The Dish from Dergarabedian: comScore numbers guru talks blockbusters, indies and the big screen

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Paul Dergarabedian remembers well when “…my father took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the original Cinerama Dome in Hollywood…” and he felt the power of the theatrical experience. Since then, he’s earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Radio, TV and Film at Long Beach State and a Master’s in Communications Management at USC. He’s been president of L.A.-based Exhibitor Relations Co. and formed Media By Numbers, which later became part of Hollywood.com. Today, he’s senior media analyst at comScore, where “I’m like a translator. I convert box-office numbers and ‘Hollywood-speak’ into a language that’s fun and interesting and easy to understand by the press, moviegoers and film fans around the world.” Here, in a wide-ranging conversation with FJI, are his thoughts on the business he loves.

On his learnings from 2016

2016 has been one hell of a crazy and confounding rollercoaster year at the box office, with as many highs as lows, a host of baffling surprises, and a sobering realization that social media has enormous power to affect box-office revenue. Social media served as a wakeup call to the industry that you can’t hide a bad movie—and conversely, it can champion great films like Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War and The Secret Life of Pets to even greater box-office heights.    

My biggest surprise was how poorly reviewed many summer movies were. And yet, the 2016 summer box office wound up posting the third biggest box office ever—because moviegoing is a habit. Despite the options available on the small screen, audiences love going to the movies. It gets them out of the house. It’s one place they can unplug and have that great escape. It’s part of our culture.

On the theatrical experience

What makes a movie special is seeing it in a theatre. On that big canvas, with a perfect presentation, a great movie creates a transcendent experience for the moviegoer. I think price is secondary. If you see an amazing movie in a great environment, you’re saying to yourself: “That was worth every penny.” 

I’ve been to premium theatres where I end up taking people back to show off the theatre—to turn them on to that experience, to raise their expectations, to show them how extraordinary today’s movie theatre experience can be. But the movie has to deliver the goods… So, the synergy between the movie and the presentation is critical, because when both are firing on all cylinders, you have a satisfied customer who wants to come back. For the future of this business to be strong and viable, both distribution and exhibition have to hold up their sides of the bargain.

On “blockbuster months”

People watch content on their personal small screens at any time, so studios are only limited by their imagination and by their willingness to take a risk. It used to be “The month defines the movie”—now it’s “The movie defines the month.” It’s amazing it took until 2015 to break the hundred-million-dollar opening-weekend record for December—with Star Wars—The Force Awakens.     

We’d never done that in December, but if you look at the release dates of the more than forty movies that broke the $100 million barrier on opening weekend in North America, there have been more in November than in either June or July. The only months that haven’t seen a $100 million opening weekend are January, September and October. If it’s a good movie, moviegoers don’t care which month it opens.

On small movies and big screens

We live in a world of giant multiplexes playing giant movies—yet some of the greatest movie experiences come from the independent world of cinema; they’re satisfying films. Personally, I’ll take any movie on a big screen because, in a theatre, you know you’re seeing something very special.

But I really appreciate the indie world of film because those folks really understand the content they’re providing, the environment they’re providing it in, and the audiences they’re serving. They create a special, crafted, artistic experience that’s differentiated from their bigger-budget brethren. I like the term “art house” because a lot of indie movies are like works of art and the theatres that show them are showcasing cinematic art. And we must have that type of content; it’s as important as the blockbuster side of the business.

There are theatres that show both movies big and small. I wish we had more of them—more theatres with a mandate from their owners that says, “You’ve got some shelf space here, let’s devote some of it to the more offbeat films, because it’s really important that those be made available to the customer.” To me, it’s not always just about the size of the box office, it’s about getting important cinematic work out to audiences in a great environment. But in a numbers-driven world, that’s hard.

On platform releases

The trick is having the patience to nurture those films, to allow them to have that breathing space to catch the audience’s consciousness—before they expand into more theatres. Sometimes, I think they’re released too quickly, platformed too aggressively, and pulled too soon. It’s important to remember that sometimes the scarcity of the movie contributes to its popularity. If it’s only on two screens—and it’s the most talked-about movie in the country—those theatres will be filled. But if you oversaturate the marketplace too quickly with an art-house film, you may end up playing to half-full theatres, because with minimal marketing budgets it can take time for the marketing to catch up with the movie.   

On the differences digital has made

Digital movies that look like film are—to me—the best-looking movies, just like digital audio files that sound like analog are the best. They offer all the quality of the original medium—but they add a layer of flexibility that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

When the in-theatre digital presentation is technically perfect and running on all cylinders—in terms of visual quality, security and ease of distribution—there’s really nothing better. But I still have a soft spot for chemically infused, old-fashioned film. These are movies, not soap operas; we don’t want them to look like high-res TV. High frame rates are great when you want the images to pop from the screen, but there’s something about the look and feel of a movie that’s different and special; that comes from the look of film.

On the importance of international markets

We’re fixated on the North American opening, but we need to be asking: “What did the film open with—globally?” The China movie market, for example, could surpass North American box office in two or three years. This is a truly global business and those who aren’t paying attention to that are lacking the insights they need—creatively, strategically—to maximize the potential for their movie.

For years, we’ve seen targeted marketing campaigns in different countries, but it’s much more sophisticated now. Now, it’s part of the overall thought process—from the movie’s inception—to look more carefully and thoroughly at each market, its cultural differences and unique points of view, because the way the movie is accepted and plays in the international marketplace may represent a major part of the film’s gross. That’s not to say filmmakers shouldn’t make the movie they were intending to make—but just knowing how important the global audience is should steep into the creative process, because the international marketplace can turn a box-office zero into a box-office hero.  

On the future of movie marketing

Two words: social media. Marketing has now gone beyond the thirty-second spot on television, the trailer in the theatre and the billboard on the street. It’s now in the hands of tens of millions of people tweeting. Within the first hour of the film’s release, you’re getting either a collective “yea” or “nay” from the audience. It’s had a huge impact. Star Wars—The Force Awakens opened with $248 million in North America. That couldn’t have happened without social media.

Not that the medium should be controlled by the masses, but there’s some good information in there that you would ordinarily pay focus groups and research organizations a lot of money for—and people on social media are providing it for free. A filmmaker or studio exec can go to Twitter and they’ll tell you which scenes worked and which scenes didn’t; that’s great information—and genuinely useful.

On the downside of social media

It distills down to a single number on an aggregator site—or a 140-charcter tweet—the value of a movie that a whole crew of people has worked for a year or more to bring to market. They get a low overall score and people don’t see their movie. Are we at a point, as a society, where one number determines what movie we see? Aren’t we smarter—or more discerning—than that?

But I will say, there are some people who in 140 characters can give you a really good idea what a movie’s all about. There are tastemakers and influencers out there whose 140-character tweets can be massively influential. There’s been a lot of beautiful writing that’s come out of film criticism over the years, but that’s becoming a lost art; today, film criticism is very different—and, for better or worse, that’s because of social media.

On the endurance of movies

This isn’t like in the Depression era where sixty or seventy million people a week went to the movies because their only other option was listening to the radio. For years, people have said, “The sky is falling.” I don’t buy it. Along with ticket price inflation—which has been modest—there’s been a technology inflation that has made movies available on more platforms and more devices than at any time in our history. The level of competition has been raised exponentially within just the last half-decade or so. Movies in theatres are a better value than ever and they look better than ever. And the fact that we’re still breaking box-office records—and that attendance is holding its own—are proof that nobody should count out the theatre experience.

To me, going to the movies is like listening to a beautifully recorded vinyl album on a high-end sound system with really good speakers. It’s very different from listening to it coming from an iPad on headphones; it’s much more of a tactile, emotional, visceral experience. As long as theatres keep raising the bar—and the distributors keep producing great content—big-screen movies in theatres can thrive no matter what new small-screen content-delivery systems or platforms are created.

On the year ahead

I’ve been looking at the box office for a long time and it seems like every other year is pure magic. 2015 was the first time we hit $11 billion at the North American box office; we got close to $40 billion worldwide. I think 2017 will play out much like 2015. It looks like it will not only be a year that breaks a lot of records but also, most importantly, develops a tremendous amount of goodwill with audiences, because there will be a well-reviewed and well-received crop of movies.

There are a lot of exciting big-name sequels, especially, that I’m really looking forward to this year. Sometimes I sound like I favor indie movies, but I love all types of movies. And when a big movie presents the magical experience that audiences love and critics love and everyone jumps onboard, that’s an overwhelming experience in a good way. I think 2017 is going to have a lot of that.

And that’s good because, in these uncertain times, perhaps we need the moviegoing experience more than ever.