By Vinod Mirani
An individual -- as in proprietorship film producer or distributor, and to a great extent, exhibitor -- is folklore now. A few individual producers survive but, when it comes to film distributors or exhibitors, as in cinema owners, it is a fading breed. They can now be counted on one finger in the major circuits like Bombay Circuit (which included part of Maharashtra sans Vidarbha and Marathwada, but including Goa and part of Karnataka); Delhi-UP; or Eastern Circuit (which included Bengal, Bihar, Nepal, Orissa and the other six Northeastern states).
That was a time when every such film distribution circuit, divided on the lines of the British provinces map, had local distributors. Each bought rights to a particular film for a period of 10 years. The film distribution and exploitation was leisurely as it moved from the main city of a circuit to interiors turn by turn. The centres were divided as A, B and C.
Although the contract for a film's distribution rights was for 10 years, the film was supposed to recoup its investment within 18 months. It was a practical way of doing business, developed over the years, but tough to explain here looking at the current way of doing business, of exploiting films.
In those days, a distributor decided the fate of his film by programming his release strategy. Sadly, now, the exhibitor -- as in the multiplex chains -- do it!
The idea is to stress on the point that the film industry's activities were centralised in those days. The business was done face to face, on one-to-one basis. The producers, the distributors as well as the cinema halls spread themselves around one area.
But, that was true of all the markets in India like the stock market, the gold market, and the grain market, as well as other complementary supplies like jiggery, sugar and such. Mumbai had Gol Pitha, which literally translates to jiggery market, soni bazaar (gold market), zaveri bazaar (diamond and gold), bhaat bazaar (rice market). Auto parts market had their fixed locations. Most cities and trades had this system of centralised, demarcated business districts.
It was the same with films. Film trade in all circuit headquarters in India operated from one or two locations. Mumbai was the capital of the film industry -- as in producing, distributing as well as exhibiting of films. Initially, distributors and exhibitors, depending on each other and needing to be in regular contact, basically operated from the same area. Often, distributors also happened to be in the exhibition trade.
The distribution and exhibition trade in Mumbai was based on Lamington Road. The producers preferred to operate from close to film studios. The producers mainly had offices at Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi; and Ranjit, Roop Tara and Shree Sound Studios at Dadar -- all easily accessible to each other.
In other cities, it was for the distributors and exhibitors to be close to each other. So, in Delhi, which covered Delhi as well as whole of UP, the centre of the film trade was Film Colony Chandni Chowk. In Kolkata, it was Bentinck Street. In Indore, again, it was the Film Colony. In Jalandhar, which controlled the distribution trade in Punjab and Kashmir, it was the Mandi Road. In Chennai, all three factions -- as in production, distribution and exhibition -- were active, and most offices operated from T. Nagar.
It was the same story with the cinema halls. They sprang up next to each other. They were located in the same area, often on the same street. Nobody went home disappointed since advance booking was not much in fashion in those days, let alone online booking. You came, you bought the ticket and watched a film. If not at one hall, then in the one next door. It was like a film festival. You caught a movie once you planned to catch one.
The advantage of working next to each other was the regular interaction. 'Exhibitor' was a term that also included a cinema chain controller. A controller was one who handled booking of films for cinemas from other cities and small towns. At such places, cinemas needed a new film every Friday, if not after every weekend and, it was the controller's job to feed such cinemas. Controllers handled the bookings for hundreds of cinemas every week.
How this system helped producers can be explained by just one example. A South India-based Marwari entrepreneur, KC Bokadia, produced a film with Mithun Chakraborty and Padmini Kolhapuri, titled "Pyar Jhukta Nahin" in 1985. The film was not attracting buyers. Bokadia kept making rounds of distribution offices in the hub of Mumbai distribution, the Naaz Cinema Building. There, he got an offer to sell his film for 11 lakh.
As Bokadia was walking down the building, on an urge, he visited another producer-distributor of mainly Gujarati films, Prafulla Manukant. Although the couple had limited their activities to Gujarati films, the music of Pyar Jhukta Nahin, which had already become very popular, attracted them. And, impressed by that, Bokadia got an offer of around Rs 25,000-50,000 more than the other offer! Desperate as he was, Bokadia grabbed the offer.
The rest, as they say, is history. The film was a huge hit, ran for 50 weeks, enriching both, the new distributor as well as Bokadia, who went on to make many more films. (In fact, "Pyar Jhukta Nahin" also brought Gulshan Kumar and his T-Series in to the mainstream music market and helped establish T-Series.)
This was an example of a common marketplace. The other vital factor was the bonhomie among distributors as well as exhibitors. They gathered to share meals and exchange views.
A group of 12 major distribution firms of Mumbai had prepared a ledger where the terms at which their films were booked by exhibitors from the interiors were recorded. This helped fellow distributors determine terms for their films when needed. The exhibitors who came from other towns to book films could visit all distribution offices and make bookings for many weeks to come, since they were close to each other.
A producer did not shy from showing his film while it was being produced, be it five reels or 10. That is how deals were clinched. In fact, showing a film in progress was the norm, so that the investor did not have to gamble blindly on a film. It was left to his judgement, according to what worked in his particular area. For this purpose, there were a number of preview theatres located near the distribution hub in Mumbai. These theatres had seating capacity to host 30 to 50 viewers, where distributors were shown the film.
The risk was divided in that, when a distributor acquired a film, he paid the producer in instalments according to the progress of the film, who in turn got cash from his exhibitors, who expected to screen the said film. Finally, at the time of release, the main cinemas in major cities where the film would get its premier release, would pool in, so that the distributor could take the delivery of the film. It was a well-established way of doing business.
That era of bonhomie, brotherhood and cooperation is now as good as over. The business has moved online and the face-to-face, personal touch is missing. Also, the one who takes decisions on the various aspects of business has no stake. He happens to be in film trade but could very well be marketing some consumer goods the next day.
Of course, the scope of business has gone up manifold. A company now has work divided between various departments, unlike earlier when a distribution office ran with a boss, a typist-cum-operator, an accountant and a peon. Now, big corporate film companies employ manpower in hundreds. Nobody has either the time or the inclination to visit the other's office, share meals or mingle. There is too much to do when a new film is due for release.
Welcome to the soulless way of doing film business.
@The Box Office
* This week, Ayushmann Khurana comes back with another release, "Bala". The film enjoys great reports, and has taken an impressive start. It is already predicted to be a hit.
- Last week saw the solo release of "Ujda Chaman", a film about a balding young man. The film failed to make a mark, coming as it did in the shadow of "Housefull 4". If anyone planned to spend on a film, the preference would be "Housefull 4". The film also had a drawback -- it lacked face value, besides the fact that another film on the baldness, "Bala", with a popular star, Ayushmann Khurana, was due in a week. "Ujda Chaman" managed to collect just about Rs 10 crore.
"Saand Ki Aankh", considering its limited exposure since its release along with "Housefull 4" and "Made In China", has maintained well in its second week. The film added Rs 8.5 crore, taking its two-week tally to Rs 20 crore.
"Housefull 4" has gone on to become a hit. The film added an impressive Rs 48.5 crore, and taking its two-week tally to Rs 183.5 crore.