The New Box Office
It looks like only yesterday when expectations about a film – at least of the blockbuster variety – were built up over months and, in some cases, even years. Fans waited with bated breath for the big banner film with their favourite stars to hit the silver screen. And when it did, it invariably stayed put there for weeks, sometimes months and years. Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 blockbuster ‘Sholay’, for example, ran for over five years at a stretch in the same hall, a record that was broken by that eternal favourite, Aditya Chopra’s magnum opus on mushy love ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge”. [As a school boy, I remember getting goose bumps every time Amin Sayani, in his inimitable voice, said “Ramesh Sippy ne chhe sholay bhadkaye” as part of the promo on Radio Ceylon in the months-long run up to the release of the film.]
While ‘Sholay’ may be an exceptional case, any ‘hit’ film had to run for at least six to eight weeks in the same cinema before it could be categorized as one. With no more than a handful of prints, film buffs living in mofussil towns (like this columnist) had to wait patiently for their turn while their more fortunate counterparts in the bigger cities savoured the latest blockbuster. If they took a particular liking to a film, the wait could stretch for as much as six months to a year, depending on where exactly you were placed on the pecking order – metropolitan cities, other big cities, state capitals, district headquarters or small towns.
The economics of film making was simple: the more people saw a film, the more the producer earned. Even re-runs fetched the producer a tidy sum. The coloured papers sold over the booking counters were the sole ticket for the producer to earn money. There were no other outlets. That is why the producers worked overtime to sustain viewer interest over a long period of time. The long, spaced out promotional campaign ahead of the launch of a film too was entirely conceived and executed with this goal in mind. The anticipation was built up at a slow, leisurely pace that gathered momentum as the day of the release approached and culminated in a crescendo on the eve of the release. Once released, the film had to be savoured, just as one would savour old wine. If you liked a film, one viewing was seldom enough. I remember watching ‘Deewar’ – that all-time Amitabh favourite from the Yash Chopra stable – four times during its first run of about two and a half months in the small town of Baripada. [I have seen it a dozen times more since – at cinema halls and on television.] Once in a while, the films belied the expectations built up over months and sank without a trace as Raj Kapoor’s magnum opus ‘Mera Naam Joker’ did. But more often than not, established film makers hit Bull’s Eye with their reading of the audience mind as Raj himself did with his next film, ‘Bobby’.
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But how things have changed!! Today, a film is pronounced a hit on the basis of collections over the first weekend after the release – usually on Fridays. Just the Hindi version of “Bahubali II”, SS Rajamouli’s blockbuster flick (that is apparently the new ‘chic’ name of a film), for instance, collected a staggering Rs 246 crores in the very first week after its release in July this year! Most ‘mega hits’, however, disappear after the second week in a cinema. This when a big budget film these days has an average of 400-500 prints released simultaneously!
But then gate collections these days are just one of the many avenues available to the producer to earn revenues: ‘overseas rights’, ‘television rights’, ‘music rights’, ‘internet rights’, ‘co-branding’, ‘multiplexes’, ‘media partners’ … you name it. This ensures that film makers – at least the big banner ones among them – laugh all the way to the bank even if the viewers show the thumbs down to their films.
Like the films themselves, the ‘promos’ too have a much shorter shelf life. It is a virtual blitzkrieg on all possible media platforms – television, print and internet – that starts not more than a month before the release of the film. But for this one month, no one can escape the onslaught – certainly not those who watch television. The star cast – producers, directors, the stars, the composers, the choreographers, the cinematographers and all the rest involved in the making of a film – are all over the small screen, now appearing in a ‘Saas Bahu’ serial, now popping up on a ‘reality show’. ‘The Making of ..’ is now a must do for any producer worth his salt. Insiders say up to 25% of the production cost is gobbled up by the promotional campaign, which is built into star payments. Considering that an average big budget film these days can cost up to Rs 100 crores to make, that works out to a hefty sum. All this hard work and expense geared to ensure no more than three days of above average collections at the box office! At this rate, the day is perhaps not far off when film theatres would be a thing of the past to be preserved, like historical and architectural monuments, as the remnants of a bygone era for posterity while film buffs watch their films on their laptops, I-Pods and Smart Phones!