Fathom Events and Devdas: Indian Film Moves Into the High Art Realm

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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

Image result for white women in saree

(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.

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20 thoughts on “Fathom Events and Devdas: Indian Film Moves Into the High Art Realm

  1. Beautiful article. I just read about this “Best of Bollywood Event Series” yesterday, on (I think) Indian Express. Devdas and Veer Zaara certainly wouldn’t inspire me to go through the trouble of finding a babysitter and spending a fortune on tickets and snacks (although, a lot of the other movies you mentioned probably would, like Sholay, KKHH, DDLJ, DTPH, etc.) But then, I’m not part of the crowd this is aimed towards. Thanks for breaking it down!

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      • I talk big but if Veer Zaara ends up at the theater ten minutes from my house, I’ll probably be gobbling up my words too! The original article I read mentioned Canadian screens as well. I kind of secretly enjoy that we have to drive over an hour to watch an Indian film though. Every movie we go to feels like an “event”!

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        • I feel the same way, except it’s every movie I see! There’s a movie theater five minutes from my house, but I can’t go there because I used to work there and it’s weird to go back. And every other movie theater is about an hour away, so going to any move in the theater is a big deal for me.

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          • I totally know what you mean! There’s a Goodwill store five minutes from my house that I used to work at fifteen years ago. I won’t step foot inside (even though I love browsing second-hand and charity shops). Pretty sure none of my old co-workers are still there. It just feels weird!

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  2. Another point of view; I think these are showing at my AMC, same theater that shows all the Indian films. I have seen both films several times (okay, I can’t watch the end of Devdas) but I’m really excited to see them on “the big” screen as they were meant to be seen. They may not have been that successful when they came out but they both appear on every “best of” list. I think all sorts of people will go.

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    • I’ll be curious to see how it pans out, if it turns into an event more for film buffs to go to (my fear, since I want film buffs to have to work a little and get out of their comfort zone), or if it turns into a regular Indian movie showing like we would have anywhere else but with a few confused film buffs in the middle of it (my hope!).

      Margaret

      On Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 2:37 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Eeek! Don’t make me watch Devdas with a bunch of white intellectuals! Don’t make me watch Devdas at all (any version). – – – although I do love the drinking song with Shah Rukh.

    Why not show Bahubali or Bajrangi Bhaijaan or even Happy New Year?

    My wife made me watch Cassavetes’s “Husbands” forty years ago and I still haven’t recovered.

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  4. I came to Hindi films only a couple of years ago. The first one I saw in a theater was Happy New Year. Since then I’ve watched plenty (but never enough!) on a small screen and new releases in the theater. I have to say that I’m really looking forward to seeing Devdas and Veer Zaara on a big screen and in a theater. I’ve always assumed that film makers expect their movies to be seen in theaters and I really believe that is always the best movie-watching experience, even if the audience is different in Western and Indian films, and perhaps even more different if the prices get hiked too high with these.

    Since Fathom is owned by AMC, we can expect these to be shown in theaters owned by them, which would include the midtown Manhattan multiplex (25 screens!) that I attend that regularly shows Hindi films along with every first run movie that’s out. I appreciate your assessment that “Events” like this can be a last ditch effort to save a failing theater but that isn’t the case here. (And it is worth noting that the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts are well attended there, within a mile of the Metropolitan Opera House, in part because the price is a tiny fraction of tickets at the Met.) It will be interesting to see who shows up for these movies. I don’t know if I am necessarily expecting a well heeled group since movies here are an expensive proposition to begin with, but I’ll bet it will be older than the usual crowd for Indian movies.

    And, on the subject of DVD’s, I know almost no one who buys them anymore. So much is available in formats that don’t require you to store anything–certainly the “kids” I know in their teens and twenties never buy them. Maybe I’m particularly aware of avoiding any more “stuff” that needs to be stored since I live in an apartment and I’m always feeling like there’s too much stuff around!

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    • That’s an interesting way of looking at it, that it is better for these films to be shown as they are meant to be seen, even if it might not be the ideal or usual audience. I guess I could see that, but I would still prefer for the only option to be the regular old showings. I just feel like it has expanded my world so much to see this movies in their “home” locations! Just being in a room once a week where I am by far the racial and ethnic minority is such a gift. I’d hate for people to miss out on that because there is an alternative viewing option.

      But that’s just me being pessimistic, if it ends up being the same desi majority audience as usual, plus some people who might never have seen the films or experienced this kind of viewing otherwise, that would be wonderful!

      On Wed, Mar 29, 2017 at 1:58 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. A quick update: I own the DVD (second-hand book store find, unopened, for $4!) and am also going to see it today. It’s a 90 minute trip to see it in Northern Virginia, and it is supposed to be near 100 degrees today. But I so seldom get to see Indian films on a big screen and with a great sound system, I don’t care. The ticket was just $10 — less than I usually pay for the same theater. I am really, really hoping I am not there alone.

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    • I am so curious how it will turn out! If there will be an audience, if it will be mostly desi or mostly non-desi, if they will watch if Indian style with cheers and applause, or serious like an art film, I want to know EVERYTHING.

      On Sun, Jul 23, 2017 at 7:35 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Audience of maybe 40 – about 1/3 of the seats. Mostly non-desi and mixed groups, a fair amount of chatter, but no applause. I was wrung out and blown away. Some things really need a big screen.

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    • Ha! Based on your one data point, my suposition is proved! So long as I can avoid learning or hearing from anyone else about it, I can just assume I am correct.

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  7. Just wanted to clarify in case for those who may think Einthusan is legal, it certainly is not. And they have the gall to actually offer a premium membership which only removes ads.

    Most people either do not know or do not care sure, but for those who may be thinking they’re being fair and not contributing to piracy, nope.

    Not taking moral high ground here or anything, just saying.

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    • What’s so frustrating is that there are no legal options for a lot of what they have. Especially the Malayalam stuff. If there was a legal place to stream them, or an easy place to buy DVDs, I would. Actually last time I went to a Malayalam DVD store and asked for some of the older stuff, their response was to say “There is a website for that, let me write it down for you” and then sent me to einthusan.

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      • I’m not into Malayalam at all yet (Drishyam is the first and only one I’ve seen till date and might watch Angamaly too) but a cursory Google throws up this comprehensive list of options:

        Dunno how much time you have to research any or all of them but reelmonk and yuppflix seem to be best for Malayalam. Also not sure how soon you’re expecting new releases to be available legally.

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        • It’s the older ones that are tricky. They aren’t on any of those websites, or if they do, don’t have subtitles. The new releases are easy, I can buy them on DVD or sometimes google play. But there is this whole swath of films that are just impossible.

          On Mon, Jul 24, 2017 at 12:18 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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