“The reviews of Oliver Stone‘s W. were generally pretty good, which always helps ‘prestige’ films, but Lionsgate’s hopes really rose when NRG’s tracking for W. jumped after the film’s premiere. Marketers pay particular attention to how many people volunteer knowledge of their film — if the numbers are low a few weeks out, they will tweak the campaign–and W.’s ‘unaided awareness’ had risen from two per cent that Monday to a healthy eight per cent on Thursday.

“The three main research companies use their tracking data to predict the opening weekend’s gross, and their predictions for W. were in the eight-to-nine-million-dollar range. These forecasts can be astonishingly accurate — or way off. Palen has found that the tracking for Lionsgate’s hits routinely underestimates their audience: people who are slightly outside the mainstream. At the studio, they call these party crashers ‘the freak factor.’

“NRG predicted that Tyler Perry‘s first film for Lionsgate, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, would open at four to six million dollars, and it opened at $21.9 million. Tracking studies are conducted among people who’ve seen at least six movies in the past year, but Perry’s films have proved to be wildly popular with churchgoing African-American women. Other hidden pockets of interest made The Passion of the Christ and Sex and the City even bigger hits.

Kevin Goetz, president of the worldwide motion-picture group at the research firm OTX, says that his company, knowing it can’t track all of Perry’s audience, simply inflates the ‘unknown variable’ segment of its predictive model by twenty to twenty-five per cent for his films. Often, then, the algorithm of box-office estimation, which is itself the algorithm of marketing efficacy, is actually the algorithm of the informed hunch.” — from Tad Friend‘s 1.19 New Yorker profile of Lionsgate’s Tim Palen, called “The Cobra.”