Kabir Singh makes Rs 275 crore, reviving a crucial debate: Do movie reviews influence box office performance?

A film review is a marketing tool for the filmmaker, but double-edged because it’s one they can’t control.

Karishma Upadhyay July 30, 2019 12:14:06 IST
Kabir Singh makes Rs 275 crore, reviving a crucial debate: Do movie reviews influence box office performance?

How often have you heard an actor or filmmaker falling back on the phrase, ‘only the Box Office matters’ or that nobody cares about reviews?

Why is it then that we continue to see instances of public feuding between the film fraternity and movie critics?

What comes to mind right away is the most recent rant of this kind, where Kabir Singh director Sandeep Vanga took on movie reviewers for painting his film in a poor light, for its themes of toxic masculinity. Given that the film had already become the year’s biggest hit, and has done Rs 275 crores of business by the time these remarks were made by Vanga, one really has to ask the question: Why do you care? And if you say you don’t as you’ve harped on, then why the personal attacks?

Kabir Singh makes Rs 275 crore reviving a crucial debate Do movie reviews influence box office performance

Kiara Advani and Shahid Kapoor in Kabir Singh

The hypocrisy is rampant. Ask any studio marketing manager about their printing schedule of posters. There’s a bunch of posters that goes out pre-release, and as soon as the reviews are out, there’s frenetic action to get new posters out. These ones typically have ‘Running Successfully” printed at the bottom and selected phrases from reviews with the star ratings from various publications. If reviews didn’t matter, as you’d be led to believe, why are they seemingly so integral to every film’s marketing plan? Because most of us, as social animals, look to the opinions of others to help us make decisions; marketers get this and they use it to their advantage when they can.

A film review is a marketing tool for the filmmaker, but double-edged because it’s one they can’t control. If your product doesn’t appeal to a set of opinion makers, that’s really just the loss of one tool in the marketer’s bag of tricks—one that also includes paying social influencers to start positive conversations online (funny that nobody talks about that one).

A good critic, unlike an influencer, can’t be paid to mould public opinion, purely because that’s what their reputations hinge on in the first place. The argument that a critic has nothing to lose is a flawed one. The minute they’re seen as biased, they’re at risk of losing everything it’s taken them years to build. On the flip side, there’s pretty much nothing to gain—every review is just them doing their jobs and earning their livelihoods.

To add to their misery, there’s nothing kosher about the system they work in as well. In Hollywood, critics typically don’t fraternise with the industry, they don’t double up as journalists, and they definitely don’t interview filmmakers and actors. In India, only a handful are allowed by their publications to do ‘just one thing.’

Relationships develop over years between journalists and the film fraternity. There’s this misplaced belief that they’re all friends, and there will always be that one person who will ask, ‘If you’re my friend, how can you criticise my film?’ It’s never enough for a critic in India to be honest and have no biases; they carry the extra burden of having to constantly prove their honesty to those whose work they’re judging, and their blind, rabid followers. After all, as a people, we aren’t really known for our ability to take criticism on the chin and use it constructively.

For the artist, there’s a lot riding on their creations but if there’s a lot to lose, there’s also everything to gain. There’s blood, sweat and tears that go into making films, all of this driven by an all-consuming passion. No outsider understands any of this better than the film media; it’s what their entire careers depend on. A good review can help propagate a good film that might not have the financial legs to succeed through traditional paid marketing. But when has a bad review ever buried something that’s received a thumbs-up from the audience? It’s easy to get irked when one doesn’t receive good feedback; it’s only human. But is it then fair for an actor or filmmaker with millions of fans to flex her/his muscles to bring down those who are just doing their jobs as honestly as they can?

The relationship between critics and artists in any field has always been a bittersweet one. Whether it’s food, art, music, books, theatre or films, there are those who create and those who comment. There’s nothing new about this friction between Bollywood and film critics. And, it’s very obvious who has the power in this equation. It's one of those things that’s always whispered about and almost never set on record. One of the Khans has had a history of not taking kindly to bad reviews. He’s banned publications from getting any ads for his films and refused to do interviews with channels that haven’t given his films good reviews in the past. An actress sent out messages to all the critics that didn’t like her film earlier this year accusing them of belonging to a different camp.

If you think this vanity is a problem that only plagues popular actors, you couldn’t be more wrong. A legendary South Indian director, who is well respected for his art-house films, once called a magazine complaining that they had given his film one star too less. This filmmaker, who has been awarded major film awards in the country and abroad, was demanding a 4 star rating. And, these demands aren’t always ignored by publications. After all, they need the ads and the interviews. Remember when Mumbai Mirror’s then-film critic gave Tanu Weds Manu Returns a two-and-a-half star rating in the printed review; in the paper’s web edition, the rating was changed to three-and-a-half stars because of ‘reader feedback’ and ‘research’.

What both sets of people here seem to forget is that they’re catering to the same film-going audience. No number of stars can guarantee success if the content doesn’t resonate with that audience. A critic’s opinion might not always reflect the way the public thinks, but that tends to happen as an exception rather than the rule. The bickering serves nobody, apart from making for an ugly sideshow. And there’s no better example of misplaced ire than Vanga’s outburst. Here’s the summation line from the Rajeev Masand review that really got Vanga’s goat:

“Kabir Singh is an unmistakably misogynistic film, but the sad part is that it’s exactly these troubling portions that the filmmakers peddle as intense love. Even more sad is that there will be many who’ll buy into it.”

Through out his interview with Anupama Chopra, Vanga justified the misogyny in his film as intense love, and the fact that his film was a runaway success proves that the audience bought it. The review wasn’t wrong at all—those words were almost prophetic. Masand just stated facts about the film, facts that Vanga’s own statements went on to prove.

When did calling a spade a spade, become a crime?

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