Why the Box Office Tracking numbers have been wrong so often this year, and why John Carter is really tracking at 40m, not 25m

John Carter News

For weeks now, Boxoffice.com has had John Carter opening at $25m, and yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that a major tracking service had downgraded the projected opening from $30m to $25m.  So $25m is emerging as “the number”, according to the tracking services.  If this turns out to be true and John Carter opens at that low number, it will be a major disappointment for Disney and probably spell doom for any hope of a sequel for the sci-fi epic that Disney with the clear intention that it would spawn a franchise.  With the first three books already optioned, and a total of 11 books available – it’s clear what Disney hopes will happen.  But $25m opening weekend won’t get it done.  

So with the dismal figure of $25m being bandied about — does John Carter still have a realistic chance to open well enough so that, with legs and good overseas BO, a sequel can be generated?  Or is the writing already on the wall?  Our view is this: A disciplined look at the available data suggests that no, the writing is not yet on the wall, and in fact John Carter is likely tracking at about $40m if all factors are considered.

Let’s start by looking back a week.  The same tracking outfits that have John Carter at $25m had Lorax at a 40-50m opening.  It opened at $70m.  A few weeks back they had Safe House and The Vow at 20m — they opened at 40m.  Although it would be a stretch to say that the tracking has low for every major release this year — the general pattern that has emerged is just that.  The new films are frequently, if not consistently, outperforming the tracking estimates.   Not surprisingly — overall box office gross is up by 16% versus the same period a year ago, and there is nothing in the week-to-week trending that would suggest there is any softening as March 9 approaches.  So JC enters the marketplace at a time when tracking is frequently failing to accurately predict the opening — and when there is an overall robust market running 16% ahead of the same period last year, and 24% ahead in the most recent weekend.  Both of these factors suggest that JC may perform better than the tracking estimates.

But it’s not enough to just assume that the tracking estimates are low.   There is data available to anyone who cares to drill down into it which can help identify whether there is a likely flaw in the tracking figures, or not.   All one has to do is go to Box Office Mojo, open up an excel spreadsheet, and start drilling down into the data that is there — data that includes day by day box office gross for every major film; plus weekend by weekend; year against year; genre tracking; “similar movie” tracking, etc, etc.

Our little investigation started from the (reasonable, we think) assumption that if the tracking figures for JC are reasonably on target, then they should correlate with the overall weekend Top 12 Gross — or in other words, if you plug in the $25m JC tracking number and the tracking numbers for the other two new releases; then apply prudent and relatively easy-to-predict numbers for all the other films (keeping in mind that films already released have established patterns which make the prediction much easier) — then what should happen is that the number that the top 12 films add up to should be a number that makes sense for the overall weekend total — keeping in mind that aside from tracking individual films, an entire separate discipline is tracking the overall weekend gross (or Top 12 Gross, which is more manageable).  There should be “harmony” between the tracking for the new releases, and this overall Top 12 Total.

Is there?

We considered:

  • “Tracking” as predicted by the tracking polls.
  • Recent history of Tracking Polls vs Actuals
  • Total Weekend BOG (or Top 12) for previous 10 weeks, and for the same period a year ago.
  • Any “X Factors” that can be defined

New Films Opening March 9
First of all, the tracking estimates are, on average,  the following for the three new releases:

  • John Carter – $25m
  • Silent House – $11m
  • A Thousand Words – $6m

The first question that comes to mind is — how do these numbers square with the macro picture of the overall Box Office Gross. In other words, if you plug those three numbers into a model of the overall box office gross, weekend by weekend and this year against last year — do the numbers make sense?

Well, we did that.  First of all it’s important to understand that generally speaking, the volatile portion of the box office are the New Releases — these are the films who’s outcome is hard to predict.  Once a film has been theaters for even one weekend, there are patterns that tell you what will happen next, once the first weekend has been established.  For example — an average second week drop off is 35-45% but it’s possible to estimate more closely than that by studying the drop-offs experienced by the film’s director in his/her previous movies, or earlier editions in the franchise.  In the case of Lorax, there is very strong evidence to suggest that the drop off will be right around 40%.

So right away, if you apply the 40% drop off to Lorax, and reasonable, easy to predict (because they are already in the marketplace) drop-offs for the other films already in release– and you apply the tracking numbers listed above for the new releases, the result is $117m for overall Top 12 Box Office Gross for the weekend of March 9.   That would be on the heels of a weekend–March 2–in which Top 12 Box Office Gross was $153m.  That means a weekend-to-weekend drop of 24%  How often does that happen?  Answer, not very often.

So right away, there’s a disparity between the predicted overall BOG using the tracking estimates, and the predicted overall BOG just using a Macro model of the overall trends.

Looking a little deeper — if you look at the last five years and compare the last weekend of Feb, with the second weekend of March, an interesting pattern emerges.  And by the way — why choose the last week of Feb , then skip a week?  Answer: Because the last week of Feb is usually the end of the “doldrums” with a major film typically released on the first weekend in March — creating substantial volatility for the first weekend of March.  The patterns are quite a bit more consistent when you apply this metric, and thus more meaningful for projections.

So if you look at this–in four of the last five years the 2nd Weekend in March has been up an average of about 25% over the last weekend in Feb.   Now remember — using the “tracking” model, we get 117m for March 9 weekend.  Using this model we get $141M.  Meaning — if you simply apply the average increase from Last Weekend in Feb to Second Weekend in March — you get a Top 12 BOG of 141M, not $117m.

Are there other reasons we should consider the overall figure of $117m to be suspect?

Well, for starters, last year the Top 12 for the same weekend was $114m and this year is running 16% ahead of last year, so using that metric the projection for March 9 would be 135M.   But remember — last year in this frame Disney released the mega-disaster Mars Needs Moms and the overall box office was still at 114m.  Does anyone seriously think that Disney’s entry this year will just do $6m?

Okay — so just using a couple of fairly simple tools as described above, it seems highly unlikely that overall Top 12 BOG will end up at 117m as predicted by the “tracking” model.  So let’s drill down a little more deeply.  The following chart contains the actuals for March 2 weekend for all of the Top 12 films; then three projection models — each of which includes “plenty of room for Lorax” while also taking into consideration the overall Top 12 figures.

  • Per Tracking:  This model is what we can expect if the tracking is correct.  It uses the average figures for the new releases “as per tracking” estimates; it applies a 40% drop off to Lorax which is strongly indicated based on the com parables; and it applies the same drop-offs to the other films that have been in release multi-weeks that they had last week.  (The one wildcard is The Artist who is in the midst of its Academy Award ‘bump’, but the numbers are still very small and not a major impact.)
  • Realistic Minimum:  This model simply applies the benefit of this year’s better Box Office performance as measured by the year to year comparison, and allocates the increase to the new films in proportion to their tracking estimates.  In other words, the tracking has JC getting 57% of the “new film” share of the box office, so this share is retained.
  • Probable:  This one takes into consideration the year to year comparison, and the “Last Week Feb/2nd Week March” comparison, and comes up with what would seem to be a probable outcome.

So is that the bottom line?

Not quite.

What about “X Factors” that might affect the outcome further?  For example, is there a substantial group of potential viewers of John Carter who are not part of the “BOG Economy” of this year to date?  The argument could be made that yes, there are at least $2-3M worth of tickets to be sold to Boomer Burroughs Fans who don’t show up in the tracking; haven’t been to a movie this year; but will go to this one and bring kids and grandkids.  The ERB novels were hugely popular and widely available in the 60’s and 70’s — that’s how Cameron, Lucas, Spielberg, Carl Sagan, and the rest of the famous ERB fans got their hands on them.  So there’s that.

Secondly, there is the Disney Factor.  Disney films frequently beat their tracking estimates even when there are no macro factors driving box office up like there are now.  Disney is more of a brand than any other studio; and while there are plenty of young adults for whom Disney is not a positive (a factor already recognized in the weak tracking), there are plenty of families who may not be showing up in the tracking.

Finally, there is the generally positive word of mouth that is only gaining momentum in the final days before the film is released and is thus not captured by the tracking from last weekend.  This may help opening day — and it may help the Saturday/Sunday numbers.

Where does that leave it?

Conservatively, $40m.

Probably $45m.

Optimistically: $50m.

What Do These Figures Mean for the Prospects of a Sequel?

(Stay tuned….we’ll talk about that separately.)



  • Good points, all. On Friday we’re going to know what the starting point is. All we need is a DECENT starting point. I will write more on Friday about precisely what that point is. But if we get a decent starting point — it then becomes OUR TIME to keep it going. Pretty tough assignment, but that’s just how things are.

  • I’m getting deja-vu from December 2009. It’s honestly Avatar all over again. John Carter is experiencing MANY similarities: The was much negative hype for both films, there were many articles saying the film will be the biggest flop of all time, and the films both had great early reviews. But, unfortunately, the RottenTomatoes score is a little disconcerting. It’s currently at 59% out of 44 reviews. But we must wait until atleast 200 reviews are tracked to know the final verdict.

  • I have a couple of additional thoughts. Movies pull in a certain crowd, an old book that has fans at every age may pull in demographics not expected to see an average movie. When Grand Torino came out older Clint Eastwood fans lined up to see it. The difference here is that the fans knew an old school Clint Eastwood movie was being released, few now know that a Barsoom Movie is about to be released. I am not in the entertainment business and my sample set is very small. I do work in a nerd industry, namely IT. One friend of my is an Extreme Star Wars fan, he is not against the movie, he had just never heard what it was about. Several people I have talked to now have an interest in the film, once they knew something about it. I am not sure people who read the books in their youth are even aware of this movie. The title hurts this movie, I would almost believe that the names Tars Tarkis and Dejah Toris have more name recognition than John Carter. The name John Carter is so average that it may not trigger memories from youth, and this is the type of book that kids dream about becoming a movie some day. I am sure that Kashmir is there to trigger memories. I would advertise this movie in non conventional ways as well. Are there any radio ads? Older people listen to talk radio and a lot of it. The ad would need to focus on the history of the story and its impact on SciFi. Also the Magazine Racks at the super markets are bare of Dejah covers, that seems like an odd mistake. The good news is that the FoxNews Review and the MSN Review are positive. Those two web sites have more traffic then the bottom 90% of other review sites combined.

  • Thanks for the illuminating tracking study, Dotar Sojat. I’m certainly one of the Burroughs Boomers whose first movie of the year will be JC. There’s bound to be more.

  • I got confused with the math but it seems possible.

    One comparsion I’m going with is this: back in 1977 nobody thought Star Wars was going to do well-not the studio, not George Lucas-who left and went to Hawaii to escape it bombing-and that film too had mediocre marketing (the studio had no idea how to market it), little known leads and no hype. And we know what happened. So until we see how it does let’s wait and enjoy the film (even with the shape shifting nonsense).

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