In a recent podcast with with comedy collective All India Bakchod, Shah Rukh Khan was asked about his biggest social media pet peeves. Please don’t send me the collections of my films - he implored his 23.2 million Twitter followers. “I make the films. I produce and distribute films. What the film is doing on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, inflated, deflated….. I know!” he exclaimed. He’s right. Of course he knows. As for the rest of us, not so much.
According to the trade website boxofficeindia.com, the nine-day collection of Khan’s latest film Raees is Rs 114.50 crore. Whereas koimoi.com has listed the figure as Rs 122.36 crore. It’s not just Raees. Collections of the other big film that released along with it - producer Rakesh Roshan’s Kaabil - are just as confusing. There too, boxofficeindia.com lists its 10-day collection as Rs 69.50 crore whereas koimoi.com shows Rs 97.03 crore. That’s over a Rs 20 crore difference in data.
Exaggerating box office numbers is par for the course in the movie business. In 2013 Roshan was criticised for manipulating the numbers of Krrish 3 by over Rs 15 crore - an allegation that both he and son Hrithik Roshan vehemently denied. Interestingly, Siddharth Roy Kapur, a producer and the President of The Film and Television Producers Guild of India, believes it was far worse earlier. He says, “I think compared to a decade ago the inflation of box office numbers has come down. Today there are a couple of credible sources like Box Office India that are unbiased in terms of the number they put out.” We still don’t have accurate figures, he adds, but at least we are within “ a 5% range of what the figures actually are”.
Rentrak's most significant achievement came only recently when they managed to get PVR - which has 562 screens in 48 cities - to sign up. The next frontier is Inox. These are baby steps in a country with over approximately 11,000 screens.
But how does one even get authentic figures when the process of calculating them is flawed and primitive? Here’s what typically happens after the release of a film - producers and trade analysts start making frantic phone calls to multiple distributors and trusted sources across the length and breadth of the country to enquire about the ticket sales in their region. The data is then manually compiled and a total figure is arrived at. At this point, varying versions of these figures begin floating around industry circles. And the number that is ultimately shared by film PRs often ends up being a glorified version of that. “There is reticence from producers and distributors to share numbers because this industry runs on perception. To make any change, you have to start with changing mindsets. And that takes time,” says Kapur.
Since October 2014, Rentrak - a global box office measurement leader - has been trying to break into the Indian market. Their efficient software could give us truthful, real-time box office data within seconds of a movie ticket being purchased anywhere in the country. This would also mean having one final collection figure from a neutral, third-party source that can’t be contested or manipulated later. Sadly, not enough people seem to want this.
In the last two and half years, Rentrak, which has since been acquired by audience measurement firm comScore, has made slow progress in wooing India. So far they have Cinepolis, Carnival and other smaller cinema chains on board. Their most significant achievement came only recently when they managed to get PVR - which has 562 screens in 48 cities - to sign up. The next frontier is Inox. These are baby steps in a country with over approximately 11,000 screens.
“I hope Rentrak brings in an amount of professionalism but having PVR alone is not enough,” says Sreedhar Pillai, an independent trade analyst in Chennai. “The multiplex phenomenon down south is a recent development. I don’t think PVR has more than two properties in Tamil Nadu. Rentrak also needs to have the single screens in Tamil Nadu and Andhra to be effective.”
To be fair, India is a uniquely complex movie market and there are no easy solutions to any of its many problems. For starters, we have an entertainment tax that is levied on each ticket and the percentage deducted is different is in every state. For example - it’s about 45 % in Maharashtra, but 15 % in Tamil Nadu. Secondly, apart from the giant Bollywood and South film industry there are several other regional language films to account for. And then there is a vast number of single screen theatres, many of which aren’t even equipped with E-ticketing.
I think compared to a decade ago the inflation of box office numbers has come down. Today there are a couple of credible sources like Box Office India that are unbiased in terms of the number they put out - Siddharth Roy Kapur
Currently comScore has a global footprint in more than 75 countries. Their data helps studios make more nuanced assessments of how their film has fared. In 2012 comScore CFO David Chemerow gave a business talk where he spoke about how their data collection system once saved Warner Bros $20 million after the release of a Harry Potter film. “It was 3 PM on a Friday afternoon and we called up Warner Bros and said, ‘Guys, stop your TV advertising.’ They said, ‘Oh my god, why? The movie isn't a hit?’ We said it’s so much of a hit that it is sold out for the next seven days. Kill your TV ad spend and bring it back next weekend,” recalled Chemerow.
Strangely, in a movie obsessed country like ours where even the layman wants to know if a movie has touched the hallowed 100 crore mark, people have conveniently turned a blind eye to the potential of such data. In Hollywood, studios can also access each other’s data, see how their competition is faring and learn from their mistakes.
“In India most distributors and exhibitors would like to keep the theatre level data confidential, only top level (aggregate) data will be shared. But over time each market starts seeing more value in sharing and using the analytics and granularity for creating greater value,” says Rajkumar Akella, managing director of comScore India.
As comScore literally goes from door to door educating stakeholders about the global best practices in box office collections, there are a few common fears that always come to the fore. The most standard query they get is - What if only I convert and the rest don’t. Then why am I helping everybody else? “There are many in Bollywood that know about how Rentrak works. But apart from them there are so many regional industries and small-time producers that don’t. It’s hard to get them all on the same page. But we are trying to create awareness and explain to everybody that it is a win-win for producers and distributors,” adds Akella.
A trade analyst who’s been in the business for over three decades doesn't seem to think so. “I don’t see comScore making any difference. I have trusted executives even in the most remote regions of the country who call to give me daily collections, so why do we need them. Also I don’t see comScore being able to convince any of the single screen owners to share data with them transparently,” he said, on condition of anonymity. Interestingly, he also added that while he has near-accurate collection data for every film, he only prints the figures the producers share with him. “Yes, often the numbers don’t match but I don’t get into all that because they also advertise with my publication,” he added.
Therefore, as Pillai aptly puts it, box office collections in India are meant to be “taken with a bucket of salt”, especially down south where a superstar can conjure up any figure they’d like you to believe. “In Tamil Nadu there’s a cap on ticket prices. The highest rate in multiplexes is about Rs 120, but when a big film opens they sell tickets openly at Rs 200-300 in connivance with the local administrative agencies. How else do you get these big collections when the prices are so low?”
In Hollywood, studios can also access each other’s data, see how their competition is faring and learn from their mistakes.
Unless we democratise information, these questions will remain unanswered. Kapur assures that The Film and Television Producers Guild is actively pushing for comScore to kick in. “I do believe that within the next year, we will get at least 80-90 per cent of revenues in this industry reported on Rentrak. I’m optimistic about it,” he says. Currently, the service isn’t wholly beneficial because it’s being implemented in a piecemeal fashion. Till everyone gets on board, we have to continue living in fool’s paradise.