Hollywood vs Bollywood
As more Hollywood bigscreen films appealing to the lowest common denominator hit the Indian movie halls, Bollywood better watch out. The real threat lies in the former’s marketing arsenal.
LONG ago, few denizens of India were conscious of the Hollywood presence, in an arena where probably only a Bachchan starrer could be discussed, promoted, attacked and watched repeatedly till entire scenes became a part of the national memory. This was the 70s and the 80s, when ‘rishte me’ he was the father of the moviegoing click, a shahenshah of celluloid.
But the 90s saw the advent of relatively unknown stars like a baby or a dinosaur or the RMS Titanic, and all media was flooded with details of their height, their length, their history and God only knows what else. Moviegoers spent hours carefully differentiating the T-rex from the velociraptor, and the Titanic love story became more tragic than that of Laila Majnu, while Mrityudaata died a quick death.
Suddenly, Hollywood was stealing all the limelight. From important dailies that only took politics seriously, to magazines that had possibly sniggered at the very suggestion of a news story on a foreign film, all lapped up films like Jurassic Park, Independence Day and now Titanic.
Considering this, you will be surprised to discover that recent NRS findings indicate that moviegoing has been on the decline, especially in case of English films. Looking closely at NRS ‘95 as compared to NRS ‘97, one finds the audience population dwindling in the following manner: to begin with, only three per cent (4.2 million of the 62 million adults in the projected sample size) preferred English movies, as per NRS ‘95, which came down to two per cent as per NRS’97 (3.8 million of the 171 million urban adults).
Qualitatively, this can be best exemplified by last year’s films like Al Pacino’s Donnie Brasco or Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror has Two Faces. Did you know that these films failed to rake in the basic theatre hire figure at an upmarket cinema hall in Mumbai (the only hall in the city where the film played) and recorded a deficit? A few years back, they would have done reasonably well, but today they are settled for on pirated video or cable or VCD by the audience.
Entertaimnent at home has now become the quickest and cheapest snack, with illegal cable TV exhibition of films the regular meal. According to Lowell Strong of the MPA (Motion Picture Association), who has been battling the pirates incessantly over recent years, the Hollywood studios annually lose US $50-60 million in India owing to piracy and they are not helped much in the’ absence of a broadcast bill to regulate the cable TV business.
Surprisingly, all the unfortunate factors mentioned above have not reflected in a drop in cumulative collections at the Indian box office for the MPA, which has actually increased over the years, with this year set for being the record year. The reason for this is also the reason why a film like Donnie Brasco or the repeat run of The Star Wars Trilogy is settled for on video or cable: the rate of admission has risen considerably over the years. This rise in ticket price is especially true for the eight major metros and, to a certain extent, for the other 10-lakh-plus populated towns, where Hollywood majors derive their major business from.
As a result, the business has turned into a blockbuster “mustsee-on-big-screen” experience business, with select films like Titanic and Anaconda forming a major chunk of Hollywood’s business in India. This year, films like Tomorrow Never Dies and Titanic opened the year with a bang because they were big screen movies. While The Full Monty, with all the hype, is nowhere close to the two in terms of revenue because it isn’t a big screen experience, hence does not warrant the prohibitive admission price and can be checked out on video.
Secondly, The Full Monty, or for that matter, a Wyatt Earp or a Vegas Vacation, all belonging to entirely different genres, do not appeal to the lowest common denominator, drawing a rather niche audience. Looking at forthcoming pictures, a Godzilla will do well, for it is a big screen picture appealing to the lowest common denominator.
The loss of appetite when it comes to cinema has also led to a drop in the time gap between the US and Indian date of release, since films now play out faster against each other and screen time is not blocked for a long while. Contrary to perception, it was not the print that was taking a long while to enter the country but it was the dearth of playing time available that prevented an early release. Now, few films can boast a city run of over 30 weeks, like in the case of Pretty Woman in Mumbai. For that matter, even a Titanic may not go on for that long, though the reason for it would be the numbers of prints engaged in the city simultaneously, in contrast to Pretty Woman’s single print.
Ostensibly, the big Hollywood films now bite off a major share at the box office, giving major Hindi pictures a run for their money. However, the truth. of the matter is that Hollywood is not as big a threat as projected. The NRS findings indicate that only two per cent of the population assessed with respect to moviegoing prefer English films, as opposed to 58 per cent preferring Hindi and 35 per cent preferring the state language. However, this comparative analysis by the NRS is inaccurate, for urban adults who never visit cinemas are included in the sample, distorting the entire picture (pun not intended). For that matter, only the regular moviegoer should be considered to arrive upon Ianguage preference and it makes little sense to include an individual who goes to the cinema once a year or less than once a year, to arrive upon the preferred language of the moviegoing population.
OBVIOUSLY, the man who doesn’t visit cinemas has answered his 'probable’ preferred language as his own mother tongue/state language (the Maharashtrian saying Marathi and soon) or Hindi at best, which is why the absurd conclusion that regional cinema preference is riding high. A part of this sample has not seen movies at all or probably visits the hall once in two-to-three years, hence it is highly unlikely that a miracle will turn them into moviegoers.
This inaccurate skew is especially true in case of NRS ‘97, since the population of those who don’t visit cinema halls has increased, and is as high as 50 percent. Their language preference is certainly not going to affect the movie industry in any way.
Moviegoing is on the decline across the spectrum, not just restricted to Hollywood products. Almost half of the positive NRS find- ings for Hindi and regional languages is from the non-moviegoing population, hence it cannot be taken seriously. Hollywood can certainly give the Hindi film industry a run for its money if quality cinema does not emerge with a degee of regularity. In the absence of good local product at a point in time, as has been the case with recent duds like Govinda’s Aunty No. 1, Dilip Kumar’s Qua or Sunny Deol’s Salaakhen, excellent foreign product will be resorted to by the Hindi moviegoer and a crossover will take place. As it happened with Titanic.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to compare a Titanic, the most successful English film todate, with mega hits like a Hum Aapke Hain Kaun or a Dilwale Dulhaniyan Le Jayenge, for the James Cameron film would pale in comparison.
The 58 per cent versus two per cent is a good enough theoretical argument for the studios to dub, though the fate of dubbed fare like Home Alone 3 would advise otherwise. In case of Titanic, it was not dubbed in any language, but it managed a crossover of the audience. The Hindi moviegoer also walked out of the hall with the complete and original movie experience, as opposed to the laughable scenario of watching whiteskinned actors mouth Hindi lines (imagine DiCaprio wooing Winslet in shudh Hindi).
The film did not lose its credibility and adverse word of mouth was avoided. To dub or not remains a selective decision, one that would certainly work for a Godzilla but may not work for the forthcoming Lethal Weapon 4, if resorted to.
In the end analysis, Hollywood is doing rather well in India, whatever the pattern, for every year the number of films emerging with blockbuster status is increasing. Last year, the studios did a business of Rs70-80 crore at the lndian box office. And today, the cumulative annual business for 1998 can be projected at Rs 100-120 crore, considering the biggies like Tomorrow Never Dies, Titanic, and the forthcoming Godzilla, Dr. Dolittle, The X Files, The Mask of Zorro, Leathal Weapon4 and many others.
This makes it the best year for Hollywood in India today. A great figure, considering the literacy level in the country, and possible largely because those who prefer English can certainly pay the high rates of admission, if the film is best enjoyed on the big screen. A Rs 4-5 crore gross is a reality today for a regular, well-marketed picture, like Volcano, for example, which did not do very well internationally, and a failure like Speed 2 also does over Rs 3 crore at the box office with ease. ‘Niche appeal films may no longer work and will have to give way to the big entertainers, unless small-seater multiplexes come up soon (the single late night show is always a so is a good example). The big films, in turn, will dominate media through aggressive advertising/publicity, for their high projected estimates would warrant a high ad-pub spend. This is where the local industry needs to pay more attention, for Hollywood’s marketing arsenal is where the real threat lies.
Nabeel Abbas, MUMBAI. The author is a film consultant.