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CinemaScore's box-office swami

THE BIG PICTURE

Ed Mintz's market research company translates moviegoers' opinions into mostly accurate predictions of how films will fare.

October 13, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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.

Differing from studio-sponsored test screenings, CinemaScore polls paying customers right after they've seen a movie, and its 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 $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 $275.8 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 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 Cinema- Score'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."

News travels fast

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 pay for access to Mintz's information).

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.

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