Optimism doesn’t sell
Jeff Jarvis

The Relationship Between Browsing and the Box Office

Much has been made of Tomorrowland’s modest performance at the box office so far, with some believing it will accelerate the disappearance of original ideas in Hollywood and others believing it to be more symptomatic of the Dystopian age in movies.

But maybe Tomorrowland just wasn’t that interesting. Not as a film (I haven’t seen it), but as a topic.

Before it underwhelmed at the box office, we (Outbrain) detected at least one signal Tomorrowland was headed for a bumpy ride: audiences didn’t seem all that inclined to engage with stories about the movie.

The index below shows how engaged audiences were — measured in “page views per story” — with upcoming summer movies as a publishing topic, as of March 31st, 2015, right around the time the marketing for May releases became more active.

You’ll notice Tomorrowland under-indexed significantly, while Pitch Perfect 2, for example, emitted a strong interest signal, which turns out to have been significant, given that it’s punching well above its weight at the box office.

Now: as we indicated in our original analysis, online browsing interest doesn’t necessarily anticipate financial performance. Theoretically, one shouldn’t relate to the other at all. Reading an article about a movie and buying a ticket are fundamentally different user activities in different user environments. Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, wasn’t hamstrung by the film’s relatively low chart position at the time (though it did “lose” the top spot of its opening weekend to the mighty Pitch Perfect 2). Near-unanimous critical praise and strong word of mouth have propelled it to a healthy box office.

But if anything, Mad Max might have just beat the odds. Pitch Perfect 2 and Tomorrowland emitted digital signals that can’t easily be ignored in light of the way they’ve performed. Even Avengers: Age of Ultron, sitting pretty as the 6th highest-grossing movie ever after a month of business, scored right at the benchmark for interest in summer movies. Which is to say, it’s more or less performed to expectation (for what it’s worth, it’s not even the highest-grossing movie of 2015; that honor goes to Furious 7).

We’ll see how this plays out over the rest of the summer, but the relationship we’ve observed between browsing interest and box office is intriguing so far.

Entourage opens this Wednesday. I have a sneaking suspicion it’ll open quietly but I’m happy to be proved wrong. Should HBO be worried? Is HBO worried?

At the other end of the spectrum, I have very little trouble believing online interest in Magic Mike XL will translate to box office receipts at a Pitch Perfect-like level. They feel like related phenomena somehow…

Similarly, the interest in Jurassic World seems highly convertible, in part because it stars Chris Pratt, who can seemingly do no wrong, and the original Jurassic Park turns 20 this year. Optimism may not sell, but we know nostalgia does.

Featured image courtesy of Tom De Cort via Flickr.