The box office figures are sooooooooooooooo bad right now, that it made me think about why exactly they are so bad, and if this is a good thing or bad thing. And I landed on “bad” and also “it’s the audience’s fault”. So get ready for me to get deep and complex towards the end!
I went through my archives to see if it’s just a time of year thing, the sagging spot between Independence Day and all the fall festivals. But, nope! This time last year, Baar Baar Dekho and Pink were both at the box office, and Baar Baar was “flopping” at about $4,000 per screen. Unlike now, just a year later, when Simran is “running well” at around $2,000 per screen in the US.
Simran is the best of a bad story, at about $2,000 per screen in the US. Lucknow Central is probably the worst. Opened on 52 screens, only making a little over a thousand per screen in the US. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan in week 3 is doing the same as Lucknow Central in week 1. Which also isn’t great for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan either.
But the real sad story is the non-Hindi films. Magalir Mattum in week one, at $1,500 per screen in the US. Thupparivaalan at less than a thousand. And this is the same across the globe, including India to some degree. So, what changed? Is it the films or is it the public?
Let’s take Pink and Baar Baar as counterexamples. Pink grew from word of mouth, and it had a good opening from promotions. It was really the ideal situation, benefiting from both the new social media kind of environment and the old fashioned promotions kind of environment. Baar Baar, obviously, did not grow from word of mouth. But it still managed a decent opening weekend based on the very coordinated promotional campaign.
(And it wasn’t a waste of money. Weak film, but worth it to see this song on the big screen)
Now, a year later, that system is no longer working. We’ve been talking about this in the comments, how fast word of mouth spreads. But one thing that seems a little different, if I am understanding new technology correctly, is that word of mouth is being quickly dominated by one “mouth” as it were. It has to be if it is spreading this fast. With Pink, or Neerja, last year, the opening weekend was decent and then it grew the second weekend. That means a large proportion of people saw it opening weekend and, among them, the consensus was that it was good. And so they each told 3 people to see this movie, and those 3 people came to watch it. And slowly it grew and kept growing.
Now, we are seeing small opening weekends followed by drastically smaller second weeks and so on. What that means is a small proportion of people are seeing the film and immediately passing on their reviews to 20-50-100 people. And usually those reviews are bad.
Now, I don’t want to save the movie industry from blame here. The films are bad, that’s true. If there were better movies, the word of mouth would be good, those small groups would pass on universally good reviews and more people would come. We saw that from Baahubali.
But let’s take a second and think about the whole process of deciding to see a movie. You have limited funds and limited time and want to make sure it is something you will enjoy. How can you make sure it will be something you like? Well, there are 3 good ways to do it:
- Use your own judgement. Did you like the promotions, do you like the actors, did you enjoy something else by this director/writer/whoever?
- Ask a friend who has already seen it, “is this something I would enjoy?”
- Read a detailed review that gives you a sense of what kind of a film it is from a reviewer you trust.
And here are bad ways:
- Assume in advance you will/won’t like it just because of your personal feelings about the actor, one thing you have heard about the plot, one small element on the poster
- Trust a total stranger’s one word “bad” review
- Read a short poorly written review from a reviewer you don’t know.
Now, “good” option 3, that’s very hard to find in Indian film. There’s me of course (yay me!). There’s Raja Sen and rediff.com in general, there’s Baradwaj Rangan, I am sure there are others scattered around that I don’t know about. But every time I look at a review on Times of India or some other mainstream source like that, I am just disgusted. There’s nothing there, it says the movie is good or bad and that’s kind of it.
The reason you need more to a film review isn’t so you can learn more about the film, it’s so you can learn more about the reviewer. Raja Sen, I love him, but we have very different taste in movies. If he says a film is bad, that doesn’t mean I skip the film. It means I read the review and if he says it is bad because it is “big stupid crowd pleaser with ridiculous action scenes and a bad script”, then I will watch the film. If he says it is bad because “the social statements are blunt and the performances are dull”, then I won’t. I always agree with his content, that’s why I read him, but I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions. And I shouldn’t, we are different people, we will like different things, and that’s okay. The content is there to help me make my own informed decision.
That’s why I don’t do “stars” on my reviews or any kind of a rating. You have to read the thing, get to know me, see the details of why I did or didn’t like it, and then make your decision. Not everyone has the same taste or likes the same sorts of films. My job as a reviewer is to be as honest as possible about my response to the film and what the film was, so you can make your own decision. This is why I went to school, this is what I was trained in. I’m not just someone on Facebook posting a screed about how awesome a fight seen was, or how “unrealistic” a romance is. And my hope is that even if you only skim the first few paragraphs of what I write, you will get something real from me, not just a bland “I liked it”.
So you can’t just say “all the reviews were bad” or “all the reviews were good”. And you can’t pick a random reviewer you’ve never read before and trust their judgement. And you definitely can’t just read a random review that’s only 2 paragraphs long and tells you nothing beyond the plot outline and a row of stars.
The internet is making snap judgments from no content reviews easier and easier. You can go on twitter and find people re-tweeting a whole series of reviews with just the headlines, and all you see from that is a stream of “good” “bad” and no context. You can find plenty of meta stories “reviewers hate such-and-such! reviewers love such-and-such!” But this doesn’t help you decide if you, personally, would enjoy this film.
Let’s look at option 2. Asking a friend. Again, there’s me! In the comments, I’ve recommended films to some of you. But I’m not going to recommend the same film to all of you. Some of you like swoony romance, some of you like thought provoking films, some of you like dark dramas. People are different. And I know you, so if you ask me what you would like, or if I recommend something to you, it’s based on your particular tastes. I do this for my “real life” friends as well, pick and choose what they might like based on their tastes and personality. This is different from a real review, you don’t have to read paragraphs and paragraphs of details to be sure you will like this film, you trust my judgement as to what you would like. And I don’t have to write paragraphs and paragraphs to justify it, you know I know what you are like and what you would like.
(I never would have seen this movie based on the reviews, or even most word of mouth. But individual people who know my taste in the comments recommended it and that made the difference)
This is a great system! This is an ancient system. Movies, music, books, we’ve all had recommendations from friends who said “you liked such and such, right? Then you will love this!” And then you will turn around and say to them “I loved the book you gave me, here’s one I read that reminded me of it.” (which has also happened in the comments, you have told me what I would like) The point is, this is one on one between people who actually know each other well.
Now, let’s look at “bad” option 2. If you are part of a whatsapp group of random neighborhood ladies, none of whom you know well, and one of them has taken it upon herself to be the “movie” person and sends out a two sentence “Horrible film, skip it”, every Friday, that is close to useless. She doesn’t know anything about your taste, and you don’t know anything about hers. It’s not quite as bad as reading a superficial professional review (because bad professional reviewers have various agendas along with their useless opinions), but it is only slightly better.
Especially because bad news and bad opinions travel faster than good. It’s easier to say “Horrible film, skip it” then “great film, watch it”. If you say “great film” and someone sees it and happens to not like it, they will get mad at you, they will say “I wasted my money and time!” If you say “horrible film”, no one will watch it and be able to disagree with you. Recommending a movie is a lot more risky than not recommending it. I’m not saying that random whatsapp people need to be more generous in their reviews, but I am saying that the people getting these reviews need to be less trusting of them, less sure that what someone else says is “horrible” is actual something they wouldn’t like.
And then there’s option 1, making a judgement for yourself based on the data you have. “Good” option one is that you see the song video, you see an interview with the star, you decide whether or not it sounds like a film you would like. Even the “good” version of this is a system that is both a lot harder and a lot easier today. And it is also the thing that varies the most depending on where you are in the world. This is, I think, what is most driving the global versus local market.
Let’s look at Jab Harry Met Sejal for an example. If you are overseas, what you know before the film comes out is that you saw a few songs on youtube maybe, they seem catchy. Shahrukh is in it. The poster has bright colors. So, you go see it because the poster has bright colors, Shahrukh is in it, and the songs are decent.
If you are in India, you have all of that, plus like 95% more. A barrage of interviews, articles, public appearances, you cannot escape this film. There is too much information, some of it sounds like something you will like, some of it like something you will hate, and so you err on the “hate” side. It is so much noise that it becomes meaningless, it’s impossible to make an informed decision for yourself because you can’t spend 8 hours sifting through all the data to find the useful parts of it.
Back in the day, like just 20 years ago, this was the way most people decided what to see especially on opening weekend. A poster at the movie theater, a song on the radio, the star’s name, that was it. You had enough to know generally if it would be “your” kind of a film, and if you didn’t like it, that was your own fault, not the filmmakers, not the reviewers, not the social media who lied to you. It sounds kind of odd to put it this way, but ultimately there was a sense of personal responsibility for a bad film going experience. You don’t say “I HATE THIS MOVIE STAR/DIRECTOR/FILM STUDIO BECAUSE I SAW A BAD MOVIE!!!!!!”, you say “well, that was a waste of time and money, I should be smarter next time.”
Now, here’s the really bad version of that. If you see an actor whose public persona you agree with, on a poster that general nods towards politics/world view you support, and you automatically decide you will like this film before you even watch it. Or of course the reverse, you see an actor whose public persona you don’t agree with, on a poster with a general nod towards politics you don’t support, and automatically decide you will not like this film.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha was not a great movie. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t a bad movie, but the songs weren’t that good, the script was confused, and the characters didn’t work. But it had the right tagline on the poster, and a non-controversial star. So it ran well. Dangal was a much better movie. But it was not the best movie, if it had a more controversial star and a less middle-of-the-road-but-seems-like-you-are-taking-a-stand political message, it would not have run well.
(I love this song. But I want this song to be the whole movie, butch tough little girls beating up guys. Not nobly winning for India with the guidance of their father)
Dilwale should have run better. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil should have run better. Raees should have run better. Not a lot better, I’m not saying any of them should have broken box office records. But they took a hit because of reasons completely unrelated to the content of the film. Just like Rustom and Bajirao got a break for reasons completely unrelated to the content of the film.
What’s the downside to all this? People being increasingly picky in their film choices and bad reviews (“bad” meaning both poorly written and negative) spreading faster than good in most cases? Well, there are two downsides:
First, people are missing out on movies! When did it become the norm that you can only enjoy a film if it is perfect and everyone else loves it to? What happened to just going to the movies to enjoy going to the movies? I had SO MUCH fun at Munna Michael and Raabta and Muburakan. And these were not good movies. I would not (and did not) give them very good reviews. But I hopefully gave them a review that made you know if this was the kind of film you would enjoy, that told you that they are a fun thing to do on a Friday night.
A large part of this is related to ticket prices, at least in India. The prices are going up and up, which makes people more picky about what to see. And also gives an inflated market share to people who are more likely to read reviews, literate English speakers with technology access.
But the tickets aren’t really going up in America, and yet people are getting increasingly picky just to be picky. I don’t know, it just feels like you are depriving yourself of something joyful because you are being told that it isn’t worth risking something bad.
And then the second problem is, good movies don’t magically appear fully born. Every film industry in every era has a ton of terrible movies and a few great ones. They need the money and the experience and everything else from the terrible movies in order to make the great ones. Look at Bahubali. Before Bahubali, there was Billa, there was Chatrapathi (that shark CGI was not great), there was every terrible movie Nassar and Ramya Krishnan and Satyaraj were in over the past decades of their career. You have to allow people to fail in order for them to succeed. If the public is now saying “don’t bother seeing any movie ever unless it is Bahubali“, well, they aren’t going to get any more Bahubali‘s.
(Great idea, poor execution. But they got better and then we got Bahubali)
So, yes, films should be better. Ticket prices should be lower. Promotional campaigns should be smaller. All of this is true.
But the bigger truth is that minds need to be open and questioning. Don’t believe everything you read online, dig into things further, think for yourself. Don’t make judgments before watching a film. And most of all, don’t trust the judgments of others you don’t even know and who don’t know you. People have a voice now, and that means it is your responsibility to use that voice well and fairly.