Did I do that right? Anyway, what I mean to say in the title is that the Tiger box office is finally dropping off. And nothing else has shown up to pick up the slack, so it is yet another bleak and dreary week at the box office. Well, except for China where Indian films reign supreme.
Tiger is dropping to around $1,500 per screen on only a handful of screens every where in the world. Which is normal and healthy for week 5. But it also means, while Tiger is still doing well, theaters are struggling as they have no strong drawer right now. All the films in all the languages are just doing so-so. Theaters are getting a little desperate which you can see in, for instance, a Pakistani film getting 15 screens in America.
The big news this week comes out of the Chinese market, which is completely opaque in terms of box office figures. All the numbers come from one source with no cross-checking. So I am not going to deal in specifics, I am just going to say that Secret Superstar is doing very very well there. Just like Dangal did very very well last year. And further news, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is about to release there too.
There’s a simple reason for India moving into the Chinese market. Hollywood is being forced to move out. Which is also why Hollywood is moving harder after the India market. And why Hollywood is in trouble right now. Again, I can’t speak in specifics related to the business part of it, because those trade deals and numbers are way too complex. But I can speak in generalities about the business, and in specifics in terms of the effect on what they are creating.
Let me rewind to WWI. Before WWI, the film market was split by country. Sure, films imported and exported, but the American industry was no more powerful than the British or the French or any other. During WWI, the ability to make films was seriously compromised in all European countries. And because of colonialism and evil stuff, only European countries and America had truly organized and funded film industries. Meaning by the end of WWI, only Hollywood was left standing as a working provider of films to the global market. The same effect, but more so, happened after WWII. And suddenly in most places in the world it was just accepted that “movies” meant “Hollywood”. Your local products came second.
The exceptions were countries that had slammed down trade restrictions keeping out Hollywood. China, Russia, and India being the most notable of these. And each of them developed their own thriving film industry totally independent and uninfluenced by Hollywood. Of these industries, India/Hindi film in particular is arguably the most successful. It’s films flooded not only theaters in India, but in Russia and even into parts of Europe (like Greece) that had access to Hollywood products. And various African countries and generally what is referred to as the “Global South”.
(“Global South” is not the greatest term, since you have to make these wavy lines around Australia and South Africa)
In the 1990s/2000s trade restrictions began to be lifted more and more. And technology kept pace, DVDs and now electronic files are a lot easier to ship overseas than actual film reels. For just a moment, let me talk in general terms about Hollywood. The Hollywood studio system, which created and fed films to the American public and the global public as an after thought, started falling about in the 60s. It was reborn in the 70s and 80s as “media companies”, groups that combined filmmaking with TV shows and everything else. A second reshaping happened in the 90s, as these “media companies” began to have international ownership, and suddenly everything became very small and very large simultaneously. That is, one large group was funding everything, but within that large group you had small inventive “production companies” that found and “developed” scripts and made unusual unique products.
While the studio ownership was now international, the products remained primarily focused on the local through out this period. Partly because of the DVD windfall that was suddenly appearing. DVDs are super super super cheap to produce, and ship, and everything else. But they were new and the quality was so much higher than the previous VHS options that consumers were willing to pay fabulous prices for them. And so studios were getting profits of something like 2,000% on them. My older readers (OMG I am so old!) probably remember this era, when a DVD was something amazing and you had to save up money for it and then be very careful of its delicate structure and so on and so on. Most of these sales were of new films, but studios were also making a tidy profit on their old film library, releasing old classics on this new cheap format. SO MUCH MONEY was suddenly floating around.
And then the bubble burst, poof! Which anyone could have told them. If your profit is 2,000% on a product, at some point some one is going to undersell you and make it only 1,900% and so on and so on until it gets down to a reasonable level. Plus, innovation can’t be stopped, DVDs may have been the new thing, but there would always be a new thing. And so in the early 2000s, suddenly DVD prices started to cascade down. Which, again, my older readers will remember. The shock of realizing something you paid $35 for just 5 years earlier is now on sale for $10. And at the same time, movie streaming technology started to come out, the new thing that was even cheaper and just as high quality. And could lead to illegal piracy.
Films were in a tricky position here. The music industry moved faster, it also had a massive CD boom which then dropped as people realized “Hey, CDs can be a lot cheaper!”. And as file sharing became possible. Music adjusted by switching from CD sales that were split with brick and mortar store owners and so on to direct to the consumer sales. No big difference for them. But film couldn’t do that. Films rely on 4 markets in turn. First the theaters, then the special TV premiere, then DVD sales, and then the rental market. Streaming was throwing in something new and they had to figure out where to put it. Oh, and at the same time, the RedBox and Netflix companies appeared, which didn’t quite fit as rentals or as sales, where should they go?
All of this adjusting ended up meaning movie companies were making a lot less money all of a sudden. And they needed a new source of that sweet sweet cash. And thus, China!!!! And the global market in general, but mostly China.
International sales for Hollywood are easy for me to understand, because they work the same was as distribution sales in India. You have a movie, and before it is even finished, you sell the rights for China or somewhere else to a distributor over there. The problem is, Hollywood wasn’t as good at this as India because they weren’t used to it.
If you are selling distribution rights, it’s not about a brilliant unique story, or amazing performance, or any of that. It’s about something that seems like it can guarantee a profit. Which usually means something that is the same as something the audience has liked before, or a big name star they are familiar with. Indian film has decades of experience with this, and so they have the song sequences and other elements which distributors will look at along with straight star names and genres. And of course the “star” system is a lot more complex, a “Salman Khan Movie” means something a lot more interesting and specific than just a “Tom Cruise Movie”. But Hollywood, without really know what they were doing, started leaning hard into that, suddenly every film was like every other film and starred the same few big names. The interesting word of mouth movie became the exception.
(Hell-ooooooo Padmavat! “It’s just like Bajirao, but new” is an excellent way to sell a film to international studios for funding.)
There’s another part to this. American culture does not translate easily to China. Sure, there are some universals, sex and puppies in danger and stuff like that. But a farmer in America lives a very different life than a farmer in China. A young couple falling in love in America is going to go through very different steps of courtship than in China. And so on and so forth.
And language, of course, also doesn’t translate. Which means the American films that rely on clever wordplay or deep intellectual dialogue won’t do well either. So our films started to all look the same and have the same stars, and also to have all the rough edges and uniqueness rubbed off of them. It became all about explosions and big fight scenes and so on and so on. This isn’t just me saying this, this is the generally accepted wisdom about the American film industry in recent years. In the effort to go after the international market, films have gotten dumber and dumber. Not because the international audience is dumb, but because Hollywood can’t figure out how to communicate with them.
But now, because of various trade movements and so on, plus an increasing suspicion from Hollywood that the Chinese market isn’t as reliable as is being reported by the Chinese government, the movement of Hollywood films to China is being cut off. No idea what effect this will have on Hollywood, but it is already having an effect on Indian film.
Let’s look at Dangal. It is a story about a father and his 5 daughters in a village where boys are prized. And more generally where marriages happen young, entertainment options are limited, everyone knows everyone else, etc. etc. The grand big parts of the film are essentially human, a father’s love is universal. But the details of how they live and why might be hard for a Western audience to grasp. Something as simple as meals being cooked over an open flame, or chickens being bought live instead of from a supermarket, is different. However, in China, this could go over like gangbusters!
We already talked a little in the comments about the different ways of seeing Secret Superstar depending on your cultural background. For me, it was stressful and frustrating, since this was clearly an abusive situation and they had to leave. But in other cultures, the abuse may not have been as clear or as unacceptable. And that’s on top of, again, the little things like the father being away for work for weeks at a time, the elderly relative living in the household with them, and so on, which would be unusual in American culture (not unheard of, but not the vision that is usually presented in mainstream media).
What this means is both that Indian films might do better in a country where the majority of the people have similar values and lifestyles to Indians than in other countries where that is not the case, and that Indian films might be a better fit for the Chinese market than Hollywood films. At least, that looks to be the case so far.
And this is a good thing, for all film industries! Hollywood films can go back to serving groups that have a closer cultural and linguistic tie with America and therefore their films can stop being so watered down. And Indian films can find a new market that they have a closer cultural tie with than the west and THEIR films can stop being so watered down.
Oh, one final point, I mentioned that Hollywood films aren’t as used to selling to distributors as Indian films. They also aren’t as used to crossing language divides. Part of what attracts me to Indian films is how much of the narrative is non-verbal. Song sequences that create a mood, but also exaggerated body language, signals given through costumes and styling of characters, color tones in the scene to show emotions, all of these things that let you follow what is happening even if you are not fluent in Hindi. That let’s a story like Secret Superstar, which is fairly complex, cross over to a new language without losing anything from it.
(This needs no translation)