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Julie Rieger, president, chief data strategist, and head of media at 20th Century Fox Film, shares how the studio’s game-changing data strategy is selling movie tickets and driving growth.

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For a long time, the entertainment industry has produced and marketed films based on gut feelings about what’s going to resonate with an audience. And we were no different at 20th Century Fox. But we saw real potential for applying data insights — and lots of them — to the movie business.

Here’s the thing. When we started this journey, we weren’t just data poor; we were data broke. We actually knew very little about our customers. But we knew that if we could better understand the multidimensional nature of our customers, we’d be able to appeal to them more effectively. And that would mean happier moviegoers, more movie tickets sold, and more growth for the company.

We’ve spent the last few years transforming from a traditional entertainment company to a data-driven, audience-first company. Today, we’re making smarter decisions about the movies we create, the people we reach, and the experiences we deliver. Here’s my advice to other companies wanting to blaze a new trail with data.

Have a vision. Or you’ll be left with nothing but a DMP

While data has revolutionized our business, it’s not enough to just have data. On its own, data doesn’t tell you how to solve problems and change the trajectory of your business. You need a vision for how to use that data.

On its own, data doesn’t tell you how to solve problems and change the trajectory of your business. You need a vision for how to use that data.

Our vision was around understanding our customers. Then we had to develop the tools, like a customer database, to get there. What we didn’t want was a Data Management Platform (DMP) only. With a DMP you don’t have control over your data. You can’t get into the nuances of what customers think, feel, and do — where the really interesting stuff is. And, sure, it might save you money right now, but what does a CEO care about short-term savings if you’re not making long-term gains?

I always say to people: be wary of letting technology decisions masquerade as strategy. Having a DMP is not the same as having a plan. My advice? Find a vision everyone can rally around — such as intimately understanding your customer to drive growth — and use data to help you get there. That’s what we do at Fox.

Be wary of letting technology decisions masquerade as strategy. Find a vision everyone can rally around — and use data to help you get there.

This philosophy extends to our tools, too, which we’ve developed with Google Cloud Technology. These tools help us decide if we should invest in a film, when the best time to release is, what the best comps are, and how to market it. Really, we’re just infusing data into processes that have always existed so that every decision is the right one.

Get data buy-in from the top

When people ask how we became a data-driven company, the first thing I tell them is this: We have a CEO, Stacey Snider, who gets it. If you don’t have that, then you can kick and scream about data as much as you want, but it’ll never be a company-wide priority.

We’ve been lucky with Stacey, because she wanted to bring Silicon Valley data sensibilities to the film industry. In fact, Stacey spends quite a bit of time in the data science lab with us, where we’ll make decisions together based on the data.

Because of Stacey, I didn’t have to go through years of processes and permissions to get company buy-in. And this is critical, because we are well into the tech revolution, yet the data revolution is only just beginning. We still don’t fully understand what data can do — especially within a company that’s 80 years old and bound by certain beliefs and traditions. We’re still learning about the possibilities of data. Had Stacey not been in the driver’s seat, the whole thing would have suffered death by committee.

Map the data to the language of your industry

To connect with people, it’s critical to understand the language, currency, and signposts within your industry. In the film industry, we speak the language of movie titles. Our currency is comparing films.

For too many years, the language and currency of the movie business have been based on gut instinct. And while there’s still something to be said for a good, old-fashioned hunch, my job is to back up that instinct with solid evidence that then allows the institutional knowledge and instinct to provide the understanding.

For example, our film “Love, Simon” — the first mainstream studio film with a gay teenage love story as its focus — is a PG-13-rated film that our gut told us would be a good match for “Mom” audiences. But when we turned to the data, we found that this segment was heavily drawn to R-rated films. We figured out they saw both sex and sexuality as mature content. Without the data, we would have spent millions going after an audience who had no interest in this film.

Today, the decisions we make are assisted by data. I like to say that data is our sobriety. We get drunk on our ideas, our movies, our filmmakers, and stars — we are human, after all. But you make bad decisions when you’re drunk. So data is our sobering wake-up call. We make smarter choices because we know more and guess less. And that’s what I call being good at show business.