With over 30 years of experience as a box office analyst, including 10 in his current role at Comscore, Paul Dergarabedian has established himself as one of the nation’s foremost experts on the business of movies. Considered one of the industry’s most accomplished experts, Dergarabedian started his career in the film industry in 1993 at Exhibitor Relations Co. before founding Media by Numbers in 2006. That company later became a division of Hollywood.com, where he served as president of the box office division until he joined Rentrak (now Comscore) in October 2013. Boxoffice Pro caught up with Dergarabedian ahead of the event to reflect on his pioneering role in bringing box office analysis to the public.
You are a familiar name in this industry and a box office analysis and reporting pioneer. How did you get into this line of work?
I didn’t start in the film industry until 1993 at the age of 30. I got into it because I loved numbers. My father was a rocket scientist and mathematician, but I was terrible at math. It was the love of movies that drew me in. I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Dome when I was about seven. Everybody has that moment when movies somehow affected their life; that one’s mine. I fell in love with the cinema experience there and then. I developed an interest in box office numbers by seeing the charts in the Los Angeles Times. I got a job back in March of 1993 at Exhibitor Relations Co. I’ve been doing [this] ever since. I was part of Hollywood.com before starting my own company, Media by Numbers. I moved to Rentrack ten years ago; [it’s] now part of Comscore.
Movie theaters are my favorite place in the world. Receiving the Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award at ShowEast is a total honor. It’s not an honor I’d be receiving if it wasn’t for everything that the theater owners and studios are doing.
Box office reporting went from being an industry-specific conversation among film professionals to being part of popular culture since you started working. Out of all the conversations to have about movies, I’m still surprised people outside the industry would choose to talk about their earnings. When did this shift to a consumer appeal to box office reporting come about?
I’m old enough to remember when the trade press reported box office numbers by region. It was very much an “inside baseball” type of thing. It wasn’t until the early-to-mid ‘80s that I remember seeing a national box office chart in the Los Angeles Times.
The reason people outside of the industry are so in love with this space is because they can participate. If I go out to see a movie, my dollars are part of what is being reported. If it were tracking sales about some widget—say, a paperweight—that’s not as exciting as talking about movies. It’s fun to talk about movies and their impact on audiences. “How did that movie do? How did it do critically? How did it do financially?”
There remains a lingering misconception outside the industry that if a movie “doesn’t do well at the box office,” it’s not a good movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. I remember meeting Sydney Pollack, the great director, years ago at an industry event. I went up to him and apologized for putting a number on his art—and most filmmakers know that it’s not about that. Most filmmakers working today have a great understanding of the business and box office; they get it.
Today, it’s not just box office analysts like yourself talking about the top ten—there are additional voices in social media and the internet contributing to the national conversation.
What makes today so different than 15 or 20 years ago is that with social media, there are people who do not work in the industry talking constantly about the box office. I watch a lot of YouTube, and there are now political commentators, stock analysts, music critics—you name it—from all walks of life. Some are professionally affiliated. Others are just really smart people who are passionate about what they are talking about.
The beauty of what we do in providing box office analysis is that you erase the chalkboard every weekend and start over. It’s never boring, and every weekend has a new trajectory. There are things you can’t predict; look at the Barbenheimer phenomenon this summer. It was something that had never happened before. There was no way anyone could have predicted that level of success. It was a unique situation. Whenever going to the movies becomes a news story, that’s a sign that everyone in this industry executed their assignments perfectly well. Now you have some folks wanting to recreate the phenomenon, looking at the release dates of Saw X and Paw Patrol and asking for a Saw Patrol viral phenomenon—I’m not sure that one will sell quite as well.
Some people online have huge followings and are not necessarily considered professionals in the industry. I don’t look at it like an elitist thing, saying I’m better than anybody else. I never went into this profession as something I thought I’d make a career out of. I never went into it with that intent. It was simply something I was interested in and passionate about. I wound up with a mentor, way back in the day, who helped me get my footing—and had a lot of help along the way. If it weren’t for the movie theaters and studios, I wouldn’t have anything to discuss and nothing to be honored for. I’m so thankful to this community.
I’ve been tenacious at this since I started in 1993. I started reporting box office numbers on Sunday mornings in 1995 and have only missed two Sundays since then, excluding the pandemic. Holidays are the busiest period; those last two weeks of the year are the heaviest two weeks for theaters. It’s hard to have balance in a role like this. You need to have a tenacity to do it right.
If you think about how many wide releases we have in a given year, there might be 110—putting aside the indie films, which are wildly important but [which] we consider separately from those that go out wide. It’s a constantly changing, evolving, and dynamic ecosystem.
A misconception that can arise when talking about the box office is that we’re saying or implying something about a film’s quality as part of our analysis, which is not the case.
Some of my favorite movies were considered bombs when they first came out. 2001: A Space Odyssey—people walked out of that movie. It was not a huge box office hit when it came out. It took years for that movie to be appreciated.
The movies I tend to like the most are movies that challenge audience expectations—movies that provoke and go out of their way to break away from conventions. Those movies, by design, can’t be judged on their financial performance.
It’s a different equation for those films, where the higher currency is critical acclaim and the buzz coming out of festivals. Financial success in the indie film world isn’t about making oodles of cash. It’s about profitability. We have great specialty distributors that go out on a limb for these films, even when sending them to streaming would be significantly less expensive. They go for it and put these films in theaters. During the pandemic, we kept hearing about how all arthouse titles would skip theaters and go directly to streaming. As we’ve seen, that’s not happening. Indie film isn’t leaving theaters. We have filmmakers who perform at great levels in that sector, like Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne, whose films draw big audiences for arthouse theaters. We can’t judge these films on their box office performance alone. Many of them will open on the number 18 spot because of the scale of their theater counts.
Apart from understanding that the specialty market should be considered under separate terms, how has box office reporting changed over the last thirty years?
Back in the ‘90s, it was all about opening weekend. That’s all anybody cared about: There was a fixation on opening weekend, no matter how much we all, as an industry, stressed that this is a business built around long-term playability.
Look at a movie like Elemental, which was written off on opening weekend but has managed to stick around as an important earner for theaters. Globally, it’s performing great. Because all of the marketing eggs are generally put in that opening weekend basket, we focus too much on opening weekend without the context of how a film can perform through its theatrical run.
When Barbie and Oppenheimer opened over the same weekend, some outlets were positioning Oppenheimer as the loser because it came in second to Barbie. That was a completely misguided way to characterize the performance of both films. It was never a head-to-head battle. Obviously only one of them would come out in first place, but they both won the weekend.
You can’t judge a movie in the first three days. You have to judge after the first three weeks. Some movies have no way of coming back after a bad opening weekend. But most movies will surprise you with how they perform over those first three weeks.
After three decades of working every Sunday and reporting on the box office, what are your plans for the future?
It’s been a great ride, and I never plan to retire. Receiving the Al Shapiro Award is an honor, but I will continue until they give me the “Paul, Get Out of Town Award” after being in this business for 50 years. I’m so grateful to Bob and Andrew Sunshine for giving me this honor at ShowEast. It was totally unexpected, and I look forward to seeing everyone at the event. I’ve been going to ShowEast since the early ‘90s, and it’s always one of my favorite stops on the calendar.