Talk of Hindi cinema’s imminent downfall has dominated the airwaves for months now. Failure after failure of big ticket Bollywood films stoked fears of a downturn, or at least a significant churn, in the industry. A closer look at the performance of the other big film industries from south India shows that it is not just a Bollywood problem, as it is being projected, but rather a systematic realignment of audience’s tastes and content viewing habits.
A lot has also been said about the boycott trends fueled by bhakts and trolls which seemed to have dented the fortunes of films like Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha. On the other side of the spectrum is the ‘cancel culture’ where every perceived unsavoury comment or move by a celebrity is blown out of proportion. it then becomes an excuse to call for cancelling or boycotting that celebrity.
Ranbir Kapoor was a recent target, when his admittedly immature joke about his pregnant wife’s weight gain made netizens mad and people started calling for the boycott of his forthcoming film Bhramastra. But can such a huge downturn be so easily written off as a mere publicity failure from the industry.
That the Hindi film world has faced huge (and perhaps deservedly so) negative publicity over Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, and the nepotism debate (which runs way deeper in India’s film industry than the general public knows) cannot be denied. And neither can the fact that this and huge boycotts by right wing trolls have had an impact on the box office numbers of films.
But despite the impact of these phenomena, there are larger, more systematic issues at play here. Let us take a look at the more systematic issues facing the Indian film industry at present. Turning a blind eye to the real problems which are more difficult to talk about will only result in more failure, more losses, and perhaps even a large-scale collapse of films as a form of entertainment and art in India.
Having said that, let me add that such a big and long term downturn is unlikely to happen. What is more likely to happen is that filmmakers will wake up to what the audience wants.
Films have failed. Huge films with huge stars have failed. The success rate of cinema in terms of commercial viability purely on box office numbers is perhaps a measly 10 percent. It has always been that way, and will always be that way.
First let us take the popular perception that it is Bollywood which is suffering and Southern film industries are overtaking it. While it is indeed heartening to see that the collections of Southern film industries are now at par with the best of Bollywood, to assume that they are overtaking it commercially would be foolish.
A closer look at the numbers reveals that the hit to flop ratio between Bollywood and other regional film industries, including the Southern ones, has been quite the same since the Covid pandemic. They have all been lower than pre-pandemic levels.
What has helped this perception is the failure of some huge Bollywood films like a whole line of Akshay Kumar films, but the truth is that southern industries have not fared much better. Like Pushpa, KGF, Vikram, and RRR, Hindi cinema too has had two blockbusters in Kashmir Files and Bhool Bhulaiya 2, and a substantial hit in Gangubai Kathiawadi.
The perception that exists, is because regional industries that were always considered second to Bollywood, are now matching it blow for blow. This is a good thing, but we should not draw the wrong conclusions from it.
The biggest culprit for this downturn are the Multiplexes. Why? Because their business model has made the business of cinema all about first day and second day and first weekend numbers. No one ever heard of these terms till about a decade and a half ago.
Once films had a breathing space of a week or so before they were declared successful or not. Each film has a different audience. Each film needs the time to be able to find its audience, and vice versa. The business model of multiplexes totally negated that.
Before the multiplex era, producers had to rent out single screens from the theatre owners. Which meant that regardless of the occupancy, all the shows throughout the week would be on. This meant that even if a slow starter found acceptance with a certain section of the audience, there was enough time for the word to spread and for the numbers to increase.
Even if producers entered into revenue sharing agreements with distributors/exhibitors, cancelling shows was unheard of. It only happened in the cases of absolute disasters like Amitabh Bachchan’s Mrityudaata which only came along once in a couple of years. But multiplexes turned that module on its head by making show cancellations a regular affair.
Most multiplex chains have unofficial policies of cancelling shows from the first day, unless occupancy crosses 20%-40%. The first day is a Friday. How many people are going to go and watch a film in theatres in the middle of a work day? Especially if you haven’t yet gotten any information on how good the film is?
And if you don’t allow a certain number of people to come in during the first day, how is word-of-mouth going to spread and numbers grow over the weekend? This works well for star studded monsters with huge publicity machineries which get enough people interested. that even if a small fraction come in on the first weekend the numbers add up. Thus, the Salman Khan phenomenon over the last decade where the film is declared a hit due to first and second day numbers before people have even had the time to declare if the film is worth a watch or not.
For content driven films which rely on word of mouth, this is a death trap. Multiplexes justify their business model by saying that their terms with the producer are purely revenue share, since they do not take any upfront rent from the filmmakers. But the fact is that producers do end up paying a significant amount to multiplexes in the guise of digitising and other fees.
So a producer is in a position where he has shelled out lakhs to get this film released in multiplexes, and then has no right to protest if his film is taken off, completely at the multiplexes discretion. How then are films that depend on word of mouth, and those that depend on a more white collar audience who increasingly only have time on Sunday evenings, expected to grow?
We often hear the phrase that ‘occupancy did not pick up even on Sunday shows,’ but how are Sunday shows supposed to show growth when not enough people have been allowed in on the previous days for the word of mouth to spread.
Multiplexes have sent ticket prices in India through the roof making a pleasant cinema going experience out of reach for many. Before the multiplex era the average cost for a ticket in India’s metro cities was Rs 50. Today it is Rs 300. That is a jump of 600% in two decades!
With the low prices earlier, people were happy to just go in and relax and have a good time at the cinema theatre, regardless of the film. This drove up footfalls. Now one has to think several times about whether the film will be worth it or not, before booking the ticket. If you were to take a look at footfall data (not revenue data) throughout the history of Indian cinema, you would see how it has dwindled in the last decade or so.
Now we have a double edged sword that is the OTT (over the top). It has penetrated the Indian market like nothing else, and with good reason. It is cheap, accessible, and convenient. The OTT subscriber base is expected to grow to 350-400 million by 2024. That is better penetration than theatres and TV.
There is no doubt that OTT has brought international content to Indian audiences, enriched their tastes, and thus done its bit to create a more content oriented audience for Indian filmmakers. But on the other hand it has become a huge hurdle for the theatre going experience.
By giving the audience the economical feasibility and convenience factor that theatres just cannot give, OTT has drawn away audiences from the theatres. Afterall, why would you go to a theatre and pay anywhere between Rs 500-1000 to watch a film, that too constricted by the timings the cinema nearest to you is offering, when you can stay in the comfort of your home, and watch the film for not even 1% of that cost. A yearly subscription to an OTT service like Prime Video costs as much as two movie tickets at our nearest multiplex. Play, pause, rewind, watch it later, you can see a film however and whenever you like.
This has harmed the cinema industry in three major ways. First, it has reduced our attention spans and the amount of time we give a film before we allow it to bore us. Second, given its convenience and affordability factor, people have gotten into the habit of waiting for a film to hit OTTs instead of going to the theatres.
One might argue that TV had this advantage as well but that is not quite true. On TV the viewer could not choose when, where, and how to watch the film. With an OTT platform they can. And since viewers don’t go into the theatres and wait for the film to come to OTTs, the films are declared flops. Once they are declared flops the audience assumes that the film is not that great and doesn’t even give it a chance even on OTT. Given the plethora of global content available, viewers are spoiled for choice these days. A lot of good films never find their audience and the filmmakers lose money.
The OTT has created a perceptive demarcation between ‘big screen films’ and ‘small screen films’. The former phrase now means action packed visual spectacles like The Avengers or Bahubali, and the latter to content driven films like Gehraiyan or Get Out. But the fact is that cinema (and all forms of audio visual storytelling) is and has always been meant to be both at the same time.
Avengers worked because it had a compelling story to tell. And the moody grim frames of Delhi Crime are just as much a visual treat as Bahubali or RRR. Separating these two elements is a dangerous path where content will eventually be split between circus-like spectacles and radio-drama like verbal storytelling. OTT has inadvertently killed off the theatrical audience for films like Gehraiyan who still want to watch the film but are okay with waiting for it to come to OTT instead of going to theatres.
However, the numbers game has crept its ugly head into the OTT space as well. Outlets like Ormax recently started to release the views of each film/series. Shows like Koffee with Karan picked those numbers up and presented them to the world.
With this, runs the risk of recreating the star system where numbers take precedence over the quality of the content. Such an approach will eventually lead to the fall of viewership here as well. Here numbers come from content. Content doesn’t come from numbers. If OTT too falls prey to the numbers game that has brought about the apparent downfall of the theatrical model, then it too shall suffer a similar fate.
A few weeks ago Anurag Kashyap was trolled for saying that films are flopping because the audience just does not have enough disposable income given the state of the economy. But is that really such an outlandish comment? Inflation is roaring, unemployment is high and wages and salaries have just not kept up with the price of commodities.
On the other hand markets have also remained muted since the Pandemic. So how is the common man supposed to have enough disposable income to go and spend money every weekend on a movie? Wouldn’t he rather watch the huge amount of content available for a fraction of the cost in the comfort of his own home on OTT? He will.
Sure, big ticket blockbusters that have enough fans will get opening day numbers, but content driven films will fall further back. Add to that the hate mongering and boycotting that the right wing has unleashed on Muslim and liberal celebrities and you have a recipe for a perfect disaster. That is what happened to Laal Singh Chaddha, which at the very least, was a capable and soothing remake of a Hollywood classic.
Do trolls realise that by attacking a film’s revenue they are killing off a huge economy that feeds lakhs of families all over this country? Do they realise that by attacking Indian cinema, one liberal minded celebrity at the time, they are doing reprehensible damage to India’s biggest cultural import in the 21st century, and its soft power?
It is up to the filmmakers to adjust their visions, budgets, and marketing strategies to this new world and new India. However, unless a fair solution to systematic problems like the modus operandi of the multiplexes is found, and unless filmmakers find a way to dispose of this false notion of ‘spectacle films’ versus ‘content films’, cinema in India will continue to spiral downwards.