CinemaScore's Ed Mintz: Hollywood's secret box-office swami
You never see him at any fancy movie premieres or making the rounds of the talent agencies. He hasn't turned up on any Hollywood power lists. But the 68-year-old Ed Mintz has quietly emerged as a key player in the movie business over the past year, thanks to the growing popularity of CinemaScore, his Las Vegas-based market research company that provides an invaluable piece of information to studio insiders every Friday night. His reports reveal just how much -- or little -- moviegoers liked the new movies that invade America's multiplexes each weekend.
The CinemaScore letter grade offers a surprisingly accurate assessment of a film's eventual theatrical box-office performance. In 2007, Mintz predicted that, based on the A grade it received from opening-night moviegoers, that "Transformers" would make $319 million. It made exactly $319 million over the course of its domestic box-office run. This summer, seeing that "Land of the Lost" earned a lowly C-plus from moviegoers when it opened, Mintz (with the aid of his son, Harold, who handles most of the prognostication data), predicted that the Will Ferrell comedy would make $48 million. It made $49 million.
When "Bruno" earned a C grade from moviegoers, Mintz predicted it would make $57 million. It ended up making $60 million. He was right on the nose with the comedy "Observe and Report," which came out this spring, earning a C from moviegoers. The movie made $24 million, which was exactly what Mintz had projected. Earlier this year, impressed by the A score that "The Hangover" received from moviegoers, he projected that the unheralded comedy would make $228 million. It ultimately earned $275 million. But at the time of its release, it would've been hard to find anyone betting the movie would make $150 million, much less the $228 million Mintz pegged for its box-office cume.
Mintz has his share of mistakes, being too low on "Taken," the surprise late winter hit that made $145 million (Mintz had it making $70 million). He was too high on "Fast & Furious," which he predicted would make $180 million but only made $155 million. But most of his picks, based on rank and file moviegoer satisfaction levels, are right in the ballpark
CinemaScore grades are delightfully simple to understand. If a movie earns an A, it was a true hit with its target audience. A B grade signals general satisfaction, if not wild enthusiasm. A C grade is bad news, the equivalent of a failing grade. Opening-night audiences rarely give Ds and Fs. According to Mintz, opening-night moviegoers are the people most eager to like a new film, so the grades tend to be on a curve -- if the biggest fans give a film a B-minus, it signals that the average moviegoer would like the movie even less.
Studio executives have learned to ignore CinemaScore's grades at their peril. "In the past 12 or so months, everyone in the business has become obsessed with CinemaScore, perhaps because we're all fascinated by how instant movie word of mouth has become," says Paramount Pictures Vice Chairman Rob Moore, who like most of his peers is always on the lookout for the weekend's new scores, which arrive in studio e-mail in-boxes at around 11 p.m. West Coast time. "You have to say that it's become a huge piece of our prognostication equation. When the numbers come in Friday night, it's an instant and very accurate indicator of word of mouth."
Because studio executives are always eager to share evidence of their new film's success or gloat over one of their rival's failures, Mintz's grades rocket through the industry at warp speed over the weekend (the studios each pay roughly $5,000 to $10,000 a year for access to Mintz's information, though some newer clients are paying considerably more). In fact, a potent sign of the CinemaScore success story is how quickly its grades have become a pivotal part of mainstream media box-office reporting. The Times' Ben Fritz, who has become my favorite box-office chronicler, is predicting that "Couples Retreat," Universal's new comedy, has a bright box-office future. Why? He wrote over the weekend that "despite negative reviews, audiences gave 'Couples Retreat' a B, according to market research firm CinemaScore, and ticket sales rose from Friday to Saturday, a sign of good buzz that signals the movie could ultimately gross well over $100 million domestically."
Mintz is even more bullish, predicting that the film will ultimately make $133 million, not simply because it earned a B grade, but because there is little in the way of comedy competition to steal potential moviegoers away in the coming weeks. In fact, Mintz is quick to stress that his research information provides far more valuable information than just a letter grade.
"You can't tell from just the grade how well a movie is going to do," he told me when he was in town recently. "You need to go deeper and compare its performance to a host of other factors, starting with its rating, its genre and the demographics of its audience, along with similar films from the past that had pretty much the same grades and demographics. What we can project is comparables, based on everyone's movies over a period of years."
So how did CinemaScore emerge as such a fascinating research tool?
Mintz has always had a way with numbers. He spent more than two decades as a data processor for dental groups in Los Angeles before moving to Las Vegas in 1990. But he'd always believed there was a better way to measure and predict movie performance. "In 1978, my wife and I, along with two other couples, went to see Neil Simon's 'The Cheap Detective,' " he recalls. "We went because the critics had given it good reviews and we all loved Neil Simon, but we walked out going, 'What was that? That wasn't what we expected at all.' It's a problem you still have today, with movies like 'Funny People,' that just didn't deliver what people expected."
Mintz had an epiphany -- what if he could figure out, in a timely manner, what the public did want to see? Over the years, he attempted various pre-CinemaScore experiments. He had a prognostication radio show that aired on KMPC and was syndicated to other stations. He sold research data to "Entertainment Tonight" for years. Finally, in 2002, he assembled the present-day format, which offers studio subscribers instant grades on Friday night, as well as more sophisticated information, including box-office comps and predictions, later in the weekend.
Although Mintz compiles his prognostications using extremely complex statistical analysis, the CinemaScore card that is handed out to moviegoers on Friday night is incredibly simple. Barely bigger than a wallet-sized photo, it asks moviegoers to give their age and gender in addition to providing a grade for the film they've just seen. It also asks if they would rent the film or buy the movie on DVD or Blu-ray, and elicits a reason for attending the movie (Was it the leading actor or actress? The film genre? The director? Or subject matter?).
Mintz got the idea for the card one night when he was attending services at his local temple. He saw a pledge card that offered congregation members a choice of possible donations. "I went -- bing! That's perfect. So I took that pledge card and made it into my reaction survey," he explains. "The whole idea is to keep it simple."
His conclusions about movie box office are not simple at all since, for Mintz, the letter grade a movie earns is just the tip of the iceberg. As an example, he cites "State of Play," the Russell Crowe-starring journalism drama that was a high-profile flop earlier this year. The movie get an A-minus grade from CinemaScore, yet only made $37 million at the box office. So if got an A-minus, why didn't it do better?
Mintz offers a compelling explanation. His demographic research showed that a whopping 55% of the film's opening-night audience was 50 and older, the oldest demographic possible. Younger moviegoers stayed away in droves. "That tells you that the movie is in trouble right away," he says. "It means that the audience who most wanted to see the film was over 50. So even though they really liked the movie, it didn't draw any sizable amount of younger moviegoers, who are the people that drive a film at the box office. It did only $14 million in its opening weekend, and when you have a Russell Crowe movie and only open to $14 million, you know you aren't going anywhere."
Not everyone in the business is enamored by CinemaScore's new prominence, since the widespread proliferation of its scores can be a double-edged sword. "It can be a pretty dangerous piece of information," says one marketing chief who asked to remain anonymous, "since it means that the general public, who all read the box-office stories, can now find out right away that a movie got a C from real moviegoers, which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a movie gets a bad grade, it's like putting a weapon into the hands of your competitors, who are all too happy to spread the bad news."
On the other hand, studios are quick to use CinemaScore results to fine-tune their marketing campaigns. If a rival movie gets a surprisingly high grade, a studio may feel forced to make a more ambitious media buy for the movie it is releasing the following weekend, sensing that it could be in a bigger fight for a key target demographic. If a rival film gets a poor grade, the studio may feel emboldened to go after a key demographic that it had previously thought was out of reach.
CinemaScore's real value may come from its hype-free sensibility. Studio marketers love to say that one of their new films has played through the roof at an early test screening. But many executives acknowledge that earning a good score at an NRG screening--where you get to see the movie for free--isn't the same as earning a good grade from CinemaScore, which derives from people who've actually paid $10, hired a baby-sitter and sat in traffic for an hour getting to the movie theater. Mintz's company, which now has 34 polling groups in 25 major cities, also provides a much broader moviegoer sampling than a studio preview, whose scores are often based on patrons from one city, usually Los Angeles.
When I tell Mintz that one studio executive offered the ultimate compliment, saying he wouldn't ever bet against CinemaScore's grade rankings, Mintz responds with an infectious laugh. "After all these years, I'm not gonna bet against myself either."