How the Bollywood numbers game works
On Nov. 23, along with its usual glut of interviews and news about Bollywood stars, the Bombay Times featured a solemn announcement: “Box Office column discontinued.”
The column, written by Priya Gupta, editor of Times of India Metro Supplements, said it was getting increasingly difficult to get good numbers for how films are doing at the box office because filmmakers and production houses “jack up their numbers.”
“While filmmakers have no hesitation in picking up the phone and trying to convince us about their false data, they will not send formal emails confirming the data as they are scared of subsequent expose,” the column said.
The Times of India is India’s most read newspaper, and its entertainment supplement is a crucial part of the package, often used as a platform for Medianet, the newspaper’s service where individuals or entities can buy front-page coverage.
But the fact that even the Bombay Times was forced to shut down its column goes to show the lack of credible box-office figures in the world’s largest film industry. Figures disseminated by studios and collated by trade analysts and those in the business almost always differ, and there is no credible authority to authenticate these figures.
“It depends which trade analyst or magazine you trust,” said Amod Mehra, a distributor, who also disseminates such data.
Earlier this year, when the Shah Rukh Khan vehicle “Chennai Express” came out, the studio, Disney-UTV, said it had hit the 2 billion rupee mark ($32.8 million) in domestic ticket sales within 10 days of release, but trade publications and analysts had different estimates.
“The extent of inflation may differ, but they are all inflated. You presume (the difference will be) between 8 and 15 percent. The average, by the end of the week, it will average out to 10,” said Ramesh Sippy, a veteran distributor.
Within a day or two of a release, studios and production houses often claim record-breaking numbers, splashing these numbers on newspaper ads and on social media. Reaching the 1 billion rupee mark ($16.4 million) is considered a noteworthy achievement, as is how quickly it reached that amount.
The makers of this year’s Diwali release, “Krrish 3“, the third instalment in India’s first super-hero franchise, scrambled to declare the movie as the fastest ever to reach the 1 billion mark, and used that figure in their post-film promotions. They also said that the film crossed the 2 billion mark, but trade publications disputed that claim.
“People are living in a perception world. Perception is something that doesn’t exist. They want to live in that dream world because that’s what suits them. If a movie makes 27 crore ($4.4 million), they will say 31 crores ($5.1 million), because it suits them,” Sippy said.
Thanks to this game of perceptions, finding the right number can be difficult.
“For someone who is writing about it, it will be difficult to get an exact number because we don’t have the network or sources for it. There are a lot of players within the box office value chain and there is no obligation on them to disclose a film-by-film number to anybody,” said Jehil Thakkar, who heads the media and entertainment sector for consultancy KPMG.
Thakkar, like Sippy, relies on a network of distributors and exhibitors all over the country to extrapolate figures, but says thanks to the lack of computerization in ticketing system, getting accurate figures is next to impossible.
“We have been getting better over time. When we were in a very, very fragmented exhibition system, you had entrepreneurs owning one or two theatres, but now 60 to 70 percent of the market is multiplexes and there is computerized ticketing and less cash pilferage. It will be easier 10 years later.”