FML 301: Analysis Guidelines

This is the third and last in a series of three posts intended to educate new players on different aspects of Fantasy Movie League.  Special thanks to M37, who contributed ideas (and is quoted) in this entry and to Ari for edits theater count and weekly drop content, and to Phil’s Phul Phlicks for his Wednesday showings posts.

First, you learned about the basics, the nuances of the bonuses, and the weekly calendar.  Then you got exposed to a wide variety of resources you have at your disposal.  In this final educational post for new players I’ll discuss some guidelines that have proved useful when deciding on your weekly screen lineup.

Beginning with the Fall 2015 season, I began to run a weekly series of data analysis articles.  Some of them turned out to be very insightful while others, not so much.  In this post, I’ll cut through the weeds and highlight the conclusions that have proved most useful in shaping decisions.

The most important thing to understand, though, is that even if you can use data to refine your choices each week, there is still some guesswork and often you have to “go with your gut”.  If predicting weekend box office revenue was a perfect science, Hollywood would make money on every movie it produces and every FML player would have the same screen combination every week.  It’s this variability that keeps it all interesting.

Accuracy of Professional Forecasts and New Films

The professional forecasting sites are extremely useful to FML players but they are far from perfect.  In fact, it’s important to note that their main purpose is to help actual theater managers nationwide with staffing and concession inventory decisions prior to each weekend so they can cater to their movie-going customers effectively.

The most comprehensive article I’ve written on the subject so far was in Week 9 of the Fall season.  There, I reasoned that for returning films, if you average the ProBoxOffice.com and ShowBuzzDaily forecasts you get an accurate prediction around 75% of the time within +/- 10% of the forecast.

New films, though, are much harder, even for the professionals.  ShowBuzzDaily has shown to be a little more accurate than others, but even they are only right no better than 50% of the time.  There are more unknowns with a new film where with a returning one there are previous box office totals and comparable films (both in terms of genre and time of year) to use as guidelines for how much revenue drop there will be from week to week.

Since the Week 9 article, running regression tests on a larger sample than what was presented in that article, I found that +/- 15% works best across all films and that’s what I use in my model for my weekly picks post.

Best Performer Candidates

Not every film matters every week when it comes to choosing FML line ups.  During the Fall Season I found that most of the time only the top 4 BP candidates matter, but since then using regression tests and an average of professional forecasts I found that the top 6 BP candidates works best for my weekly model.  While that reduces the number of viable combinations to choose from, it hardly makes a selection for you.  Most weeks at least one of the top BP candidates are new films and given the inaccuracy of even the professional forecasts for them, it becomes clear where the challenges lie in playing FML.

Even in weeks that heavily involve returning films, the FB$ pricing is often good enough that even a swing within that +/- 15% can decide which film gets Best Performer and which one doesn’t.  In Week 5 of Fall 2015, had “The Intern”, a returning film, sold $1,272 less in tickets it would have changed what film earned BP and which combination eared the then perfect $10M bonus.  Sometimes, results can be that close and be well within margin of error on the professional forecasts.

Theater Counts

Sources like BoxOfficeMojo will publish theater counts, but as FML player M37 likes to point out, it is important to understand what that number really means.  As he explained in an email to me during the Fall 2015 season:

For example, your local 20-plex may have Hotel Transylvania on four SCREENS, but it counts as only one THEATER.   The data listed at BoxOfficeMojo (and most of what is reported) is theater counts, the numbers of cinemas which are showing a film.

So while it’s tempting to use theater counts as an upper or lower limit on how much revenue a particular film might bring in, you have to use that number with caution because you have no idea how many screens it’s actually being shown on.  That’s not to say that these numbers can’t be useful, but it is important to understand what they really mean and that other factors often matter more.

This is why 201: Resources pointed to the weekly post made by Phil’s Phun Phlicks, which shows the number of showtimes and not just the theater counts.  Phil’s data is a more precise measure of possible revenue, albeit based on a smaller metropolitan sample.

One other aspect of theater counts is important to understand related to the business of showing movies.  In most cases, a movie signs a two week contract with movie theaters, so in its second weekend it won’t look like there is a drop in theaters.  However, this is very useful for a movie in its third week or later.  If there is a big drop-off in theaters, that often corresponds to an even bigger drop in box office since its upper limit is reduced.  This is an example of how theater count data can be useful when viewed in a larger picture but why it isn’t always a definitive indicator.

Weekly Drops

The biggest part of predicting box office totals every week is estimating the weekly drop.  Movies will drop a percentage of their box office total each week, and the key is to figure out what that will be.  Usually, a well-reviewed film will drop less than a worse one, but this is not always the case.  An average drop for a movie is 40%, but this can also vary based on genre and, again, reviews.

Horror films are notorious for their drops, often dropping off 50-60% in their second weekend.  Kids films usually do much better, and their drops can be closer to 30%.  The best-reviewed films can be even lower, as films such as “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies” had multiple weeks dropping at about 25% or even lower.  And of course, there’s always the unpredictable faith-based films.

Thursday Numbers

Similarly, new films typically open a few screens on Thursday evening of their opening weekend and Deadline quite often publishes those numbers prior to the 9a Friday FML submission deadline.  It is tempting to use those numbers as a definitive source and while they can be useful in certain situations there are often enough extenuating circumstances to make them not so helpful.

For example, Thursday night screenings are not typically available at the same number of theaters (or screens) as a film will open at the remainder of the weekend so there may be an artificial upper limit placed on the Thursday box office numbers.  Films based on books with large, preexisting fan bases can have more favorable Thursday numbers than other types of films.  Movies that cater to Gen Xers or older or to kids typically have lousy Thursday numbers as well since those audiences have life intervening the next day.

I attempted to put a reliable number on Thursday returns and because of all the issues covered above there is no hard and fast rule that can be applied to them (and I tried really hard to do so).  That’s not to say they can’t be useful in particular circumstances, because they can, but you cannot always rely upon them because there are often reasonable explanations for why Thursday returns for a particular movie are what they are.

Summing Up

In summary, in this article we covered the following points:

  • Professional forecasts for returning films are better than they are for new ones, but even with that a BP can come down to variances within the 15% margin of error.
  • Most BP’s come from the top 6 candidates each week.
  • Theater counts and Thursday numbers have their place, but are most effectively used in specific circumstances and conjunction with other data, like weekly drop percentages.

In a typical week, there are in excess of 200,000 legal combinations to choose among.  Even with all that if you can reduce your choices down to just a few combinations — like the 10 I tell you about every week — at the end of the day you can only pick one and it ultimately involves a guess.  A well informed guess, maybe, but still a guess.

And that’s what makes it fun 8).

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