By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
February 26, 2012
Back in the mid-2000’s when I spent three years in Russia setting up and running movie production companies, I often heard stories about exhibitors skimming revenues from the box office and reporting considerably shrunken figures to distributors. One audacious Moscow theater operator actually told me he’d decided that weekend revenues were his alone to keep, and that he shared only in the weekday receipts.
Having observed numerous similarities in the ethics (or occasional lack thereof) between the Russian and Chinese film industries, I’ve often wondered whether a similar phenomenon exists in China.
So when I traveled to the People’s Republic in mid-February I made a point of visiting several people who are in a position to know, and I asked them. Their unanimous consensus was that extensive exhibitor cheating exists in China, and those who are closest to the source assured me that under-reporting runs as high as 40 percent of total box office takings.
My interviewees included a theater owner/operator, a distributor, several entertainment attorneys, and most significantly, two box office reporting software company executives. Because box office skimming is a crime punishable by severe penalties, these individuals spoke with me with the understanding that they would remain anonymous.
Although I have no access to the underlying data, enough experts independently confirmed the 40 percent figure that I can publish it with some confidence, as outlandish as it may seem. Only the distributor thought this figure was too high—they were convinced that skimming runs no higher than 20 percent—but they admitted to having no real basis for backing up that assertion.
The parties closest to the data, the box office reporting software company executives, claimed to have deep knowledge of cinema sales and operations. They told me they have direct access to actual ticket sales figures and also to the numbers reported to distributors. They said that, although SARFT requires cinemas to install sophisticated point-of-sale reporting systems at all box office locations, there are several ways in which exhibitors can short-change distributors on rental revenues.
One software executive said that his company, which has a significant share of the market, actively helps theater operators to cheat. He builds ‘back-door’ mechanisms into his tracking software that allow monies to be diverted out of the officially reported revenue figures. He said that SARFT officials hate the cheating because it robs them of tax revenues and also, presumably, of the ability to funnel more money into their own accounts.
Another executive told me that online ticket selling, which accounts for a considerable share of movie ticket sales, also offers opportunities for mis-reporting. His company provides a platform for marketing, sales facilitation, tracking and delivery of tickets to end users, so he sees every aspect of the transactions. He said that theater owners offer bundled combos where a moviegoer can buy two tickets, two popcorns, and two drinks for say, 200 renminbi (RMB) (around US $32). The tickets would be worth 120 RMB if purchased separately, but the theater operator allocates 140 RMB in revenue to the popcorn and drinks, leaving just 60 RMB to the value of the tickets, thus cheating the distributor of 50 percent of their rightful revenue.
Sometimes the under-reporting is highly transparent and official. A theater operator told me that China Film Group collected 1.1 billion RMB from ticket sales for Transformers 3. But, as the story goes, when it came time to pay Paramount its share, CFG told the studio that because it had already made more than enough money on the movie, its revenue share would be limited to the first 900 million RMB in receipts. CFG would be keeping all the revenue on the last 200 million, and there was nothing Paramount could do about it.
Apparently China’s film industry officials have a strong sense of fairness about their business. But oddly enough, it only runs one way. I’ve yet to hear a story about a Chinese official saying they’d made too much money on a picture and consequently feeling compelled by a sense of fairness to give some back.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.