USC launches Twitter movie box office predictor


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There are many ways to quantify anticipation about the opening of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’ Thursday night -- tally the advance ticket sales, count the number of tears shed at the premiere, note an uptick in wand sightings around town. Another measure is the wizarding sequel’s Twitter heat, a metric being calculated by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab through its new USC Annenberg Film Forecaster.

Using an IBM software program called Big Sheets, the lab measures the volume of tweets mentioning upcoming movies and gauges the sentiment of the tweets.


Over two 24-hour blocks since July 8, the lab measured 125,000 movie-related tweets that expressed an opinion. The Harry Potter sequel was the subject of 53% of those tweets and the sentiments expressed were overwhelmingly positive, as illustrated by the graphic above.

Originally the research lab began deploying Big Sheets to track political opinions expressed on Twitter, such as tweets on the recent Arab uprisings or Republican presidential candidates. In May, the lab started analyzing movie buzz, and made some interesting discoveries. ‘Green Lantern,’ a tentpole movie that was the object of a heavy marketing push, was getting plenty of buzz, but almost 40% of it was negative. The film has so far earned $144 million at the global box office, below the franchise-launching hopes of its studio. ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ another superhero movie opening in about two weeks, is barely registering with audiences on Twitter, a fact that doesn’t bode well for its box office potential, according to Jonathan Taplin, communication professor at USC and director of the lab. ‘It’s almost imperceptible the amount of tweets on it, and that’s unusual,’ Taplin said.

Big Sheets relies on a dictionary of 1,700 words like ‘love,’ ‘hate,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘boring’ that have been deemed positive or negative. Language usage on Twitter can be complex, Taplin said, and linguists are working to help the software capture the nuances. ‘We’re constantly trying to refine it,’ Taplin said. ‘If a tweet says, ‘Who is the genius that made Transformers?’ we’re teaching the software to understand that’s probably not a positive comment.’

Not only can sarcasm complicate the sorting, but then there’s the challenge of titles with negative words, such as ‘Horrible Bosses’ and ‘Bad Teacher.’

The Annenberg Lab plans to make its graphics available for free on its website and in coming weeks will unveil another format in which users can roll over the graphic to see a change in a movie’s Twitter buzz over time. It’s also exploring ways to incorporate research using Facebook data.

‘Eventually we’d like to be like a gigantic focus group in real time that can be used to gauge sentiment about any product, person, or issue,’ Taplin said. ‘What we’re doing is open academic research. We’re not trying to make a company out of it.’


Movie studios are getting savvier in their use of social media as a promotional tool. Paramount Pictures debuted its ‘Super 8’ trailer on Twitter, announced sneak preview screenings there and encouraged attendees to use the hashtag ‘#Super8Secret’ to discuss the film. When Warner Bros.’ website for the Batman sequel ‘Dark Knight Rises’ debuted, fans had to log in through their Twitter or Facebook accounts to help make a photo of the movie’s villain appear.

The Annenberg Lab isn’t the only place that tracks movie buzz on social networks. has been maintaining Facebook and Twitter statistics on movies since March 2010. Between last Friday and Tuesday, the website counted a whopping 553,293 new likes on the ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’ fan page. It also tabulates the number of Twitter mentions for a film, and notes the ratio of positive to negative mentions.

‘I don’t know how the traditional way of tracking using phone calls can survive,’ said Phil Contrino, editor of, referring to traditional phone surveys used to measure popular interest in a film. ‘The volume and the global nature of social networks are the two main advantages. You get a larger amount of opinion, and it’s from all over the world.’

There are some movies, however, where social network buzz tends to underplay box office potential, Contrino said -- those geared toward older audiences. ‘The people going to see ‘It’s Complicated’ are not tweeting about it to all their friends,’ he said.


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-- Rebecca Keegan