Analogue heroes, digital age

The third instalment of THE EXPENDABLES opens this weekend, its biennial mid-August release pattern one facet of a winning formula which has seen Stallone and his ensemble of action heroes take down $573m in global box office to date.

To better understand the method behind the madness we’ll be comparing key metrics across the franchise, including a look at growth-adjusted Twitter buzz, followed by some thoughts on how a pirated version hitting the web a few weeks ago may have impacted on the release. First up, a look at the goods:

Franchise look-back
Release date 15 Aug 2014 17 Aug 2012 13 Aug 2010
Budget $90m $100m $80m
Locations 3,221 3,316 3,270
Critics 34% 58% 43%
Facebook fans 9.2m 2.6m 273k
Twitter buzz 4.0 6.2 2.6
Opening weekend $26,961,023* $28,591,370 $34,825,135
* Social Cinema-projected 3-day weekend.

With not much to choose between them, our projection for THE EXPENDABLES 3 is propped up by those 9.2m Facebook Likes, compensating for the poorest critical reception for the franchise so far.

Of course, we’ve seen recently that Facebook is no guarantee of anything. STEP UP ALL IN mustered a modest $6.5m opening last weekend from 18m Likes, even as a mere 882k Likes for TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES belied three decades of accumulated awareness and affection central to its $65.5m opening.

The decline of organic reach makes Facebook a proportionately less potent low-cost marketing platform, while these amorphous legacy followings show an ever-weaker correlation with a property’s meaningful fan-base.

Then again, TMNT also reminded us that some movies are critic-proof, coming into last Friday rated 34% on Metacritic and 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. THE EXPENDABLES looks like that kind of franchise, leaving the critics cold even as it lights a flame under casual moviegoers.

Buzz comparison

For a meaningful franchise buzz comparison we upward adjust previous releases to take into account the increase in Twitter’s worldwide monthly active users, here from 49m in Q3 2010 through 167m in Q3 2012 to 271m in Q3 2014:


THE EXPENDABLES 3 could still deliver stellar numbers on the day of release – look at the gear change the first film went through on its opening Friday – but Twitter feels like a strong indicator for this traditionally OTT franchise and with some big guns among the talent you’d expect serious movement here if it’s going to open well.

Let’s break that firepower down a little:

# of followers Tweets mentioning movie in last 14 days
KELLAN LUTZ 1.08m 27
GLEN POWELL 1,075 76

Really though? Glen Powell taps his ~1k followers up 76 times in a fortnight while Sly and Arnie can’t muster one mention between them? I thought Stallone basically WAS this franchise. That said, the middle order look to be getting the word out. So where has all the buzz gone?

Pirates ahoy!

Here are the key facts and figures behind the leaked copy of the film:

- On July 24th, three weeks out from release, a high quality version of the film leaks online.

- A lawsuit from Lionsgate, filed on July 31st, seeks to compel six prominent websites to take down links to the pirated copies of the film.

- Lionsgate estimate that, as of August 1st, the film has been downloaded 2.2 million times.

In a soon-to-be-published study researchers at Carnegie Mellon University reckon on pre-release piracy reducing a movie’s domestic box office by an average of 19%. If we apply that to our $26.9m projection it drops to $21.8m, which would amount to a disappointing opening haul.

Is it really that simple? Of course not. The metrics we used to arrive at our projection are already subject to the influence of the film leaking, Twitter buzz especially. So how – if at all – are we seeing buzz being affected?

Sentiment analysis

Daily sentiment over time

This visualisation of daily sentiment over time shows no discernible increase in positive sentiment resulting from the film being leaked online. Most striking is a pronounced surge in negative sentiment on July 25th, the day after the leak.

Could this be accounted for by a high volume of posts critical of the fact that the pirated copy has appeared online?

Opinion categories of talk surrounding leak

Apparently not. In fact, as this breakdown shows, there are more than double the number of posts on July 25th appearing to condone the leak as condemn it. What do we mean by condone? Here’s an example, retweets of which drive that preponderance of purple on August 9th:

Okay, so Jimmy Fallon isn’t inciting his 13m followers to rush out and commit copyright theft. The tenor of his tweet is celebratory, however, causing it to register in this segment. Either way, it starts to look like the negative spike on July 25th must have been caused by something else.

Could it be that some of the 190,000 people reckoned to have downloaded the leaked copy in the first 24 hours were sharing their verdict on the film itself? If so, to the extent that this is comprised primarily of fans of the franchise and opportunistic serial torrenters – with considerable potential overlap between the two across an 18-25 year-old male demographic – this could be an influential group in terms of guiding wider expectations for the film, and damping down potential positive buzz tighter to release.

This is where we need to look beyond the directly quantitative implications of piracy, recognising that the damage done by the unauthorised distribution of a film has much to do with how the non-paying audience receives it.

One could also argue that, to the extent that they’re having a reduced experience of a film designed to be seen on a big screen, the verdict of this audience harshly misrepresents how they would have responded had they held out for the theatrical debut.

Leaving us with a larger-than-life movie being cut down to size by the very formats and devices it’s on a mission to transcend. A cruel twist for a franchise which is nothing if not a celebration of doing things the old-fashioned way.