Prior to its release, "Man of Steel" reviews were crummy, rating just 56 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But by 10 p.m. on Friday night, Warner Bros. knew that word of mouth on its Superman reboot was going to be very strong due to its "A-" CinemaScore rating.
Movie marketing data and box office analysis is more high-tech and widespread than ever before, but Hollywood studios are still getting their first handle on whether paying customers loved or hated their new releases the old-fashioned way.
On Fridays for more than three decades CinemaScore's Harold Mintz, and his father, company founder Ed Mintz, have from their Las Vegas headquarters commissioned platoons of pollsters with clipboards in cities around the country. They catch opening-night audiences exiting theaters and ask them what they thought of the film they just saw.
"Can you spare a few minutes?" a pollster will ask, "This allows you to be the critic."
The exiting audience members then bend back tabs on a small cardboard sheet, giving the films grades ranging from A to F, and answer a few questions on what drew them to the movie, or whether they'll watch it on DVD. The grades are compiled, analyzed and sent to the studios every Friday night.
"It's simple and it is fast," said Sony's head of worldwide distribution Jeff Blake of CinemaScore, "and that's the beauty of it."
The grades let studio executives know whether a film is likely to benefit at the box office from positive word of mouth on Saturday and Sunday, and in the weeks ahead. And they mean bragging rights.
"I know the studios executives love to get the word out when they get a good grade," Mintz said, "and I think they love to get the word out when one of their rival's films doesn't."
Rival superhero movie "Iron Man 3" got an even better Cinemascore rating -- "A" -- topped this year only by baseball biopic "42" with an "A+." "The Great Gatsby" rated a so-so "B" and Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" managed only a "C+" despite the presence of Dwayne Johnson.
The actual data that CinemaScore provides is more detailed and more comprehensive than the simple grades that the studios typically release to the media. It allows the studios, for example, to have a handle on which age groups and genders found the film most appealing, or didn't.
And with some additional analysis from Mintz and his dad, the CinemaScore numbers also provide an indicator of how likely a film is to have "legs" – and draw crowds beyond that opening weekend. In a summer season as crowded as this one, anything that can help a film latch onto a share of the market matters.
The studios frequently incorporate strong grades into their second- and third-week marketing campaigns, as Warner Bros. did after their Legendary Pictures release "42" drew its rare "A+" grade back in April. That was the last film to receive one.
"Different studios use our data in different ways," Mintz said, noting that he has contracts with all of the majors. "Some are more focused on the business side, other the marketing, other on the home video prospects."
While CinemaScore is still doing essentially what it's done since its launch in 1979, the movie marketing data analysis sector has exploded and become more sophisticated in the past few years.
But Mintz is convinced that his company's niche is secure.
"CinemaScore's brand has its own identity," he said. "And we haven't received any indication from the studios that they're going with any of these other services rather than us."
Nielsen's NRG, MarketCast, Worldwide Motion Picture Group and IAG Research are some of the larger players in the sector, but their focus tends to be on pre-release research or advance screenings. Their goal is to give studios a handle on how early marketing is working, or not, and give them a chance to adjust their campaigns.
Mintz said his firm usually gets about 400 responses and bases its analyses on that sampling.
"I hear some of our rivals say they're polling thousands of people," Mintz said, "and I just laugh, because once you hit a certain point, you've got a representative sample and going beyond that doesn't make any difference."
CinemaScore's grades skew very positively, since everyone polled is obviously interested enough in the movie to go out to see it on opening night. A "B" grade is OK, but a "C" usually signals trouble, at least in terms of word of mouth. "C+"-rated "Pain & Gain," for example, has mustered less than $50 million domestically, Michael Bay's second-worst showings behind "The Island."
CinemaScore's archives aren't available to the public, since that's proprietary information the clients pay for. But cinephiles can still be fascinated -- or mystified -- by some of the audiences' assessments.
Mintz estimates that less than 50 films have rated an "A+" since CinemaScore began grading. Among the most recent are "Argo," "The Avengers" and "The King's Speech." They're not all Oscar winners or blockbusters. Films with inspirational messages, particularly in terms of race relations, tend to score high. "Driving Miss Daisy," "Remember the Titans," "Antoine Fisher" and "The Blind Side" all made the "A+" grade as well.
It's not necessarily the film's quality that's being graded, Mintz cautioned.
"Opening night audiences are already sold on the movie, or what they think the movie is," he said, "so in a very real way, it's a test of whether the marketing is in synch with the film and its target audience. The grades say whether the film delivered what the marketing promised."
An example of a film missing on that score could be "Killing Them Softly," the Brad Pitt-James Gandolfini crime drama that received an "F" when it opened last November. The Weinstein Co. marketed it as an action film with comedy elements. Andrew Dominik's script, however, also went after the government's handling of the recent economic crisis. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing -- but apparently not what the audience members thought they were paying for. It opened to $7 million and was out theaters quickly.
Only seven movies besides "Killing Them Softly" have received an "F." The other seven: "Solaris," "Bug," "Wolf Creek," "Darkness," "The Box," "Silent House" and "The Devil Inside." That the list is dominated by horror films isn't a surprise -- fans of that genre are notoriously tough graders -- but they still go to see them.
It's not uncommon for CinemaScore graders to disagree with the critics on films, but rare when low-graded films are box office hits. "The Purge" topped the box office with $35 million two weeks ago, despite its "C" grade. Other examples would be "Shutter Island," which received a "C+" but went on to make $128 million domestically, and "Contagion," which took in $75 million after receiving a "B-."
Thirty-some years is a long time to be dealing with exit polls and movie grades, but Mintz remembers how CinemaScore got started. It was back in 1978, and his father was going to see the new Neil Simon movie, "The Cheap Detective."
"He had hired a babysitter to watch the kids while he took his wife to the movie theater," Harold remembers. "He was a big Neil Simon fan but he hated that movie, which the critics had loved. He said he wished he could have heard what real people, not critics, had thought of it before he shelled out his money."