The 2017 Academy Awards will be forever remembered as the year that La La Land was awarded Best Picture for about a minute before they discovered that Moonlight was the actual winner. Those two movies have something else in common. Neither movie received a CinemaScore grade despite, arguably, being the top two movies of 2016.
I’m thinking about this issue this week because three movies with Oscar buzz, Stronger, Battle of the Sexes, and Victoria and Abdul, went into limited release last weekend. None of them were graded by Cinemascore. There is a valid reason for this but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing to movie pre-screeners like myself.
For me, Cinemascore is appealing because it measures only opening night reaction. Most people who go to the opening night of a movie are there because they really want to see that movie. The pre-release buzz has grabbed their attention to such an extent that they can’t wait to see it. They walk into an opening night movie expecting to love it. When they walk out of the movie and respond to CinemaScore’s survey they are probably grading based on expectations. So, when a movie receives an “A” from Cinemascore, it tells us that the movie lives up to the hype. Anything less than that suggests that the movie experience was less than they expected.
CinemaScore gets stuck when it comes to movies that are released in a limited number of theaters prior to them being released widely in most theaters. CinemaScore samples locations throughout the U.S. and Canada to establish a credible unbiased sample. When a movie goes into limited release, it is released in some of their sample locations but not in most of their sample locations. Last weekend, Stronger was released in 573 theaters, Battle of the Sexes was released in 21 theaters, and Victoria and Abdul was released in 4 theaters. To provide some perspective, Kingsman: The Golden Circle opened in 4,003 theaters last weekend and earned a “B+” grade from CinemaScore. When Stronger and Battle of the Sexes goes into wide release tomorrow, does word of mouth reaction from moviegoers who’ve seen the movie in the last week disturb the integrity of any sample taken this weekend? When Victoria and Abdul goes into wide release on October 6, is its release into just 4 theaters last weekend sufficiently small to not taint the sample? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’ll be looking to see if these movies get graded when they go into wide release. In Box Office Mojo’s article on last weekend’s box office performance they indicate that CinemaScore graded Stronger an “A-” even though it hasn’t been officially posted on their website. Perhaps they are waiting to post it after wide release?
I understand why grades don’t exist on CinemaScore for many limited release movies. I understand the importance of data integrity in the creation of a credible survey. I will just observe, though, that in this age of social media, using limited movie releases to build pre-wide release momentum for quality movies is an increasingly viable strategy. Just this week, A24, the studio behind the rise of Moonlight last year, decided to put their dark horse candidate this year, Lady Bird, into limited release on November 3rd after it emerged from the Telluride and Toronto film festivals with a 100% Fresh grade from Rotten Tomatoes. CinemaScore may be facing the prospect of an even broader inventory of ungraded top tier movies than it does today. It will be interesting to see how they respond to this challenge, if at all.