By Vinod Mirani
The way films are promoted and released lately is rather mechanical! The whole thing about releasing a new film pertains to number of screens. There is no clarity on how that is decided! How can a company market a product it knows nothing about be it a toothpaste, soap, biscuit or a film! But, that is how the film business has been working since the coming on scene of corporate houses and the multiplex cinema screens, also run by corporate houses.
What is more, as if not knowing about the product was not enough, no one either seems to know or is bothered about opportune periods best for the release of a new film, small or big. That is, probably, except Eid, Republic Day, Independence Day or Diwali week/weekend. These are reserved for big bill films.
However, the opportune release does not happen only on a certain festival day. Actually, the opportune release periods come in certain months of a year. But, that does not deter new films being released in the scheme of things the way business is done now. Anytime is good time. Traditionally, the periods for release of new films were in phases: From June till mid-August; from Diwali till mid-March. This was because, from August till Diwali, there was a line-up of festivals like Ganeshotsav, the celebration of which was limited to pockets like Maharashtra, North Karnataka and a few other cities. The festival is celebrated in many parts of India.
This is followed by various other festivals ending with the Navratri celebrations, which are now widespread along with Ram Leela in North India. The shraddha period which follows was considered inauspicious for any new venture and releasing a new film was the last thing a filmmaker would do being very superstitious. And, the 15 days before Diwali were considered the dullest period for most businesses. The cinema halls were fed by gap fillers as in old films or dubbed films.
June onwards, people settled down. Schools and colleges reopened. College students were the new patrons for the cinema business as they could now venture out on their own with new groups. Parents were out of the picture! Youth still consist of the major part of cinema business. The post Diwali till March period was again a good time for film business. Few festivals and nothing else to hinder the box office till April when the exams period began.
Now, no period is bad as long as the screens are available. The exhibitors only want to screen big films. Small films are given odd playtimes and have little or no chance of surviving. The big filmmakers, on their part, want one of the few release dates which coincide with Diwali, Eid etc! The multiplexes have ended up creating big gaps between major releases which are now getting fewer. (Luckily for multiplexes, some small films have turned out to be big lately.)
The worst thing that can happen to film business, like all other businesses, is a bad monsoon. In fact, a poor monsoon affects the economy in general as it weighs heavily on buying power of people and the films figure last in such a situation. But, even that does not seem to be a deterrent in the film business today!
The difference between the way film business was done earlier and it is done now is that those who now call the shots have nothing to do with the creativity or the merit of a film nor does it matter what a film's target audience is. They usually don't even know a thing about the film or its appeal. How else would one justify 4,100 screens for "Bharat" and 3,200 screens for "Kabir Singh"? All films are released in similar fashion. What matters is the number of screens as if that guaranteed success. The only strategy that is applied is that, if it is a big star film and a festival like Diwali or Eid, flood the screens and increase the admission rates! But, that does not work anymore.
That would explain how a film like "Bharat" failed to collect Rs 200 crore even after four weeks despite enhanced admission rates and 4,100 screens while a Shahid Kapoor film, "Kabir Singh" released with 3,200 screens, crosses Rs 200 crore before completing two weeks? Like it used to happen earlier, a film can grow on merit, "Uri: The Surgical Strike" being the prime example.
Yet, no lessons to be learnt.
Things worked differently before the corporate invasion in film business. Making films was more about the conviction of a filmmaker, money came later, and each film was a prestige issue for the maker. Not only did a producer make films on a regular basis, even his distributors were regular. Hit or flop, they stuck with the producer, film after film. As things worked earlier, the producer, distributor as well as the exhibitor had a stake in a film's performance. More than the money, a hit added to the prestige of all three.
Many producers had their favourite cinemas in major cities. In Mumbai, Royal Opera House and Roxy Cinema were the ones; both located at vantage points at Opera House area near Charni Road station. In fact, Manoj Kumar preferred Royal Opera House so much that he was even known to postpone the release of his new film till the hall was available!
Similarly, every city had its popular cinema houses.
Once the main cinema was booked, a chain of other cinemas was fixed so that each cinema hall catered to a residential locality all over a city's suburbs. The number of cinemas for a film ranged from 14 to 18 (three to four shows a day) unlike 70 or 80 screens with multiple playtimes per day now as is the practice now! This exhausts the potential of a film within three days. There were also those filmmakers/ distributors who believed in letting a film grow on word of mouth and, though considered risky commercially, they experimented. For instance, Gulshan Rai (himself a very successful filmmaker of films like "Johny Mera Naam", "Deewaar", "Trishul", "Vidhaata", "Tridev" and many others) distributed legendary maker L.V. Prasad's film, "Ek Duuje Ke Liye" at just one cinema, Galaxy Rajkot, in the entire Bombay Circuit! The rest, as far as "Ek Duuje Ke Liye" box office success is concerned, is history.
Shakti Raj Films, a distribution concern jointly owned by producer Shakti Samanta and superstar Rajesh Khanna, and managed by veteran film personality, Sadashiv J. Row Kavi, was also known to experiment with films they knew were not made to draw hordes of viewers to cinemas unless their appreciation was spread. Samanta's home production, "Anuraag", for example, had a limited release of just six screens. However, the ones who showed great confidence in their films were the Rajshri Productions as their distribution wing, Rajshri Pictures released even a top billing film, "Jeevan Mrityu", with Dharmendra and Rakhee, with just one matinee show in Mumbai (and it ran for 100 weeks). Similarly, other films like "Agent Vinod" and "Chitchor" were also given a solo cinema release. Their costliest film and in-house director, Suraj Barjatya's "Hum Aapke Hain Kaun..!" was released with just one screen in Mumbai. As the film's popularity caught on, the screens were increased.
What worked in those days was the team work between the producer, distributor and the exhibitor. For all three, it was pertinent that a film was a success. Besides making a reputation, they also had a lot of money at stake. Films meant livelihood. Now, for all those involved in the business of filmmaking and marketing, nothing is at stake. They get the pay packet whether a film works or flops. Most of all, there is no creativity nor the understanding of any sort to do with films. The producers nor the other concerned with a film have a say how their film will be marketed or exploited.
There a bunch called programmers with each multiplex company and they decide how a film would be released and at how many screens. They mete out the number of screens and the playtime to films slated for release. How they decide these things is not worth guessing. Screens and playtime depend on the banner and the cast of a film. Smaller films are killed in the bud even before they hit the screen as they get a couple of shows at odd times. But, that is not that matters. What matters is that this business of dolling out screens and playtime has turned into a big scam that could put to shame all the scams that make newspaper headlines! These programmers are treated like a royalty by the filmmakers. The corruption can outdo any that happens in the power corridors of the country!
A few days before a film is due to release, the programmer clan is shown the film by the maker. Wined, dined and cajoled. And, this placating also includes gifts, foreign jaunts, and even handed over credit cards for purchases! They talk a producer into displaying promotional material at the multiplex properties and run trailers, all of which is chargeable. Promoting a film is the producer's prerogative, the property won't contribute. The film exploitation now works on the whims and fancies of this breed called programmers. They have no qualification, experience, yardstick or logic to chart the release strategy of a film, big or small.
@The Box Office
* "Article 15", the small film with a title that would mean little or nothing to most, has made an impact. It is not an entertainer but a debate on a social issue on the country's caste system. The film enjoyed mostly positive critic reviews and also a positive word of mouth from those few who saw it initially. That helped and the film was accepted as it maintained steady footfalls all through the week. The film had a decent weekend of Rs 19 crore and closed the opening week with Rs 33.5 crore.
- "Kabir Singh" had emerged as the first blockbuster to liven up the second half of 2019. The film continued to be strong in its second week. It added about Rs 76 crore in week two to take its two week tally to Rs 209 crore.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)