SHIBASISH SARKAR, GROUP CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF RELIANCE ENTERTAINMENT, was one of many executives in Bollywood studios who closely followed the daily box office collections of the Tamil film master. Starring the industry’s two popular actors, Thalapathy Vijay and Vijay Sethupati, the drama has amassed more than Rs 150 crore domestically since its release on January 13, with an additional Rs 100 crore worldwide. The numbers were impressive as cinemas in India were 50 percent in use until February 1. “It has given oxygen to the Indian film industry,” said Sarkar. “The success proves that the public is hungry for outdoor entertainment.” Ever since the center has been running the cinemas fully booked, the focus has been on Sarkar holding onto two of Reliance’s valuable assets, Rohit Shetty-directed Sooryavanshi with Akshay Kumar and Kabir Khan’s ’83, again setting India’s first World Cup title.
For exhibitors, the two Hindi films are pivotal in reviving the hard-hit theatrical industry, one of the last companies to fully reopen. Sarkar is hopeful that they will be able to release one of the two films during the Holi-Good Friday period in the last week of March or early April, with the second scheduled for June. But the official release date only comes after he has reached an agreement with the distributors for his biggies made with an estimated budget of Rs 200 crore each. “We’ve been with the movies for the past year and the costs and commercials have been thrown out,” Sarkar says. “We have lost so much that we are no longer able to take advantage of the situation.”
Since the reopening of cinemas on October 15, 2020, only a handful of films managed to lure audiences back to the big screens, Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 in multiplexes, a few Bengali titles like Dracula Sir at Durga Puja in West Bengal and Ravi Teja’s Krack in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The company was muted because cinemas were running on old releases and producers chose to release small, independent films. Meester then became the beacon of hope for the ailing industry. “The whole argument, that it takes customers a long time to return to the cinema, was turned upside down,” said Kamal Gianchandani, CEO of PVR Pictures Limited and chairman of the Multiplex Association of India. “It’s just a matter of a huge movie with a big cast coming out [to get audiences back]
Backed by Master’s success, producers in the South have already announced release dates for starred films [see box]Bollywood remains cautious, however. Salman Khan was the first Bollywood star to confirm the release date of his next, Radhe, on Eid after a consolidated social media campaign by movie owners to ask the actor-producer to save the exhibition industry. Among other big-budget releases, Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chadha won’t arrive until December 24, while of the multiple Akshay Kumar releases, only Bellbottom has a release date of April 2. Neither Yash Raj Films nor Dharma Entertainment has blocked any data.
For producer Bhushan Kumar, director of T-Series, the caution stems from the fact that the theater audience in the south is very different from that in the north and west. (Master earned Rs 138 crore in Tamil Nadu alone.) “They are big movie buffs,” says Kumar, as he talks about crowds thronging to buy tickets for Master in the state. “We [Bollywood] can’t be too enthusiastic about the master’s performance. We are concerned about people’s OTT viewing habits. Kumar sold at least three titles to OTT platforms in 2020, Chhalaang and Durgamati to Amazon Prime, and Ludo to Netflix, with another, Bhuj: Pride of India, in line for release on Disney + Hotstar, to catch up. “My inventory is much more compared to other studios,” says Kumar. “If I hadn’t taken the OTT route and waited for theaters to open and the audience to come back, as they did in the time before Covid, my movies don’t get many shows on a busy calendar. “
Salman Khan in Radhe
The battle for the dates of holiday weekends has begun. There are at least two big clashes: Radhe will compete for the public’s attention, along with John Abraham starrer Satyameva Jayate 2, and on October 13, the Ajay Devgn-led football drama Maidaan will face a formidable rival in RRR, SS Rajamouli’s first film since Bahubali 2. Although Kumar thought it was no problem, saying audiences “need variety like how they get on OTT,” Boney Kapoor was annoyed by Rajamouli for locking the release date for Maidaan himself last year. “When the call from the film industry should be to support each other … a date clash of two major multilingual films is the last thing we could expect,” he told a news agency. “We have to give each other the space to optimize the figures.”
In the year 2021, not only will more than 2020 titles be held, which will also include many Hollywood offerings, but also a series of new movies, resulting in a crowded release calendar. It doesn’t help that “India is a terribly undervalued market,” Gianchandani notes. India has less than 10,000 screens for a country that tops the list in maximum releases annually. And the number of screens only decreases further after the lock. PVR closed three buildings last year, which corresponds to 14 screens. In the meantime, hundreds of single-screen cinemas have discontinued their activities permanently. Still, some cinema owners remain optimistic. “We have said 2021 is the year of the film,” said Rajender Singh Jyala, Chief Programming Officer, INOX Leisure Ltd. “With more than 50 titles in Hindi and other Indian languages expected to hit screens, the industry is poised for major blockbusters throughout the year.” Gianchandani stated that “2021, especially in the second half, will bring things as we do. who haven’t seen it in nearly a decade ”.
Such a scenario relies on how producers and cinema owners agree on things like virtual printing fees charged by producers’ theaters to show their films, and a cinema-to-digital release window. Master was available on Amazon Prime just 16 days after it hit the big screens, deviating from the traditional pattern of a one-month wait for Tamil and Telugu movies and two for Hindi. To allow for a quick OTT release, the producers of Master waived all theatrical revenue earned after the film was released online. Also internationally, Hollywood studios have shortened the interval between theater and streaming release. Universal will now have its movies streamed online just 17 days after they hit theaters, while Warner Bros, much to the dismay of US cinemas, will do a simultaneous theatrical and online release. One producer who chose not to be named says theater owners in the South were more supportive and flexible than those elsewhere. “There is a fear that people will not come to the cinema,” he says. “If we shorten the timeframe, we will get extra money from our digital partners and recover the loss we suffer in theaters.”
However, Gianchandani sees Master as “an exception to the rule rather than the rule that is progressing.” He cites the decent showing of the film in Tamil Nadu, even after its release on OTT, at Rs 2.78 crore in the third week, saying, “It shows the resilience of theaters despite OTT being the cheaper proposition.” Meanwhile, Bollywood is waiting for its own master to save the day.