Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Do CinemaScore Grades Mean?

Something interesting happened this weekend at the box office. There were four new releases, and they were ranked by the critics from good to bad as follows: "Rango," (88% Rotten Tomatoes score), "The Adjustment Bureau" (69%), "Take Me Home Tonight," (30%) and "Beastly" (21%). Their performance at the box office more or less followed suit, with "Rango" in first at an estimated $38 million in receipts, "Adjustment" in second with $20.9 million, "Beastly" in third with $10.1 million, and "Take Me Home Tonight" bombing quietly with $3.5 million, not even making the top ten. However, then we come to the CinemaScore results, which tell a different story entirely.

CinemaScore is a marketing firm that surveys audience reactions to films on opening weekend, letting viewers grade them on an A to F scale. The studios buy the data, in order to see how their films have been received by various segments of the viewing audience. The general public wasn't privy to the scores in the past, but various industry outlets have started publishing them along with the usual box office reports. This weekend, according to their CinemaScores, the top three films' performances with audiences were flipped from the critical and financial measures. "Beastly" got the highest scores with a B grade, "The Adjustment Bureau" also got a B, but the highly lauded "Rango" only received a C+. For the record, "Take Me Home Tonight" rated a C. A movie is generally considered to expect poor word-of-mouth if it gets less than a B grade, since the mainstream audience is much kinder than the critics.

The Cinemascore data is no real determinant of quality, or even popularity. For one, they're highly misleading, in that they're only surveying those who bought tickets to see these films on opening weekend. The audience for "Beastly" was predominantly made up of teenage girls, who were fans of the young stars, Vanessa Hudgens and Alex Pettyfer. Their demographic gave "Beastly" an A- in contrast to the adult critics who gleefully tore it to shreds. And then there were the audiences for "Rango," which were predominantly families with young children. According to the reviews, they got a weird, unconventional, spaghetti-western homage with several instances of adult humor and language that strained at the bounds of its PG rating. Critics welcomed the movie's daring, but the material may have proved too much for viewers expecting something more in line with the usual Dreamworks or PIXAR fare. Older audiences were particularly hostile, with those over 25 giving "Rango" a flat C grade.

What's really interesting is that the disparity between the box office performances of these films and the CinemaScores shows that there's really no correlation between how much audiences like them and how they perform in the first week. Big opening weekend numbers are driven by marketing campaigns and hype, and the studios putting so much importance on these initial numbers indicates that how well a movie can be made to target a certain audience tends to matter more to the bottom line than the quality of the product. The CinemaScore grade for "Beastly" shows that the CBS Films was right on target, pandering perfectly to that critic-proof audience of teenage girls that loves the "Twilight" movies. An old line from "The Lady Eve" comes to mind – "A girl of sixteen is practically an idiot anyway." And I say this lovingly, as a former sixteen-year-old girl whose favorite film at one point was "Newsies."

"Rango," on the other hand, wasn't a good fit for the family audiences it was aimed at, which may affect its financial performance in the weeks to come. Many big-budget would-be blockbusters take a dive in the rankings in their second weekend, and I expect "Rango" will probably do the same. On the other hand, the marketing campaign did everything right, playing up the involvement of its star, Johnny Depp, and the eye-popping graphics from ILM, so "Rango" is bound to make back its money. The Cinemascore data, along with any bad word-of-mouth it might foretell, will probably encourage Paramount to push for less risky projects in the future. In the end, it's woe to the offbeat, hard-to-categorize movies that can't be pigeonholed into a particular category or easily sold to a certain demographic.

Ultimately CinemaScore tells us less about the movies than it does about the studios and how they sell films to American audiences. Clearly there were people out there who loved and championed "Rango," but according to the studios these were the wrong people, because they weren't the ones the marketing campaigns were targeting and they weren't the ones who came out and bought tickets on opening weekend. Personally, "Rango" has gone to the top of my to-see list precisely because of the reaction its gotten. I like dark and weird and offbeat. And I'll take an animated movie that takes chances, the way "Rango" does, over a by-the-book crowd pleaser like "Gnomeo and Juliet" any day.

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