Box Office Round Up – November 11 – 13, 2016


With the presidential election taking place last week, Chris Neumer steps away from the latest weekend numbers and investigates how statisticians can get their mojo back, how this impacts the film world and why Hollywood is facing a similarly rocky road ahead.

by Chris Neumer

Donald Trump won the presidential election last week. This development came as quite a surprise to anyone and everyone who had looked at the polling numbers or read any article that was published on the election by mainstream news organizations. Up until dinner time on Election Day, The NY Times had a statistic prominently displayed on the main page of its website that Hillary Clinton had an 86% chance of winning the election.

Probably my favorite example of the upside down nature of the 2016 Election came courtesy of The Huffington Post. On their website, The Huffington Post had a series of graphs showing the results of numerous polls that different pollsters had taken tracking how Clinton and Trump would stack up against one another. For the state of Wisconsin, the site showed the results from 44 different polls taken prior to the election and Trump lost in every single one of those polls.  The Huffington Post ran this copy below the chart: “In >99% of simulations, Clinton led Trump.”  On November 8, Trump won the state by a full percentage point over Clinton, 47.9% to 46.9%.

With things like this in mind, it’s no wonder that Clinton supporters were positively flummoxed by Trump’s win. The media had spent the last year and a half religiously writing that Clinton was a shoo-in! At a certain point in time after the 50th story in the Washington Post stating that ‘fact’, people start to believe it!

I’m tempted to call it the liberal version of ‘Obama is from Kenya’, but there is one major difference between the two situations: the polls are (supposedly) scientific, are a statistical representation of ‘fact’ and the results of said polls are (supposedly) vetted by journalists before they are published; ‘Obama from Kenya’ is simply dispelled gossip that continues to float in the ether.

As I watched the election results, I was downright shocked to see how well Trump was doing. As the night wore on and the election was called in favor of Trump, my shock turned to fascination: how had so many smart people gotten this so very wrong?

I mean, it wasn’t like Trump won a half or even simply a handful of the polls taken in Wisconsin, he hadn’t won a single one of them! As the pollsters’ trending data reported, Clinton had won every poll by roughly 6%. In the political arena, that’s a veritable landslide!

Statistics, polls and focus groups are the lifeblood of both political reporting as well as box office reporting. If you can’t trust the facts, what good are the forthcoming articles? I shudder to think how much collective time was wasted across America with people reading “news” stories about Clinton’s assured electoral dominance that turned out to be 180 degrees from the truth. However, more to the point, what good are the lessons that readers take away from stories based in falsehoods?

As I scanned through the NY Times’ headlines this morning, I noticed multiple articles that were written in an attempt to explain what Trump will be doing going forward. (Here’s one about what his presidency may mean for freedom of the press). I could only think of one thing: why am I going to listen to you predict the future again when you were so categorically wrong about it the last time?

I believe the age old adage is: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me, can’t get fooled again… Or something like that. And it’s a question that millions of Americans have to be asking themselves at this point.

And it does seem like the reporting of statistical based phenomenon is somewhat at a crossroads at present: they have to do more than simply acknowledge that they got the material wrong, they have to explain how they won’t make the same mistakes going forward.

Maybe I’m being an overly cynical bastard when I say this, but I don’t expect anyone to really do this. It seems like a thorough audit would be necessary at The NY Times in order for it to maintain its standing, but to what end? If they get something else wrong again in the future, it proves that not only has their polling department been wrong twice, but their leadership is also bad. If their investigation into their polling procedures reveals horrible logical chasms and mistakes that simply shouldn’t have been missed the first time around, it casts a very negative pall on them.

There’s almost no scenario that could play out from said audit that would benefit The NY Times (or any media company, for that matter) on any level other than one of moral superiority.

The same type of thing is currently playing out in movie studios across the southland. By my count, there have been 22 movies released to theaters in 2016 with budgets of $100 million or more.* Of the 22, only five have made back their budgets’ domestically: Suicide Squad, Jason Bourne, The Jungle Book, Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War. And of those five, only two are considered to be actually successful: The Jungle Book and Captain America: Civil War. Sadly for Hollywood, it’s hard to see The Jungle Book as anything other than a one-off success. It probably won’t stop Disney from trying to make it a franchise… but it’s won’t be a conventional franchise by any stretch of the imagination.

* This figure does not include movies like Finding Dory, Kung Fu Panda, Divergent: Allegiant, Zootopia, Now You See Me 2, 10 Cloverfield Lane or any of the other movies that have not released any type of budgetary numbers… that also seem like they might have cost more than $100 million to make. Finding Dory definitely cost more than $100 million to make. I would also bet a lot of money that Zootopia did too. You could easily convince me that Now You See Me 2 cost $105 million to make (or on the other side of things, $60 million). Kung Fu Panda seems a good bet to cost more than $100 million as well. However, without official numbers from the same source——it’s hard to compare the titles to one another. Reported budgets will occasionally vary from outlet to outlet, so the best thing to do is use all the figures from one.

So in 2016, of the movies known to have budgets of more than $100 million, only two of them were considered out and out successes. Doctor Strange will probably make it three on its current trajectory, but at present, it has not yet earned its budget back domestically, so it’s not counted here.  We’re looking at about a 12% success rate!  That can’t be good.

And the movies that failed to earn their budgets back, save for Gods of Egypt, Ben-Hur and The Huntsman, seem like they’d be good bets to succeed on a grand scale. Who wouldn’t bet big on the latest Star Trek film? Or the latest X-Men movie? Or the newest Ice Age? Those series’ have proven track records of success and yet, in 2016, they didn’t succeed!

Given the amounts of money that are tied up in these projects, it seems as though a thorough audit might be necessary. Knowing what I know about Hollywood, I think there’s a much better chance that that will happen than with the election pollsters.


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