Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Enigma of Word Of Mouth

Sample this.

In 2011, Salman Khan starrer Ready released on a non-festive weekend, was one of the biggest openers of all time. The film found its place amidst the top 5 films with Word of Mouth despite being critically ravaged.

In 2012, Agneepath became the highest Day 1 opener netting over Rs. 22Crore while its Day 2 collections dropped by over 50% to a figure around Rs. 11Crore. The first weekend collections of Agneepath fell short of Ra.One, a relatively weaker product.

Lastly, in 1994, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun was seen by more number of people in the theaters, when there was no publicity through tabloids, news channels, internet or television, than the number that came out to see 3 Idiots, the highest grossing movie in Indian cinema history.

The above statistics has been taken from various studies conducted by Ormax Media, a leading entertainment research and consulting firm. You can read more results from the CEO of Ormax Media himself here.

What defines the word of mouth for a film? This has unarguably been the biggest enigmatic phenomenon for moviemakers, producers, distributors as well as ardent followers, lovers, trade analysts and critics associated with the industry. What defines the collections a movie makes at the Box Office? What concepts work? What genres work the best? Which stars are the most bankable at all times? How much marketing is enough? What is the chronological plan that works best to connect with the audience? This mystery of the word of mouth for a movie has only gone more awry in the recent years and I am yet to find someone who can explain this perplexing but pertinent phenomenon with adequate accuracy.

In 2012, a spirited positive word of mouth helped delectable films like Kahaani, Paan Singh Tomar and Vicky Donor to push their limits at the Box Office and resonate success, however the same phenomenon did not make Shanghai a runaway hit. Word of mouth made Rowdy Rathore the fourth highest grossing movie of all time and its still running and helped a simplistically charming yet tremendously manipulative Ferrari Ki Sawaari become Sharman Joshi's first solo success. In a age where the overwhelming media marauders you with a 3-4 times increased footage exposure of an upcoming release, and a 10-15 times increased frequency of a film's promotional campaign, compared to what it was in 1994, movie watching experience has been veered away into more of connecting the dots from the promos rather than providing a wholesome surprise. The benchmarks for first weekend and first week collections are whetting themselves by 20-25% every year and any producer has to hit the bull's eye with the context, target audience and positioning before launching his movie. Yet, the illusion of word of mouth remains befuddling.

The only pattern which can be concluded for WOM is that it never decides the first weekend collections of big budget films with big stars. However, for smaller films, it definitely does. Films used to be watched in theaters with families, but now they have become more of means to hangout with friends, boyfriends, girlfriends etc and more than two-thirds of people watch them without the family. It makes for a day out for the new generation if they watch a film, mostly at a multiplex, located in our around a mall or shopping/eating area. Such an audience contributes the most visits to the theater and more often than not, they want to see big budget movies with fanciful marketing, palpable messaging from promos, and fantastical bunch of big stars. It has little to do with the director or the content of the film. This section of audience usually watches the films regularly on the first weekend itself and if it is released during a festival period, it just fetches another brownie point to the film. Franchises, appearance of stars at reality shows, controversies and movie reviews only help this cause. A product that unifies the idea of family outings with hangout activity is definitely the biggest winner in this race of first weekend collections as the week-to-week appeal and buzz percentage rise to make this section of the audience watch the movie right when its released.

For most big budget films, the word of mouth actually kicks in from the Monday after the release. Its the tone and quality of humor or the dialogues or the music or the story or any other unexplained factor that may come into play now as the feedback pours in. Either more people feel the must-watch element of the film or are captivated by the sensationalism encapsulating it. Internet has grown to be portly enough in spreading the WOM with inherent ease, apart from television being the predominantly standard method of communication. This could be reasoned to the success of Kahaani, Paan Singh Tomar and others this year with the savvy audience feeding on the maniacal outburst of information about the movie. If the film has poor messaging in terms of genre, theme or subject, it falls flat from Monday onwards, such as what happened with Shanghai. For smaller films, its always the WOM that can get the more accepting audience to pay for the ticket. The irregular audience is the only audience of niche cinema but the WOM still depends on the clarity of the subject/theme as well as the efforts made by the makers to reach out to their target audience.

While the exact factors governing the word of mouth remain layered, a whiff of a discussion on the topic with one of my best friends and avid cinema follower, Adnan, brought me to more derived conclusions than I expected. People generally like slightly flawed movies, in terms of purely Box Office collections and WOM. The audience's aspirations generally are to escape and enjoy at most of the times, while to get thrilled, captivated or shocked at some times. The average norm is to appreciate larger than life stuff. If we ever make a graph of Box Office popularity versus flaws, it would peak somewhere ahead of minimum flaws. Flaws, being used generically here for plot holes, larger than life content and a couple of other factors bundled up. In such a state, light hearted comedies seem to be the most successful genre among the families as well the youth, notwithstanding the overbearing influence of defined star imageries. When you are looking at BO collections, stardom has always been a driver in all scenarios for Indian cinema. This probably explains the successes of Rowdy Rathore, Housefull 2 and Agneepath this year. Smaller films, albeit less flawed, thrive on the WOM originating from the subject matter and response of the audience, irrespective of the genre.

At the risk of windbaggery, we came up with a formula that aligns with all Box Office successes in the past couple of years.

First Weekend Collections X Word of Mouth Factor => Lifetime Gross of a movie

This may sound exaggerated but most of the highest grossers seem to abide by it, though the exact WOM factor remains elusive to each movie that worked. Like why did Rowdy Rathore have better WOM than Housefull 2? Inherent to the above proposed formula is a heavy reliance on the first weekend collections which pretty much sets up the fate of the film. The WOM factor can alter the collections by upto 20-30% only. The smaller films with no stars or more independent films remain at a constant loss owing to these necessary evils of the Box Office but if they end up scoring a higher WOM before release than other big budgeted products, we will see the trends changing in the upcoming years.

Originally published for the online journal Long Live Cinema here

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