It was the big weekend of Bollywood releases, the last-but-one Friday of 2015, that would see the release of not one, but two big-banner, highly-anticipated films. On December 17, a day prior to the epic opening, as most Indians vacillated between Bajirao Mastani and Dilwale, picked favourites, or simply admitted the urge to see both, a Star Wars fan in Kolkata put a miniature of Darth Vader on her work desk and took to social media to vent her frustration.
For while India was engrossed in debating the highs and lows of the Shah Rukh-Kajol and Ranveer-Deepika on-screen romances, for the rest of the world, December 18 was all about the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As the film went on to create box office records for the biggest opening weekend in many countries and US President Barack Obama wrapped up a press meet with the announcement, “Okay everybody, I got to get to Star Wars”, before heading to a screening of the film at the White House, fans in India had to wait a week before it released here on Christmas.
The Dilwale-Bajirao Mastani-Star Wars release date juggle, however, is more a reflection of the priorities of the movie market in the country than the individual merits of the three films. While most media reports attribute the delayed Star Wars release in India to Disney’s reluctance to have the English film clash with two big Bollywood releases in its opening week, Amrita Pandey, vice president and head of marketing and distribution, studios, Disney India insists that there are multiple factors that are taken into consideration before deciding on the release date of a film.
“Star Wars is a growing franchise in India and it made sense for us to wait for a week and let the word-of-mouth publicity from the rest of the world work in its favour. Also, we wanted to release it in a holiday period to enable more people to watch it. A third reason is that in a market like India, which has fewer than the required number of screens, it makes sense to position your film in a way that it gets maximum screen space,” she says. It’s not unprecedented for a Hollywood film to adjust its release in India keeping local market considerations in mind. “In December 2014 The Hobbit’s release date was brought forward by a week to avoid a clash with the Aamir Khan-starrer PK. It had also happened earlier this year with Mission Impossible adjusting its dates to avoid releasing with Brothers,” says Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures.
Read: Star Wars review
The careful planning seems to have paid for many, as by all accounts 2015 has been a good year for Hollywood releases in India. “The Hollywood market in India is growing at the rate of 2% annually. It is definitely not as big as the local industry, but it is giving competition to local films now. Bollywood producers are also realising this. Whereas earlier, only Hollywood distributors would check local releases before opening a film here, now most Bollywood filmmakers check the foreign release calendar before deciding the release date for their films,” says film critic and trade analyst Komal Nahta.
Box office collections bear out the growing popularity of English entertainment. “Fast and Furious 7 and Jurassic World became the first Hollywood films in India to cross box office collections of Rs 100 crore each,” says Rajender Singh of Inox. The two films did business worth Rs 154 crore and Rs 147 crore respectively. Avengers: Age of Ultron too crossed the 100-crore mark to earn Rs 107 at the box office. At PVR the same store growth in Hindi film business between 2014 and 2015 has been approximately 12.5 % while the corresponding growth in Hollywood film business has been 15%.
PLAYING IT SAFE
The ground covered, however, appears minuscule when compared to what remains to be conquered. “The contribution of the Indian market to Hollywood’s global business in tent-pole films is only about 1-2%. But it is an important market since it has shown significant growth in the past four-five years,” says Vijay Singh, CEO, Fox Star Studios. If India’s share in the total Hollywood business is marginal, Hollywood’s stake in the domestic film trade is not significantly better. “It holds about 10% share of the Indian market,” says Sarabjit Singh of Universal Studios, India. This includes earnings made by Hollywood films dubbed in local languages. “For films that are dubbed in local languages, 30 to 40% of earnings are generated from the dubs, while 60-70 per cent comes from the original English content,” explains Pandey.
And thus the need to play safe. Not only while deciding when to release a movie for which stakes are high, as in the case of Star Wars, but also what to release and where. “The only problem I have is that because of this conjecture of what will do good business, we are mainly subjected to seeing only certain kinds of films — those aimed at the pre-teen market , comic book adaptations, computer-generated mayhem and franchises, at the cost of other good, independent films. These films should also be released here, even if at a few theatres, ” says film critic Rashid Irani. Between 2012 and 2015 more than 10 films which were either critically acclaimed or were box office hits in the US didn’t come to India. These include the Denzel Washingtion-starrer Flight, Identity Thief starring Melissa McCarthy, Annie starring Cameron Diaz and Jamie Foxx, Far From The Madding Crowd starring Carey Mulligan and Amy Schumer’s film as writer and actor, Trainwreck. “Studios do not always decide to not release a film in India. Sometimes there are constraints. The 2014 release The Purge: Anarchy couldn’t be released in India because of Censor Board objection. The film had some sexual content,” says Sarabjit Singh. Another example is Magic Mike 2 starring Channing Tatum, the story of a former male stripper, which didn’t get a Censor Board certificate here. “Often this makes filmmakers wary of the market as even bringing the film to the country involves a certain investment. After that if it is not allowed to be released it ends in losses for the distributors,” explains a source in the industry.
By and large studios prefer to go with genres that have a track record of box office success in the country. “Large-scale tent-pole franchise films or disaster films driven by action and visual effects tend to do well in India as they work well in both English and dubbed versions. They are also well-suited to 3D and IMAX formats,” says Vivek Krishnani, managing director, Sony Pictures India. Agrees Gianchandani, “Audiences, especially those going for the dubbed version, want to see something in the foreign content that is not available in Indian films. Hollywood films usually have a bigger budget which allow them to show a scale of special effects in action, superhero and fantasy films that is seldom seen in Indian films.” And they make for a great family watch, points out Pandey. While Krishnani admits that “local audience tastes have evolved to appreciate smaller films,” he feels, “more serious dramas tend to find a limited audience although they get much more interest if they have awards buzz around them and generally release during awards season.” A source in the industry who doesn’t want to be named feels the Indian audience isn’t too keen on women-centric films coming out of Hollywood.
While there is a certain degree of presumption involved here, the key to getting greater variety in films might lie in creating more space to screen different kinds of content. “The coming of multiplexes in India has helped create a platform to screen more diverse content. There is now scope to give more space to Hollywood and mid-level high-concept films,” explains Vijay Singh.
Of course, the division of space is hardly ever equal. “Multiplex owners decide the programming on what is selling more. In metros, where there is maximum demand for Hollywood movies, the screen division is typically 30-35% for Hollywood and the rest to local cinema. As towns become smaller, the share of Hollywood also becomes smaller,” says Sarabjit Singh.
But while the setting up of multiplexes has meant more screen space for Hollywood, the number of screens is far fewer than required. Industry insiders give the example of China where there are more number of screens per million people than in India. “And they add approximately 3.5 thousand new screens every year, while we are adding only 153 screens per year,” says Sarabjit Singh. More screen space will also benefit the local industry, making films more accessible to the audience. “The idea is not whether all shows are receiving 100% occupancy, but to ensure that every film is running at a theatre close to the audience,” explains Nahta.
While many do not relate more screens with either more box office collections or greater diversity of screened content, Hollywood’s greater success in China does make a strong argument in favour of having more screens. “Even with a strong local film industry Hollywood films have a 45% share in the total movie business in China,” says Gianchandani. It is doubtful whether the demand for Hollywood films will ever be at par with that of the local industry in India. Perhaps it is in recognition of this, and to have a stronger local relevance, that most foreign studios operating in the country, either alone or with a local partner, choose to engage in producing and distributing local content. What does look likely to happen, however, is the English film industry increasing its footprint in the country.
“The younger generation has growing access to English entertainment on television and Internet. This will create a market for English films in the country,” says Pandey. The ideal situation will be one like this Sunday, a rare treat for movie enthusiasts, when they will have the best of local and foreign entertainment to choose from. The success of a good film need not be at the cost of another’s.