I was going to do a box office report for Raabta earlier this week, and it turned into this very very long post about what box office is and why I look at it the way I do and so on and so forth. And I thought “heck, I should just turn this into a 101 one-off so people can easily refer back to it later!” (don’t worry, I will come back to my Nehru-Gandhi family history and finish it in a bit)
No Disclaimer! I have nothing to disclaim this time, it’s stuff I straight up know.
I know box office analysis partly because I went to grad school for film, including a class taught by an actual film producer who flew in from Hollywood twice a week to teach us (it wasn’t the greatest class, but he was nice). But I really really know it because I worked at a movie theater for 3 years, and I talked to the nice Rentrak lady every night when she called for our figures, and said “hi” to the nice Rentrak spies when they had me sign their slips on the way out to show that they had confirmed our figures, and most of all saw how my shifts and hours went up when we had a good film and down when we were stuck with a bad one. So that really really taught me box office analysis. When something has a direct effect on your ability to pay rent/buy food that month, you take it very seriously.
First, I always focus on the per screen numbers, not the total. The total box office is highly manipulable (is that a word?). You just pump up the screen count, and poof! The total box office goes up. Because some people just want to see a movie every Friday, and if your film is playing on 5 screens at every theater near them every half an hour, they will end up seeing your film just out of sheer laziness. This is extra effective on holiday weekends. Everyone is in a mood to see a film on Eid or Diwale or Valentine’s. And if your movie is the most available one, then they will see your film.
(Sultan, for instance. I enjoyed it, but the per screens actually weren’t that record breaking. It was just on so many many screens, and so many many people want to see a film on Eid. Plus, Eid was on a Wednesday, so 5 day weekend, which means the figures for that weekend should actually be divided by 5, then multiplied by 3, and that gives you an accurate comparison with other films. You see what I mean about how the overall box office can be easily manipulated?)
But the per screen figures! That’s where it gets interesting. That’s where you can see if people drove miles out of their way to find the one theater that is showing this film, and therefore that one theater is sold out. Or where you can see that it was more than just “it’s Eid, I’ll see a movie”, which can sell maybe half the tickets in a theater, but rather “it’s Eid, AND I really want to see this particular film”, which can sell out the theater.
Now, in terms of per screen, there is a definite curve that films are graded on, especially Indian films. First, the per screen standard for Indian films is much much higher than for Hollywood. The “standard” number of tickets sold per showing for an Indian film is about the same as what you would see for the biggest hit in 5 years for a Hollywood film. I’ll put it another way, per showtime, about twice as many people buy tickets for, say, English Medium, than for Ant-Man.
(My Dad liked it, but that didn’t matter. The studio released it on so many screens, and spent soooooooo much money on promotion, that it ended up taking a loss despite really decent box office figures. The profit margin just wasn’t there. For the studio, who paid for the promos, and for the theater owners, who gave up most of their screens to it and ended up only selling half their tickets)
Indian films need a high per screen globally, because it is the only way to keep theaters showing them. If a theater picks up a Hollywood film, it’s safe, they know there is a massive promotional campaign behind it, it helps them build a relationship with the studio and distributor to get more films later, etc. etc.
(footnote: technically, a theater in America should be allowed to pick up any movie they want and leave any they don’t want. In 1948, the Paramount Decision said that studios couldn’t own their own theater chains, or use “block-booking” techniques to force theaters they didn’t own to take their lousy films along with their good ones. However, in reality, distributors give a bit of a wink and a smile and the theater owners get the message that they better take Cars 3 if they want Star Wars. It takes a lot to buck that pressure and take a risk on an Indian film with an unknown and unconnected distributor and studio. And then there’s the issue of how studios and distributors in Hollywood tend to be the same company by superficially different names in order to duck monopoly laws, meaning the distributor has a vested interest in getting theaters to take certain films)
But an Indian film is a risk, especially now that India is going after more and more screens in foreign markets, meaning it needs to convince more and more mainstream theaters to take a chance on them. And the best way to convince them is to show “okay, you took a risk, but you reaped the reward in a massive per screen profit for your tiny theater. You don’t care that Wonder Woman broke box office records, if it didn’t do well at your tiny theater. But this film, which barely made the American top ten, did very very well for you in particular.”
(I will always have a warm feeling for this movie. It didn’t break box office records over all, but it ran for 5 weeks at my little theater and kept us from closing 4 months after we opened. You don’t need the biggest box office record breaker if you are running a small theater, you just need a movie people will tell their friends about and keep coming back over and over to see again)
Now, besides the global market, India is also per screen focused because it is distributor focused. Unlike American films, Indian films tend to be split between multiple distributors. Meaning it’s not about if Bombay made a lot of money which tipped the over all profits to a very high level for all of India, Bombay has to make money, and so does Delhi, which is run by a totally different distributor. Or else that poor guy in Delhi is going to take a loss.
(the flip side of this is when the producers know in advance that most of their profit is only going to come from one territory. Udta Punjab was probably sold for peanuts everywhere but the Delhi and UP territory, and for a massive amount there. Which is why the threat of Delhi-only censorship was such a big deal)
And the distributors, traditionally, can get their revenge on films which do poorly because they buy rights by a bidding system. So if a film does well in Bombay but poorly in Delhi, the next time a similar film comes out, the Delhi distributors are going to bid very very very low and the producer will lose money. Worse than that, word will get out that your product doesn’t have the same value any more, and you may be out of the industry entirely.
And who gets most of the credit when every distributor makes money and most of the blame when they lose? That’s right, it’s the Stars! Star power comes from per screen box office and opening weekend box office. Shahrukh said a few years back, at a screening at Toronto which was only half full, that if he went to a theater in India opening night for one of his films and it was less than 80% full, he would quit acting. That’s what India tracks, “occupancy” rates, NOT overall box office. If you wonder why Shahrukh is still considered a top star despite not having a massive hit in years, it’s because his per screen average has remained steady. He is just releasing on fewer screens than the other Khans, accurately gauging the interest in the market for the less crowd-pleasing films he is putting out. But every screen he is on, sells out.
More importantly for star power, his opening day figures are comparable with the other Khans. Opening day box office, that is pure star power. No reviews are out, no word of mouth, the only reason a film is selling out is because of the star in it. And if even Fan, universally hated and released on fewer screens than any other Khan film last year, made within a few crore of the same amount opening day as every Khan film, it means Shahrukh is doing fiiiiiiiine. His strong hardcore opening day fanbase, they are still with him. That’s what tells you about star power. What tells you about film quality is when you look at the growth or slowing of the box office as time goes own. Fan dropped off like a stone Saturday, Sunday, and by the second weekend it was barely selling anything. Neerja grew and grew week by week as the word of mouth went out, but opening day was slow, because Sonam doesn’t have drawing power.
But, with great power comes great expectations. Remember that “bidding system” I mentioned for distributors? It is based on expectations for a film. And if the film fails to meet those expectations, even if it does phenomenally record-breakingly well (As did Ra.One, for instance), it is considered a “flop”. Because the distributor lost money, because they bid too high. On the other hand, if it barely makes a profit over its budget but still pays out more than distributors expected, it is a “hit” (this is why those low budget Emraan/Bhatt films are always “hits”).
(Hit! Because it cost about 5 cents to make, distribution rights were sold for 10 cents, and it made 15 cents)
Therefore, when looking at per screen numbers, it’s not just about the raw numbers, it’s about what the numbers should have been, based on the expectations for this film. And the expectations are based on the studio behind it, the stars in it, the promotion campaign, and the number of screens. This is where the screen count is important. In seeing how confident the producers were in the success of the film, and how much we should laugh at them for its failure. Your per screen count is a measure of expectations, not of actual success.
Oh, one more thing. I only look at global figures. Because global figures are so so so so so much more reliable than Indian figures. There is a company called Rentrak. It was founded just a few decades ago. They are paid by movie producers, but they are an independent group. If you pay them, they will collect the box office figures for your film, and give them to you, and make them available to anybody who pays a subscription rate to them. And when I saw collect box office figures, this isn’t taking a sample and extrapolating, this is calling every single theater in America every night and getting the numbers from them. And sending in spies to do random spot checks to make sure those figures are accurate. The possibility of error in what they are reporting is vanishingly small. Before Rentrak, box office figures were as hit and miss in America as anywhere else, because the studios themselves were collecting them, or reporters, or “analysts”. There was no independent unbiased 3rd party handling it. But post Rentrak, at least in the countries where it dominates (America, Canada, a little bit in Australia and England and other English language markets), these figures are rock solid. Even in countries where Rentrak doesn’t dominate, the flaw is just in the number of theaters it covers. The theaters which are participating, we can be sure that those per screen numbers are within the penny correct.
Rentrak is still not perfect. First, because it only tracks films that producers pay them to track. A producer can always track these things themselves and save their money, but in that case the figures won’t be public unless they are made public. And the media won’t really trust them, because they know they may not be unbiased. And second, it only tracks figures from theaters that participate.
Mainstream major producers want those figures tracked, and made public in a way that people trust. So mainstream theaters, big and small, have a lot of pressure on them to participate in Rentrak. And basically every American film, small indie to major summer hit, pays for their box office to be tracked, it’s just accepted. However, the Indian films tend to fall into this gap. The theaters that only show Indian films, or the independent exhibitors who occasionally “four wall” theaters, that is, rent the space from a theater to show an Indian film, they don’t care about participating in Rentrak. And the small Indian only distributors, they aren’t going to pay for box office to be tracked, they know the mainstream American media won’t report it, and their audience doesn’t read that media anyway. For instance, Rentrak is the group that confirmed that Bahubali Hindi was #3 in America the week it came out. But that was only Hindi. Because the distributor for the other languages (I want to say Great Indian Films?) didn’t pay for their numbers to be tracked at all. Which means, Indian films if anything are doing much much better in America than reported, the numbers could only go higher, not lower. And it also shows, again, that the important person to woo is that small theater owner, who doesn’t care about Rentrak figures, they just want to know that the movie they are playing in their theater is selling tickets to their particular audience.
(Tower Heist. Did terribly in America in general, did phenomenal business at my little theater. And that’s all that mattered to me and my paycheck, if I had been running the place, I would have filled it with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy movies every week. Rentrak is meaningless, because it’s not tracking what plays in my neighborhood)
Meanwhile, in India, it’s all the wild west. Producers and distributors can track the figures themselves, set up calling houses and make theater owners respond, but there is no centralized group that gives figures to the media as well as producers. Plus, as we all know, there are still those tiny little single-screens that flatout lie in order to hide profits. No Rentrak spies going in to keep everyone honest.
Okay, you got all of that straight? Sort of? Then, here is your cheat sheet (cut and pasted from other posts), as to what makes a “hit” in per screen numbers and what makes a “flop”, for Indian films (for some perspective, $2,000 and up is top ten of the year for a Hollywood film, and $3,000 and up is a major hit. $6,000 and up, no one has even heard of that)
$6,000 per screen and up: Record breaking hit, legit phenomenon (Neerja, 3 Idiots)
$5,000 per screen and up: acceptable for opening weekend for a Khan release, really good for any non-Khan film.
$3,000 and up: acceptable for a major non-Khan release (for instance, if Raabta had done this good last week, it would have been very respectable), good for a Khan film or other major release in week two.
$2,000 and up: breaking even point for most films, kind of embarrassing for any major star or major release on opening weekend. Might as well retire and wander the earth for a Khan in opening weekend. Barely respectable for a Khan in week two, not bad for a non-major release in week two.
<$2,000: Hilariously bad. Maybe okay for a Khan film or a major release once you get to week 3 or 4, but in week 2, this is not good. And in week 1, this could mean bankruptcy for the producer and the end of a career for the stars.
Okay, that’s the figures. Now, what do they mean? Not to us, judging the films in success or failure, but to people actually working in the industry?
Let’s start with me, selling popcorn and mopping floors and hoping to get a few extra hours or more shifts this week. If a film does well per screen, that means there are more people coming into the theater, which means we need more staff to serve them, which means everyone gets more shifts. It also means we might squeeze in an extra weekday show, opening at 2 instead of 3 and getting off at 1am instead of 11pm. Which translates to about $200 extra in my bank account that month.
The film business, for the people working the frontlines, is very feast or famine. It doesn’t have to be, every once in awhile theater owners will rumble and complain about this. When I was working at the theater, summer was great, and December was great. Huge movies came out, lots of people came to see them, we all got extra shifts and extra hours. And then January through March, and September through late October, we lost money. The theater lost money as a whole, and I lost that extra $200 a month, plus another $100 because my regular shifts were getting cut. Because no big movies were coming out, and no one was coming to the theater. All the big movies tend to cluster. And in between, everyone loses money.
When something like Baahubali comes out, it’s money that is going to keep you going for an entire year. It’s money that is going to make up your losses for the last 6 months. It’s not “extra” money, it’s what you budgeted to be able to keep the theater open. When something like ADHM is threatened by protests, or something like Fitoor fails to live up to expectations, it’s not “well, we had a bad weekend”, it’s that your entire budget for this quarter is blown to bits, that one film was supposed to carry you for months.
(and at least one theater near me stopped showing Indian films and then closed entirely after Fitoor failed)
The theaters don’t have much control over this. They have to take what the producers are giving them and hope that it does well, and silently wish that more good films came out in “bad” months, so they wouldn’t have this uneven income. The distributors have a little more control.
Like I said, distributors in India traditionally work on a bidding system. This is beginning to change a little, but not much. If you remember, there was a bit of a tempest in a teapot when Dilwale came out, because the distributors all lost money. It did well, very well per screen actually, better than Bajirao (Bajirao was on more screens), but not as well as expected. And so the distributors’ bid was high and they took a loss. This is why some failures sting more than others. Raabta not doing well, whoooooooo cares? Everyone kind of knew that. Troubled production history, rushed promotion campaign, no big stars, yeah, it wouldn’t do well. But the surprise failures, that’s where you start to feel “tricked”, if you are distributor. Like, that sad ending isn’t just about the director deciding to be true to his artistry, but about the director selling you a love story and then turning around and making it a tragedy after you’ve paid him love story money up front. And again, the per screen figures are going to give you a better sense of how the distributors are feeling. Per territory usually isn’t available, but at least we can look at per screen and extrapolate.
(I could be wrong, but I believe the stars on the map are individual territories all on their own, Bombay, Hyderabad, etc.)
Now, the filmmakers, they care DESPERATELY about the box office figures. And it is all about managing expectations and capitalizing on them. If I am Shahrukh Khan, and I want a blank check to make Fan (which seems like a very non-commercial story), I have to make Dilwale first. That box office money, which doesn’t actually find its way to my pocket (most stars/producers get paid by distributors and other rights sales, and then the distributors reap the actual box office profit), benefits me because it gives me street cred in the industry. And it makes distributors willing to pay higher and higher amounts for the rights to my next film. And producers willing to take a risk on whatever crazy idea I want to try next. This is also why, going back to that little tempest in a teapot with Dilwale, Shahrukh quietly covered the distributors’ losses and agreed to offer them his next film at reduced rates. It’s a balanced relationship, if the distributors lose, the stars don’t win, they all lose.
So, that is why I track box office the way I do. I want to look at per screen, especially globally, because that tells me if the small local Western theater is going to keep taking a risk on Indian films. I want to look at number of screens, because that gives me a sense of what the expectations were going in, based on how many screens the producers/distributors thought it could fill. I want to look at these figures based on a sliding scale, who is the star, who is the producer, what is the topic, and so on, to find what figure is actually “good” and what is “bad”. And I want to take all of that into consideration when I make my projections for the future of the industry. What star is on the rise and what is falling, what production house is doing well, what director has a bright future, and so on. Because that is where the industry is looking too. Varun Dhawan, he’s not getting those plum roles because Badrinath was a huge hit or Dishoom. It is because way way back when Humpty Sharma released its per screen average was REALLY REALLY GOOD. $3,700 per theater in America, for a film with an almost unknown cast and first time director. And in 101 screens, showing the producer and distributor had faith in it too. That’s how you can spot who’s got the goods in the industry. Not the talk show appearances or being mobbed by fangirls, look for those little per screen spikes in the box office reports, and surprisingly high number of screens reserved by producers, and remember them.