Here’s an interesting little announcement! Fathom Events in America is planning a “Bollywood” series. Which early reports say will feature Devdas and Veer-Zaara and maybe others. So, this means the Indian film audience is officially being split into “high” and “low”. America’s version of multiplex and single-screen.
Decent chance you have never heard of Fathom Events. I only know about it because the theater that very very rarely shows Indian films also hosts them. And because I wrote a term paper on it for a seminar when I was in college.
Well, on the whole “event” idea. I was looking at the development of movie theaters in Chicago. Lots of scrolling through microfilm and looking at newspaper archives for articles. I went back to the 1950s and forward to the 1980s.
Every twenty years or so, I found, there would be a big technical advance that was bad news for movie theaters. TV in the 50s and 60s, then VHS in the early 80s, then cable TV in the 90s, then DVDs, and now of course the internet and streaming. And every single time, movie theaters would make the same stupid decisions and do the same stupid things that wouldn’t work. And then they would close and we would have fewer and fewer movie theaters. I don’t remember all the exact numbers I saw for closings through history, but I know there are 5 movie theaters in Chicago that closed between when I was writing this paper 10 years ago and today, more than halving the total number. The industry is not doing well.
(When I was in college, I used to go to this theater all the time, the theater where Dillinger was shot. And then it closed right after I graduated)
Any time theaters started to lose audiences, their instinct would be to bleed more money out of the remaining audience members. That’s why 3D came in back in the 1950s. The simple version sold to the public is “we want to give you something you can’t get from your TVs at home!” But the reality was, they wanted an excuse to raise ticket prices. And that’s why 3D is in place now. Have you noticed there are some films it is really really hard to NOT see in 3D? The biggest most popular releases will be playing 3D on 4 screens and regular on 1 screen? It’s not because of this massive over-whelming demand for 3D, it’s a backdoor price increase on popular films. If you want to see the latest Marvel Studios film, you have to pay a 35% bonus for technology that doesn’t add that much to the experience.
The other technique that theaters consistently tried was to go high. The same idea as charging more for cheap wine just because you slapped a French name on it. You are still sitting in the same theater looking at the same screen, but if you are watching something that is a fancy “Event”, then you are willing to pay more for it than you would for just a “movie”.
In the 1950s, and again today, theaters are experimenting with showing “high art” on their screens and convincing people to spend more for it. Opera is always big. They set up a connection to the Metropolitan Opera and you can watch a live broadcast of a performance on the big screen. The tickets are $20 and up, and you are sitting there with a bunch of “nice” people, you know, retirees and professionals, not those yucky teenagers and small children who go to “regular” shows at the theater.
(Look at their vision of their audience. Everyone sitting still looking at the screen. No kids, no one moving about, and most people looking kind of white)
This is what Fathom Events is. It’s a company that provides these High Art options to struggling theaters who need something to justify raising ticket prices. And who are trying to bring in the blue-haired ladies and other “high art” types who aren’t tech savvy enough to understand the Internet (the same reason that NCIS has the best ratings of any show on TV, the people watching it are the only ones who don’t understand how to use Hulu or Netflix).
By the way, from the massive amount of research I did on this topic for my paper, I can tell you that this system never works. You know what works? Blaxpoloitation movies. Back in the 60s-70s, movie theaters all over Chicago were announcing that they were live-streaming Opera, or having special events with classic films. And then a few months later, there would be the announcement that they were closing. Meanwhile, the scuzzy downtown theaters that had cheap tickets and broken seats and showed the cheap fun Blaxploitation movies just kept going. That’s the movie audience you want to reach, not the elite and expensive crowd, but the cheap crowd that isn’t being served anywhere else.
It’s still true today by the way, movies aimed outside of the wealthy white classes are consistently making a bigger profit. Films like Hidden Figures, Get Out, even The Fast and the Furious franchise. Anything that is aimed at a cross-cultural audience, the kind of people who don’t usually get to see themselves on TV screens or internet shows or anywhere else but these movies. They will turn out and they will buy tickets, enough tickets that you don’t need artificial price inflation to turn a profit.
(Well on its way to being the break out hit of the year. On a budget that Michael Bay would laugh at, and without releasing in 3D or at those “luxury” theaters with the food service and wine menus)
Which brings me back to how fascinating it is that Fathom Events is deciding to show a “Bollywood” series! As I said, I only know about Fathom Events because one of the theaters where I sometimes see Indian movies also does them. This particular theater is semi-arty. It’s in downtown Evanston, so near Northwestern University and in the middle of a town that I have heard described as “like living in NPR”. They had Fan, and Sultan, and a few other really really big Indian releases. But they didn’t know what to do with them. They put them in the small “arty” “foreign film” side of the multiplex, the half where people wouldn’t even see the post or realize it was playing unless they went over there on purpose. They ran trailers for other “foreign films” before them, stuff from England and Sweden. And for Fathom Events, Opera and Ballet and “classic” films. And they made no money, I’ve never been to an Indian film there that had more than 10 people in the audience.
And now they are going to be showing those same Indian movies that they show first run and make no money on, but as a special event with huge price inflation and a lot of “it’s educational and respectable and classic!” publicity. I’ve seen this before, the local South Asian film festival for instance has shown Heroine and Masaum with $40 tickets in the exact same theater where those movies were playing on their regular run for $8 just two weeks earlier. It’s the strange audience barrier, the fancy “art film” crowd doesn’t seem to be aware that these exact same movies they are calling “high art” and seeing for huge rates were playing just down the road with babies crying and teenagers laughing and $5 tickets on Tuesdays just a week earlier.
Officially, according to The Variety interview, this is aimed at the desi audience. But, is it really? Because I am pretty sure the desi audience is set, what with at least one new release in every major language coming out each week, playing on dozens or hundreds of screens all over America, and then streaming conveniently on a variety of websites. And playing on satellite TV channels you can easily add to your cable package. I feel like, for the majority of the desi audience, if they had this kind of money to waste on movie tickets, they would already be “wasting” it on satellite TV and ErosNow apps and all the other ways to see these films. And anyway, if it was truly aimed at the desi audience, would it be showing Devdas and Veer-Zaara as the big headliners? Those films did NOT do well! I mean, they did not do badly, but they weren’t the biggest hits of their release years and they don’t get a lot of nostalgic play in the years since. DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Sholay, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, Andaz Apna Apna, Dil To Pagal Hai, Silsila, any of these might be a better choice. So I am pretty sure this is aimed at either the elite desi audience who don’t want to be the kind of people who go to the scuzzy ethnic all Indian theaters, or pay for B4U satellite package, but will see a movie if it is in a fancy theater at a “nice” event. Or it is aimed at wealthy white people who want to say they have watched “Bollywood” without having to actually deal with desis.
(Did you know while filming Eat Pray Love in India, a movie about a white woman getting all spiritual and connected and all that to Indian culture, they actually cut off access to regular pilgrims who wanted to visit the temple where they were filming? Because they wanted to be connected to Indian culture, but not to actual Indians. Oh, and by the way, this image came from a really interesting blog post about all of the interactions between culture and race and stuff)
I can hear you saying “yeah? So what? Stupid rich white people are tricked into spending more money and theaters stay in business a little longer, why is this a bad thing?” I guess what bothers me is that film, and all popular culture, has this wonderful potential for bringing people together. And giving these alternative options, the film festival and “special event” outlets for Indian film, is dividing us again. I want more privileged white people like myself to be brought out of their comfort zone, to see these films with the audience they are made for, to take this as an opportunity to experience what it is like to be a minority in someone else’s cultural space, and to share an experience with people they may never have ever interacted with otherwise. And this is killing that. Watching Devdas or Veer-Zaara (already two movies that are pretty non-threatening to non-Indians) in a fancy theater with only people willing and able to pay huge ticket prices smack in the middle of White People Land, and probably with some introductory booklet that gives you a completely inaccurate vision of what India and Indian film is like, that’s not the experience I want people to have.
And you know how I know it will only be white people doing this? Have you tried to buy Devdas on DVD recently? It’s only like $8! Not only is no one with access to an Indian DVD retailer (whether online or in meat space) going to waste money on a movie ticket to see it on the big screen, that also means demand has dropped off so much that they have to practically give DVDs away before people are interested. Show Sholay on the big screen, or Mughal-E-Azam, maybe then you can make some money off of it, but none of the “traditional” audience for Indian film is going to spend $40 on a ticket for Devdas. It’s only going to be the other crowd, the ones who have never been to an Indian movie store, or to einthusan.com, and now they never will.