opinion about a movie.

The ability to predict a movie’s success four weeks before its release could be invaluable to movie marketers, who often have little data with which to work until the day before the premiere, at which point they can take little action to change opening-weekend outcomes.

While an accurate opening weekend forecast calculated the day before premiere is certainly a valuable data point for planning post-release marketing strategy, it doesn’t leave movie marketers with very much time to react,” the Google report notes. “Fortunately, Google (and YouTube) search data gives a great indication of where a movie is headed as early as four weeks from release week.

Don’t believe Google’s formula is accurate? The report offers a pretty convincing example. Last year, Warner Bros. anticipated its hit “Magic Mike” would gross $15 to $20 million during its opening weekend, but the Channing Tatum flick surpassed expectations to $39 million. Google’s formula would have predicted $40 million based on trailer searches in the month before the “Magic Mike” premiere. Likewise, Google could have predicted “Battleship” would have fallen below the $40 million expectations, grossing less than $30 million—it earned $25.5 million.

The formula is a bit more complex when forecasting earnings from films that are part of a popular franchise. For example, Google predicted a $160 million opening weekend for “The Hunger Games,” relatively close to the $152 million in tickets sold for the film. Overall, Google found that a movie searched for at least 250,000 times per week more than another film will generate $4.3 million more in box office receipts during its opening weekend.

In fact, Google examined the 99 top-grossing films in 2012 and predicted opening weekend box-officer earnings with 94-percent accuracy when it factored in its franchise status and month of release. Likewise, Google also reports it can predict full box-office earnings  with 92 percent accuracy as much as two weeks before a film’s theatrical release. For that metric, Google examines searches for a film’s title combined with franchise status and the number of screens on which the movie is showing.

Google’s powers of prediction are made possible by a growing number of people searching for movies ahead of their releases. According to Google, a 56-percent increase in movie-related searches occurred from 2011 to 2012. In fact, 61 percent of all moviegoers use online resources to research a film. The average movie fan will consult 13 sources before seeing a film.