CinemaScore: The Secret to Box Office Success?

As I get more and more into the minutiae of movie news, I occasionally come across something that really confuses me. Many times when reading about a movie’s box office performance, I’ll see a particular film’s CinemaScore mentioned.

For example, “Tate Taylor’s The Help got off to an impressive start at the Wednesday box office, grossing at least $5 million in its first day and earning a rare A+ CinemaScore from delighted moviegoers.” Or something like that. I’ve begun to wonder just what a CinemaScore is and where they come from. So I decided do a little research. Here is what I’ve found out:

A CinemaScore is a letter grade rating system as determined by the Las Vegas-based market research firm of the same name. Founded in 1982, they survey film goers attending mainstream releases on opening night for their demographic information, their letter grade review of the film, and whether they would purchase it for home video release. Since opening-night crowds are always the most enthusiastic about a release, the average CinemaScore rating is commonly assumed to be a B+, which on most scales would be quite high. Therefore, a C grade is “bad news” for studios, and is basically considered a failure with audiences. Rarely, if ever, do films earn an F from audiences. A recent example was the 2009 Cameron Diaz flop, The Box. Ed Minz, founder of CinemaScope, said audiences hated the film’s ending, which severely affected the film’s rating.

An actual CinemaScore survey - by M@sh on Flickr

CinemaScores have not always been easy to come by for the general public. Originally offered privately to studios, CinemaScores used to basically only travel by word of mouth (ironic!). However, Entertainment Weekly has been offering CinemaScores to it’s readers as far back as 1991. Back then you had to call, and there was a $1.95 charge for the first minute, and .95 each minute after! More recently, Grady Smith of The Box Office Junkie has a pretty extensive collection of CinemaScores for recent releases.

As with any film rating system, CinemaScore isn’t necessarily a determination of a film’s quality, as there have been plenty of great films that have gotten terrible scores. For example, Hanna, (which we loved) got a C+ overall. It got an A from audiences under 18, but a D+ from the over-50 crowd. Another spy tale, The American, (which we also loved) got a D-, and the rare F from women! Both of these are worthy films, and two of the more challenging major releases of the past 12 months.

On the other end of the spectrum, THR has a list of 15 movies that received the coveted A+ from CinemaScore, including last weekend’s The Help, and last year’s Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech. 

The purpose of a CinemaScore isn’t to judge a film, but to try to give studios an advance peek of what they can expect from the weekend box office. Since the Scores are usually available by 11 PM eastern, the studios can begin to prep their Sunday morning press releases when the box office estimates usually come out.