Notice how I put the really exciting picture at the top so we would remember why this really matters?
So, currently, the highest Shahrukh movie on the all time gross list for India is number 5. NUMBER 5!!! The shame of it! Ahead of him is PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bahubali, and Dhoom 3. The whole list is here on wikipedia.
Now, you know what all these films have in common? They are all from the past 5 years. And the film at the top is usually from within the past 2 years. In America, we are used to that, the top grossers are always fairly recent, but in India that wasn’t always the case. Mother India set a box office record in 1957 that stayed in place for 3 years until Mughal-E-Azam surpassed it in 1960. Mughal-E-Azam held the record until Sholay beat it in 1975. Sholay held the record until Hum Aapke Hain Koun came along in 1994. Hum Aapke Hain Koun was toppled quickly by DDLJ in 1995. Then DDLJ lost it’s crown to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998. That record held until 2001 when it was beaten by both Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Gadar held the record until 3 Idiots in 2009, at which point everyone breathed a sigh of release because they could start pretending Gadar never happened (very very problematic messages in that film). And then 3 Idiots held the record for a long time, by a big big margin, until it was finally beaten by Chennai Express in 2013. All Shahrukh fans cheered and celebrated and laughed in the faces of their Aamir-fan friends, or at least that’s what I did. Truly, it was a magical time!
(Shahrukh, take a bow! You earned it!)
And then about 2 months later, Dhoom 3 came out and Aamir was on top again. It stayed up there for a year, until PK came out, and then Aamir had the two top spots. PK is still up there, but Bajrangi Bhaijaan did really well this summer and came close to beating it. And Bahubali, of course, is a huge deal since it is the only non-Hindi film up there (although it was distributed by a Bombay based production house, Dharma, which is very important in terms of overseas awareness and national reach in India).
So, on the micro-level, this just means we all need to buy as many tickets for Dilwale as humanly possible in order to return Shahrukh to his rightful ranking. I don’t care if you are actually seeing Star Wars, you buy your ticket for Dilwale!!!
But on a macro-level, in terms of global trends, economics, and the future of the industry, what does all of this mean and where does it come from?
It all goes back to the actual cost of film. I don’t mean “film the artistic concept”, I mean film the actual physical thing you hold in your hand. Making film prints is really really expensive. And you have to do it before your film releases, before you are even seeing any profits.
In the olden days, when Mughal-E-Azam and Sholay ruled for more than a decade, Indian filmmakers didn’t have enough start-up funds to make more than a few dozen prints. Each city might have only two or three theaters showing a particular release. In the smaller towns, you would have to wait for the traveling print to come through. But films still made huge profits. How?
(and then the power goes out, and you have to wait even longer to see it while some random guy does a song and dance to pass the time)
Well, part of it was, films like Mughal-E-Azam and Sholay and Hum Aapke Hain Koun had a lot of faith behind them on the part of their makers. The money was found, somewhere, to make a lot more prints than there were for something like Andaz Apna Apna, for instance. Without those additional prints, even if you got great word of mouth and turned into a massive cult favorite, there is just now way to make a record breaking profit.
The other part of it was, until 3 Idiots really, profit was measured in time, not space. That is, instead of trying to cover all of India in film prints, you tried to cover all of India with one print over the course of a year. The hit terminology you will still run into is “Golden Jubilee Hit ” (50 weeks) or “Silver Jubilee Hit” (25 weeks).
(look how happy Anil Kapoor is! He would spit on the Mr. India profits today. Even Welcome Back made him more money.)
Post-3 Idiots, a new term was introduced, the 100 Crore club. 3 Idiots was the first film to break 100 Crore, and it didn’t just break 100 Crore, it broke 300 Crore. How?
Well, they made a lot more prints! That’s really all there is to it. I mean, make a good movie too, and have a great promotional campaign, and cast a big star, but the biggest thing is to just have more film prints available. This isn’t just me extrapolating here, there is an actual study that backs it up by economist Marc Fetscherin. He looked at genre and stars and other factors, trying to predict international success of Indian films. And it turned out, the film that had the most prints, and therefore the most tickets available to buy, made the most money.
Nothing works like success, so once 3 Idiots showed it was possible to make this level of profit, all of sudden there was a lot more money around for people to use on film prints. Suddenly, the 100 Crore club was very achievable. 300 crore still eluded people’s grasp unless it was an actual amazing film, but you can reach 100 easily just by playing the system.
But once this code was cracked, a new problem appeared. If every film that comes out suddenly has 100s of prints available, instead of the smaller cities fighting over a few prints, there are multiple films fighting over a few screens. On a bigger scale, there is also the concern that there will be multiple films fighting for the same audience.
It used to be, if only one or two theaters in a city had a film, then the audience would go to whichever film was playing at whichever theater was near them. Everything was guaranteed an audience. But if there is a multiplex nearby, suddenly you have options, and the concern becomes that the audience won’t pick your film over all the others.
(Movie audiences in most places today versus just a few years ago)
This also gets into the time factor, that is, the lack of it. In the olden days, audience members were used to waiting months, or years, for a film print to finally make it’s way to them. There was no big promotional push, so no resultant lack of interest when the promotions went away. And filmmakers would count themselves lucky to still be able to make a profit months later, by stretching it out to second and third string theaters. Now, the audience is pushed to see the film opening weekend, and the theaters are pushed to get it out in and out as soon as possible to make space for the next release.
Interestingly, the first person to become aware of this new business reality was Ajay Devgn.
(yes, this man was the first to identify a legal loophole in film distribution. Not just a pretty chest!)
Well actually, Ajay noticed that Aditya Chopra was exploiting it. Because of course he was, Aditya is on a whole other level and always has been. His DDLJ was the first film to really go after the diaspora audience, and while 3 Idiots was the first film to really push the limits of international release and prints sent overseas, Aditya was the first one to realize that if more prints guaranteed profits, he could start making 4 or 5 mid-budget films a year, push most of the cost over to the number of prints, and still have a guaranteed profit.
But even if Aditya and Yash Raj was doing well with his little budget gems, like Band Baaja Baarat and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, he still needed to have one of those massive hits every once in a while. For instance, when his dying father announced he would make one last film. For his father’s honor, Adi needed to guarantee a blockbuster.
In this new market, the best blockbuster guarantee is a large number of prints combined with a large number of theaters promising to show them.
So Adi played the system. Supposedly, he let theater owners know that if they wanted a print of Ek Tha Tiger, the only big release coming out Eid weekend, they needed to promise, 4 months in advance, that they would also take Jab Tak Hain Jaan. This is called “blockbooking”, and it was what made the studio system in America so powerful for so many years. It was finally declared illegal in America decades back, which was part of what led to the fall of the studio system as it was, but having worked in a movie theater, I can tell you it still goes on under the table. There’s nothing in writing, of course, but it is understood that if you want to maintain a good relationship with a distributor, you take Krampus so a few months later you can get Star Wars.
Ajay Devgn, meanwhile, played by the rules, or at least the traditions. He announced his film, Son of Sardaar, last minute, and then announced the release date a month or so in advance. And discovered that most theaters in India were already booked up and were afraid to give him a slot.
(also a rule follower! Kajol is a lucky lucky woman)
So Ajay sued the Chopras. Which was very poor taste, because of course Yashji died right around the same time and he ended up taking a grieving widow to court. And the final decision was, basically, Aditya did something so new and original that it wasn’t even illegal yet
But that was 2 years ago. Now we are looking at another big clash, with Bajirao opposite Dilwale and the playing field is totally different. Both movies are going hard abroad and at home, with hundreds and hundreds of prints releasing. Bajirao has been promoting for months and announced this release date far in advance. Dilwale was a last minute decision, announced the release date and started filming just a few months ago. In theory, Bajirao should have been able to book up every theater in the world.
But in practice, Dilwale is a Shahrukh movie. No one says no to him. Even his own director, who wanted him to announce a release of Dec. 25 instead of the 18th, and avoid the conflict. And now he is going around, calling up theater chains and leaning on them to take his film over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s. And apparently, it is working. The split is now 60/40 in Dilwale‘s favor.
So, while you should still buy your ticket for Dilwale, because every ticket counts, remember that the real determination of top box office sales between the two films went on in corporate boardrooms somewhere in Bombay when Shahrukh truly flexed the muscles that just landed him at the top of the Forbes list, again.
(by the way, notice that Star Wars isn’t even a factor here? That’s because Disney is releasing it a week later in India than everywhere else in the world. No one says no to Shahrukh.)