How do we know whether a film is a hit?

Usually, the trade press and the increasingly gross-obsessed consumer press declare a film a flop or a winner almost as soon as it opens. These days, opening-day figures are a worldwide story, let alone opening weekend, which will often be the top story on the US Sunday night news.

“IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures, may show ostensibly paltry domestic grosses for some of their releases, but nobody is seeing the returns from their VoD transactions”

But in a world of marketing-spend gone mad, these numbers demand a second look. It’s easy to think a film has gone into profit by looking at its gross figures without taking into account the tens of millions of dollars spent on releasing it, especially in the domestic market.

No wonder the studios have taken an axe to their specialised divisions when the returns on such extraordinary marketing and advertising costs were, well, ordinary. Oscar winners such as No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Milk or Babel may on the surface look like respectable performers, but their complex multi-partner financing structures can hardly have seen much on the backend once the cost of lavish Oscar campaigns are taken into account.

Indeed regarding one such Oscar contender this year -The Weinstein Company’s ambitious musical Nine - there’s a joke going round the awards circuit that the costs of transport, hair, make-up and accommodation for its nine world-famous women as they promote the film will raise the box-office requirements considerably.
The fact is that so many of these costs are hidden from the glib consumer coverage which decides what is a hit based on theatrical grosses alone.

Likewise, the biggest success stories can go unsung. The recently downsized Miramax Films probably made its biggest contribution to Disney’s bottom line with UK drama The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, a modestly budgeted film which was a minor hit in the US with $9m but grossed $31m overseas largely from the UK, Spain and Italy. And that was all without a fortune spent on p&a.

Who knew?

And those increasingly prolific US independents, IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures, may show ostensibly paltry domestic grosses for some of their releases on the theatrical circuit, but nobody outside those companies and their film-makers is seeing the often considerable returns from their simultaneous VoD transactions.

The bottom line is that theatrical grosses are an increasingly inadequate indicator of how well a film is recouping - and yet they continue to be the sole measure of performance, considered a reliable barometer of a film’s success when its revenue numbers on secondary windows are rarely if ever disclosed.

It’s no secret that distributors big and small are churlish about releasing DVD sales figures and even less for TV sales or per-picture pay-TV financials.

So what happens to those theatrical grosses we all consume avidly every Sunday and Monday when theatrical distribution starts to share its first-window status with other platforms such as VoD, DVD or download-to-own? How will we read a film’s performance then?

Will distributors report their DVD sales or their premium VoD revenues on opening weekend at the same time as theatrical? Or like IFC and Magnolia, will they choose to keep them out of the public domain? And, for that matter, will producers have a more or less transparent picture of the accounting process?

These are questions Screen International as an industry trade paper will have to confront as much as film-makers when multiplatform, multi-territory releases become the norm. How will we know if a film is a hit?