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Blockbuster or Bust?

Mark Houston applies big data to predict winners in the entertainment industry. 

Mark Houston standing in an office setting

Mark Houston, the Eunice and James L. West Chair professor in marketing, offers a data-informed method of predicting blockbusters in the entertainment industry.
Photo by Rodger Mallison


For decadesthe “Nobody knows anything” mantra has ruled the entertainment industry.  

Coined by legendary screenwriter William Goldman (of All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame), the underlying theory is that no one can predict which new movies, songs or other entertainment products will succeed and which will fail. Instead, media executives have relied on gut feelings to make decisions ranging from which actors to feature in a film to when to release an album. 

Mark Houston, the Eunice and James L. West Chair in Marketing at TCU, challenges that tradition in his first book, Entertainment Science: Data Analytics and Practical Theory for Movies, Games, Books, and Music (Springer, 2019).  

“Actually, we do know a lot,” Houston said. “There are techniques to test your intuition on when to release a film and who to star in it. And you should use what you know to make better decisions.” 

Houston and co-author Thorsten Hennig-Thurauprofessor and chair of marketing and media at the University of Münster in Germany, made the case that Goldman’s adage doesn’t hold up in the digital age.  

Instead, they suggest entertainment executives combine data analytics with intuition and scholarly research to increase the probability of success for a new product 

The book “offers a new paradigm and thus a new way of thinking,” said Natasha Zhang Foutzan associate professor of commerce at the University of Virginia who specializes in data in entertainment media. “As so many industries are trying to leverage big data and artificial intelligence to gain competitive advantage, theory and … analytics become a must — not an option — for the entertainment industry.” 

Despite its 865 pages and comprehensive look at more than 35 years of scholarly research in fields such as marketing and economics, Entertainment Science is accessible to a broad audience. The book is geared toward scholars, students and industry executives, Houston said. 

Although the book covers movies, booksmusic and video games, the majority of its real-world examples are movies because that’s where Houston and Hennig-Thurau have done most of their research. 

The duo has collaborated on two dozen articles and presentations on the factors influencing a movies boxoffice success and profitability. Houston has also been a visiting professor at the University of Münster for a decade. 

With the book, they aimed to give entertainment executives a better way to figure out consumer priorities before investing as much as $500 million to make and market a movie or video game in the 21st centuryEntertainment Science takes a market-centered approach by focusing on winning customers in a competitive industry.  

The making of movies is typically done by artists who are bound by business constraints. It takes money to turn their vision into reality, and the commercial success greatly affects whether they get more money to do more movies,” Houston said. Thus, “the focus can’t be just on the artist or just on the businessbut on the intersection of what makes the best product for the customer. 

The book notes that streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon have figured this outThey use sophisticated algorithms to determine what customers want to watch, how and at what pricesaid Houston, noting the success of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle series and Netflix’s Bird Box movie.  

The book points out that factors including brand awareness, big stars and packaging drive an entertainment product’s successMoneymaking products, however, increasingly depend on something called prerelease buzz, or consumer anticipation for the product, which can come from advertisements, social media or scavenger hunts. 

Houston’s book notes that a film’s Facebook page and social media posts by top stars boost box-office resultsOthe more than 90 million people who watched a trailer for the remake Beauty and the Beastnearly half came from lead actress Emma Watson’s social media channels.  

The authors learned that “paying Vin Diesel big bucks for keeping his fan base informed via social media can make a lot of sense,” Hennig-Thurau said. They also learned that remakes function differently than sequels  [remakes] are way less safe bets.” 

 Still, not all sequels are created equal. Why was Fast & Furious 6 a hit, but Basic Instinct 2 flopped? 

Perhaps the answer lies in a formula co-developed by Houston to predict a sequel’s performanceThe equation calculates the forwardspillover effect, which reflects the positive impact of the parent brand on movie sequel. It also considers the effect of star awareness 

The formula predicted that Spider-Man 2 would generate box office revenue of $763 millionclose to its actual gross of $783.8 millionA sequel that had been similarly cast, funded and promoted but without the established superhero brand would have resulted in $53 million less revenue for the studio. A separate analysis calculated that box office revenue would have been reduced by half had lead actor Tobey Maguire not returned for the sequel. 

The performance predictions are “within 95 percent accuracy” based on certain actorsHouston said. 

“The stuff we do works,” he said. “Art and business have been viewed as enemies, but the truth is somewhere in the middle.” 

by Sheryl Jean