Twitter: A Film Exec's Dream Box Office Prediction Tool?

With the way the film industry has been in the past few years, and the loss of revenues due to online piracy, movie studio execs love it when they can predict box office sales. There are a variety of ways that have been used in the past, but in recent years, speculation is that social media will be a good weathervane. That Twitter in particular is an accurate forecaster of box office sales has been confirmed in an 8-page report by two HP Labs researchers.

Sitaram Asur and Bernardo Huberman, from the Social Computing Lab at HP Lab’s Palo Alto, CA, location, set about in their paper to show “how social media content can be used to predict real-world outcomes.” They used “the chatter” from Twitter to build a model to forecast box office revenues for movies. They say further in the abstract that part of their model factors in how fast people are tweeting about a certain topic. The faster the initial tweets are on a topic, the more likelihood that it becomes a trending topic. I.e., goes viral.

The paper is fairly technical, but the gist of it is that their research studies 2.89M tweets posted by 1.2M users on 24 movies over a three month period. As Fast Company summarizes, the model that the researchers built factors in tweet rate at release time of a movie, as well as the number of theaters that it opens in. Based on their data, their predictions of box office sales had an accuracy of 97.3% compared to the Hollywood Stock Exchange’s 96.5%. The model’s second-weekend predictions were not as accurate but still but still around 94%.

It’s fairly obvious that social media metrics often require special methods to measure, and have special conditions to factor in. There have been some hot movies lately, and Twitter might only be reflecting reality, not predicting it. The question is, can this be repeated for other films, and consistently? Twitter use might be growing, however, any number of reports indicate that the majority of tweets come from the least people (kind of like the 80/20 Rule, aka the Pareto Principle). So movie-related tweets have to at least be propagated elsewhere (Facebook, blogs, etc.) to really be influencing people.

What do you think? Do you think social media can be used to predict real-world situations such as box office sales or stock prices?