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Can Standing Ovations Predict the Financial Success of a Movie?

David Stiff on June 17th, 2019

A Tradition of Questionable Monetary Value

The standing ovation is a tradition and centerpiece of the Cannes Film Festival and other key film festivals around the world. If you receive one, you'll gain the recognition of your peers and enjoy significant buzz around your movie. If you don't receive one, you and your studio will usually go into crisis mode.

But in this day and age of streaming and on-demand content, does the standing ovation matter? Did the standing ovation ever matter?

Your Eyes and Ears May Deceive You

A key scene in MONEY BALL is when Brad Pitt's character marvels at how his group of scouts are recommending players based on their look, the sound of their swing and the beauty of the ball player. All these elements create the profile of a single type of player: a strong macho athlete.

But do these factors really indicate an excellent ball player? Pitt's character doesn't think so. He understands that most of these elements have inherent biases picked up by the scouts over the extended time that they observe the players.

The Inherent Bias of Standing Ovations

Standing ovations also have a bias. Get one, and you are considered a winner; don't get one and you are not. At Cannes, the media will use a stopwatch and even time the duration of the ovation.

Using Vault's AI-based RealAudienceā„¢ Platform, we looked at whether there was any correlation between getting a standing ovation and being financially successful. The results showed that there was an extremely low correlation between a movie's standing ovation at Cannes and its financial success—whether on its opening weekend or its cumulative box office take.

Our analysis of more than 50 movies on the key festival circuit revealed that only 20% of the movies that received a standing ovation did 3x multiples on their opening weekend. One might think that a strong response from a festival influences an audience, but the data suggests otherwise.

The Real Value of the Festival Circuit

The festival circuit is great for smaller, independent movies, which often use the "platform release" route, artfully staggering an opening of various sizes per geography (e.g. 50 screens, 300 screens, 1000 screens). This route is often taken by those darlings that won a festival or received an ovation.

The cumulative gross profit of a platform release is usually less than a studio title with a wide release. However, platform releases are more closely tied into the independent crowd that is more likely to rely on word of mouth for making movie selections.

Rotten Tomatoes: Another Industry Bias

Not far behind the overestimated value of standing ovations are movie review websites like Rotten Tomatoes. While a bad movie review on Rotten Tomatoes may regarded by film makers and their studios as a cause for poor financial performance, our same AI-based data analysis reveals that movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have a very low correlation of 0.3 to a movie's financial success.

In other words, the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and other sites are not much more than noise. The only time that their reviews have a correlation to a movie's financial success is when positive reviews for a movie are below 10% or above 90%.

But for 95% of the titles, a low Rotten Tomato score may continue to haunt their opening and be used as an excuse for a lack of financial success—but this is mostly without merit.

The Outro... a.k.a. the Bottom Line

So what is the biggest predictor of success? Having analyzed more than 30,000 titles in over 60 countries, we have concluded that story is the biggest predictor of a title's success. We have identified more than 100,000 story data points (or story elements) that lets us more predict a movie's financial success with more than 80% accuracy. That's more than any other tool, model or technique on the market.

At Vault, we are always trying to find ways to add new elements to our predictive model in order to continuously improve it and create even more accurate predictions for our clients. When we classified a title as receiving a "standing ovation", it did nothing to improve the title's performance using our AI-based approach. Perhaps this means that Netflix does not need to invest the huge sums necessary for attending Cannes—were they actually invited.

Story will always trump standing ovations and critics-and it will generate huge opening weekends, impact word-of-mouth and increase the financial success of story-driven movies like AVENGERS: ENDGAME.