As Hollywood glitz goes, the folks who crunch the numbers on how many people went to the movies over the weekend rank near the bottom.
But in the last few weeks, the box-office tracking business has been roiled by the kind of intrigue and betrayal found in the plots of the movies whose performance they monitor.
On one side is Paul Dergarabedian, among the industry’s best-known box-office gurus and a fixture in the media, where he and others sound off on the movies that win, place and show in each weekend’s derby.
On the opposite side is Robert Bucksbaum. He alleged in a lawsuit that Dergarabedian took the client list and proprietary historical data from his Exhibitor Relations Co. when he left in November to start a rival, Media by Numbers. He also says Dergarabedian sabotaged the Encino firm’s computers.
Dergarabedian’s attorney, Cheryl Konell Ruggiero, called Bucksbaum’s claims untrue and vowed to countersue for libel and for interfering with her client’s new business.
Complicating the fight is the fraying of a once-close friendship. Both Dergarabedian and Bucksbaum were mentored by the late John Krier, a box-office dean who tracked numbers until he died in 1998 at age 89. Bucksbaum attended Dergarabedian’s wedding, and the two vacationed with their wives in California’s wine country.
“Imagine Mike Tyson in his prime hitting you in the stomach without you looking,” Bucksbaum said. “That’s how it felt and continues to feel.”
Today in Van Nuys, Bucksbaum will ask a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to bar Dergarabedian from using any materials taken from Exhibitor Relations or soliciting its clients -- movie studios, theater chains and media outlets -- to do business with his new firm. Bucksbaum obtained a temporary order last month, but Ruggiero said that it was moot and that Dergarabedian was legally allowed to conduct business.
Bucksbaum alleged that Dergarabedian still provided Media by Numbers clients with historical data swiped from Exhibitor Relations. He noted that Dergarabedian’s spreadsheets displaying each weekend’s top-grossing films, industry trends and year-to-date results are similar to those he had sent out for years at Exhibitor Relations, where he served as president.
“How do you start a company and out of the blue produce year-to-date box-office totals?” Bucksbaum said.
Ruggiero said Bucksbaum had “buyer’s remorse” because he failed to retain Exhibitor Relations’ main asset: Dergarabedian, who joined the firm in 1993, served as its sole analyst and wanted an ownership stake himself.
“It’s Exhibitor Relations that is trying to sabotage Media by Numbers,” Ruggiero said. “Robert Bucksbaum wants to scare companies from doing business with Paul Dergarabedian.”
The feud started when Bucksbaum bought the company in October from John Krier’s son, Gary, who had little hands-on involvement. Bucksbaum, a former Army paratrooper, also runs the box-office tracking firm Reel Source and owns the single-screen Crest Theatre in Westwood.
Dergarabedian, a self-described film geek who grew up on the pioneering movies of the 1970s, had wanted to buy the business himself and approached Krier earlier in the fall. Ruggiero said Dergarabedian was stunned when it was sold “behind his back.”
Bucksbaum alleged that while he was in Belize in late November celebrating his 45th birthday, Dergarabedian deleted company data, e-mails and billing information and forwarded Exhibitor Relations’ list of 500 customer contacts to the new business he was opening nearby.
Bucksbaum said he rushed back to the company’s offices after Dergarabedian resigned via e-mail. He alleged that Dergarabedian had taken the company’s credit card processing machine, keys and parking passes and closed its Internet accounts.
Early that Monday morning, he said, he retrieved some of the customer e-mails and data files but Dergarabedian signed on from another location and repeatedly changed the passwords, booting him off.
He called the scene reminiscent of the 1994 high-tech thriller “Disclosure.”
Ruggiero said Bucksbaum was told in writing that Dergarabedian was borrowing the credit card machine and other items, which were promptly returned. The machine was in Dergarabedian’s name and he was trying to change the registration to shield himself, she said.
He deleted only personal e-mails, she said.
With vast studio contacts and running industry totals in his head, Dergarabedian had no need to pilfer anything, she said. And most of the statistics in question are in the public domain anyway, Ruggiero said.
“It’s disingenuous of Bucksbaum to be up in arms and acting like he’s a victim,” she said.
Box-office tracking has changed since Exhibitor Relations was founded by retired theater owner Nat Fellman in 1974 as a part-time consulting business.
Today, major film studios and smaller distributors provide estimated weekend totals for all their movies every Sunday morning, starting their rounds of calls, e-mails or faxes at about 8 o’clock. Using Friday and Saturday ticket sale tallies collected from the nation’s theaters and their own projections for Sunday, they provide information to Exhibitor Relations, Media by Numbers and various websites that in turn gets relayed to a news media hungry to report the final standings.
Hollywood trade papers and a throng of competitors including Nielsen EDI and Box Office Mojo provide the data that decades ago were pioneered by Exhibitor Relations. By Sunday afternoon, the highlights are available on TV, radio and the Internet.
In the electronic information age, misappropriation claims arising from employment disputes such as this are on the rise, said Daniel Schecter, an intellectual property attorney at Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles.
For Bucksbaum to prevail, he would have to prove not only that theft occurred but also that the data are protectable as a trade secret.
“This is not the formula for Coca-Cola,” Schecter said.
Even so, Bucksbaum could have a strong case if he can show that the data and contacts, though publicly available, required substantial time and effort to collect, Schecter said.
“It will come down to this: Does Exhibitor Relations really have something, or is it trying to squelch competition?” he said.