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Las Vegan’s polling company keeps tabs on Hollywood

Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.

It’s one of the more influential businesses in Hollywood, but the polling company CinemaScore is run out of a couple of home offices in Las Vegas.

In 1978, movie lover Ed Mintz was surprised by Neil Simon’s “The Cheap Detective.” A fan of the writer’s previous work, Mintz wasn’t prepared for this particular movie. “We did not realize it was a complete spoof,” he recalls.

Critics loved the movie, but Mintz realized there was no real outlet for average moviegoers to express their opinions. Thus, CinemaScore — which movie studios have come to rely on nearly as much as sequels and Jennifer Lawrence — was born.

Every Friday, CinemaScore sends teams of pollsters to theaters in 25 major cities, including Las Vegas, armed with cards containing only a handful of questions: age, gender, what drew them to the movie (i.e. actor, director, etc.). After the movie, audience members are asked to bend back a tab indicating a letter grade as well as tabs revealing whether they would buy or rent the movie when it’s released on home video.

Once that information is compiled, Ed’s son Harold spends a couple of hours crunching numbers and running algorithms, and by 8 a.m. Sunday, a studio has a very good idea how much its latest movie will gross over its entire box-office run. (CinemaScore is contracted by all but one studio; Mintz won’t reveal the exception.)

Mintz, 75, moved to Las Vegas in 1990, having grown tired of the traffic and earthquakes in Los Angeles.

But in the early L.A. days, Mintz focused on getting his information — which movies were liked or disliked by audiences — directly to consumers. There was a syndicated radio show — “We had about 15 stations, 12 of which were in Canada,” he says — as well as a show on the pay-TV forerunner Z Channel and a segment on “Entertainment Tonight.”

All of this coincided with the rise of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. A syndicated CinemaScore column so infuriated the latter when it appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Mintz says, that Ebert threatened to quit if the paper kept publishing it. Years later, Mintz says Harold contacted Ebert and was told, “Why would I want to be involved with people who gave ‘Gladiator’ an A?”

These days, CinemaScore is a family affair. Mintz’s other son, Ricky, handles scheduling and data. Mintz’s daughter Julie, who lives in Denver, searches for pollsters.

“Everyone in the family has been in this business. … Every single one of us,” Mintz says. “In fact, my grandson of 15 is desperate to poll. He wants to take over the business.”

Mintz took some time to talk about the inspiration for CinemaScore, its religious origins and which stars can throw off the company’s projections.

Review-Journal: You pretty much owe your entire empire to Neil Simon.

Mintz: Yeah, it’s interesting, because if I don’t overhear a moviegoer say something or, for some reason, I just skipped the movie, my whole life is changed. I doubt that another epiphany would come rolling up to me so quick. We came out of the theater, and there were a lot of people complaining. … And all of a sudden, some guy said, “Is anybody here wondering why they can’t get the opinions of actual moviegoers and publish that? We keep getting critics.” I looked at him and thought, “Wow, that’s a great idea!”

RJ: What did you do with the idea in the meantime?

Mintz: I thought, “What could this possibly be?” For weeks I was going crazy. And then I happened to be at temple for Yom Kippur. … Forgetting that I probably should be keeping my mind on God, but it was running through my head. … They don’t want you to write on that holiday, so they give you a pledge card, and you just bend back the tab (designating how much money you’ll give). I’m telling you, I took that thing in my hand, and it was like a bolt of electricity. I almost jumped out of the chair. … I thought, “Simple. How simple. How simple.”

RJ: So after focusing on consumers, at what point did the business model change?

Mintz: I never understood why I would be interested in going after studios, but studios, led by Fox in 1989, started approaching us. … From there on in, other studios started hearing about it. And then we started looking at each other and said, “Wait a minute. Maybe there’s a lot more money in going after the studios and not worrying about the movie public.”

RJ: Why poll on Friday nights?

Mintz: Friday night you have the fan base. That’s what we want. And people always say, “You just want the fan base? So you’re going to give every movie an A?” It doesn’t work that way. It really doesn’t. Yes, the grades will tend to be higher, therefore we will build into the system a curve that straightens that out. A’s generally are good, B’s generally are shaky, and C’s are terrible. D’s and F’s, they shouldn’t have made the movie, or they promoted it funny and the absolute wrong crowd got into it.

RJ: Are there movies whose scores still baffle you?

Mintz: I remember (“National Lampoon’s Vacation”). I loved it. I loved it. Got a C+. I couldn’t figure out for anything why people didn’t love that more.

RJ: Are there any outside influences that can affect your projections?

Mintz: I’ll tell you who nails me. There are two stars, it doesn’t matter how bad the film is, they can pull (the projections) up. That’s Leonardo (DiCaprio) and (Tom) Cruise. We’ll give a movie a C+, and Leonardo just pulls the box office with him. … Cruise was amazing. “Eyes Wide Shut?” D-. $100 million. Never, I thought. That’s unbelievable.

RJ: Do you still consider yourself a fan of movies, or is this all just a business for you now?

Mintz: No, I am a big fan of movies. I don’t watch horror movies much anymore. And I’m getting tired of the genre of the unbelievable action films. I always liked action films, but they’re so ridiculous now. I prefer good acting, a clever plot and good ideas in the movies. So, no, I love movies, and I get my share. I wait for October to come, November. That’s when I get a lot of the movies I like.

RJ: So have you ever gotten the chance to talk to Simon or thank him?

Mintz: You know, I didn’t. I saw him in a screening in Los Angeles. But I am the type of person that will not approach a talent, especially if there’s crowds or people around. I will never, never approach. And it never came up again.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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