Box Office Mojo Redesign by IMDb Pro

Box Office Mojo Redesign

It finally happened. Eleven years after Brandon Gray and I sold Box Office Mojo to Amazon/IMDb in 2008, they finally released a complete revamp of the site, updating the design and backend so that it appears to be fully integrated with the IMDb database.

Several features have been moved behind the IMDb Pro paywall, including some genre and franchise movie charts, while some features disappeared altogether including: weekly theater counts, calendar views of box office on movie pages, adjusting any domestic box office chart for ticket price inflation, among others.

The reaction on Twitter and the Hollywood press is resoundingly negative. Many want their old Mojo back. I do hope IMDb takes some of this feedback seriously, not because of the “design” but because of what it says about their editorial focus and understanding of box office.

It’s actually amazing how much data did make into the new version (calendar grosses vs. by release date, seasonal and holiday grosses, etc.), and even some added useful information (such as noting holiday names on the chart index pages [e.g., President’s Day Weekend]). This indicates that whatever is missing, was intentionally not prioritized, which sheds some light on their approach — and leaves some hope that they now have a reliable platform with which to innovate new charts and content.

So here is my take, and some context, about the resign.

When I teamed with Brandon Gray and we formed Mojo as a company in 2002, I took on the task of putting all the box office data into a database (previously it had been updated in Microsoft’s Front Page, believe it or not). Much of the code base that was running up until the just-released IMDb Pro refresh was written between 2002 and 2008 (IMDb didn’t do many updates after the acquisition, other than remove features). That means some of that code was SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD, including an antiquated single-user back end system written in FileMaker Pro (version 5 or 6).

The site had become clunky, with missing features and abandoned content (such as screen counts on weekend charts). Anyone using the site regularly complained about a frequent message that the site was “being updated” and to “check back soon.”  We lived with it.

In short: a complete revamp of the backend technology was badly needed, and integrating it with the IMDb platform, at least on the backend, would save on double-entry of basic movie data. The lack of a mobile friendly site was a major usability problem too. On this front, the new redesign is a welcome improvement.

On Twitter, many are complaining that certain features are behind a paywall and only accessible through IMDb Pro. However, this is not the problem. Newer Mojo fans probably forget (or weren’t old enough to even remember) that the previous version of Mojo also had a paywall, called “Premier Pass.”

Many features were “hidden” behind this paywall, including an ad-free experience, site-wide inflation adjust functionality, sorting charts, additional daily/weeknd charts (e.g., studio estimates vs. actuals), weekly (7-day) box office, calendar grosses, etc. Many charts only displayed partial data (e.g., top 50 or 100 movies for yearly box office), which required a Premier Pass to access the full site.

When IMDb removed user accounts (in 2009-2010?), it made many of these Premier Pass features free, while removed others that required using an account (such as customized weekend charts, vs. charts, etc.). It also abandoned showtimes data and redirected users to IMDb for that information, which broke the screen counts data on the weekend charts. (I suspect this was done to secure an old, outdated system, while they worked on a complete rewrite of the website.)

But back to the point: A paywall was always in Mojo’s DNA, and, if I recall correctly, accounted for up to 20% of its revenue when we sold in 2008 — the rest was mostly from ads. Since the acquisition, it appeared IMDb never seriously attempted the ad-revenue angle on Mojo, as most of its ads were in-house ads for IMDb Pro and Amazon Studios related movies.

It now appears that Mojo is primary one big advertisement for IMDb Pro and its chief value to IMDb, as there are no ads on the new version of the site. Fair enough. An ad-free Mojo makes is speedier to navigate and gives far more space for content.

HOWEVER — and this is a big however — what they chose to put behind the IMDb Pro paywall makes little sense to me, and breaks a huge value Mojo once had, editorially speaking: integrated data. Our original team’s site design philosophy was always: every chart should be accessible within two or three clicks. Moving major content to a completely different website, IMDb Pro, breaks that integrated and unified experience. Why not just let Pro users just log into their IMDb accounts and view this stuff on Mojo?

But a deeper criticism here is one of editorial focus and understanding of the core vision of Box Office Mojo. Overlooking a key element of box office reporting, namely, theater counts, illustrates a myopic view the product. Perhaps theater counts were not highly trafficked on Mojo, so they were left on the cutting room floor? If this were behind the Pro paywall, that would be one thing, but any hardcore weekly box office tracker knows that breaking theater counts news is essential. (For the uninitiated: the number of theaters a movie opens in in usually reported late in the week, prior to the weekend, for the opening of a movie, and is a key tool in predicting box office.)

Also sadly missing is a “Latest Updates” box on the Mojo home page, highlighting relevant chart updates. The managing/updating of this section of the site had been lacking in recent years (in my humble opinion), so it’s not surprising to see it missing. However, the Latest Updates, in its heyday, highlighted key box office chart updates and other related news relevant to the current goings-on at the box office. Example:

A Tom Cruise feature is opening a film in 3,800 theaters? A link to Tom Cruise’s opening weekend box office chart sorted by theater counts would be included in the latest updates prior to the weekend. This gave the casual box office browser the context for digging into the data — and how to dig into it. It was a training ground of sorts for the box office interested. On this Tom Cruise example, maybe they’d notice it was being released in fewer theaters than his previous few blockbusters, which could be an indication of lesser interest in and how well the movie might perform.

Today, despite Tom Cruise not even existing on Box Office Mojo and only on IMDb Pro, a box office follower would not even know to ask this or similar questions. Mojo was never about just having the data, it was about HOW TO LOOK AT THE DATA.

(Incidentally, box office by actor on IMDb Pro is severely lacking, e.g., it only shows a cumulative breakdown by country, not individual domestically released movies, let alone additional charts such as opening weekend information and inflation adjusted data.)

Many editorial, genre and franchise charts are also missing. We had curated these charts with great detail and vigor. Want to see how a What If? Comedy performs at the box office? Or movies with Gay/Lesbian themes? Or Surfing or Boxing or Football movies? How does Rudy line up with The Waterboy and what are all the movies in-between, box office-wise? We won’t know anymore. So much for those interested in the niches of moviegoing.

Screenwriters are going to be especially pissed. Though a small subset of Mojo’s audience, and arguably qualified to subscribe to IMDb Pro, Mojo was always key for them in pitching their scripts to studios and production companies. But they’ll no longer find this information on Box Office Mojo or IMDb Pro.

In an article published in The Hollywood Reporter about the update, an IMDb rep is quoted as saying that “these updates were made in response to customer feedback and usage patterns, which will continue to inform future feature launches.” And therein lies the problem: being primarily data and user-driven in its approach to the new site.

What’s missing? A key understanding of box office, and its mass-appeal phenomenon. I don’t think many casual users really understand why they like Mojo or how to make it great, only that they love it and that the site (used to) guide them in that endeavor. At its worst, the new redesign, with its user-focused approach, makes Box Office Boring.

In an interview I did with two years ago (and was never published), we spoke about Mojo’s mass appeal, and in it said:

“When we were running the site, we were really good at saying why the numbers mattered to a general audience. Brandon was really good at doing that, and it came down to what was it that was or was not connecting with audiences, from an ultimately artistic standpoint.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the movies. And movies are a work of art. It’s all about how and in what way art connects with people and you really need to focus on the cultural aspect of it. Having an understanding of the culture and how its changing as a society — not just as moviegoers but philosophically and psychologically — it going to shed a lot of light on why the box office is doing what it’s doing.

“Box office is about how the audience connects with the art. And that is what’s going to make Mojo interesting to a general reader. We had every chart under the sun but it wasn’t just about crunching numbers. That was an aspect of it and there is a nerdy fan element to it, like collecting baseball cards.

“But the baseball-card-approach is not as widely culturally impactful as I think we were able to achieve with Box Office Mojo. We did have that unique perspective that it isn’t just about the charts.

“It was about: What is it about the numbers? What is it about the movies that connected people? This movie broke a record, what does that mean? It might not mean anything or it might be significant. Or a movie that doesn’t break a record might be significant in some way.

“So anybody who’s interested in covering this topic, you need to have a philosophical and cultural bend to your analysis, and I think that will appeal to the widest audience and make it the most interesting for the most people. What do the movies mean to us as individuals and and us as a culture? As novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand pointed out, art is a selective re-creation of reality and fuel for the soul, and how an audience responds is reflection of their values.”

That’s the perspective that’s missing from the new Mojo, and one that cannot be gathered from user studies.

But there is a glimmer of hope. The reaction online and from Hollywood shows there is still a deep love of Box Office Mojo, of what it was and hopefully still can be.

Let’s also keep in mind that this is a version 1.0 of a new platform. Many of these criticism will likely be addressed in future iterations, and let’s hope they add a touch of vision and philosophy behind these iterations.