In the analogue days, a measure of a film’s popularity was a board outside a cinema declaring “Houseful”. In the digital age, one way of figuring out if a film is doing well is to go to the BookMyShow website or app and see how many seats have been sold.
BookMyShow, which was founded in 2007 by Ashish Hemrajani, Parikshit Dar and Rajesh Balpande, doesn’t just sell movie tickets – it handles bookings for all kinds of live events, such as musical concerts and plays. Yet, the leading ticketing platform has emerged as a reliable bellwether of the cinema trade. Significant advance sales for a scheduled release followed by sustained buying even after the opening weekend are signs that films are working with the paying public.
The health of the country’s various language industries has been of particular interest since 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic struck the world. In India, the pandemic exposed unsustainable film industry practices (bloated production budgets, overpaid actors, formulaic plots). When producers started premiering films directly on streamers, it appeared that cinema could survive without taking the traditional exhibition route.
When cinemas re-opened, a new reality hit filmmakers, particularly in the Hindi film industry. Films that would have worked before the pandemic were shunned. Dubbed releases from the South caught the fancy of Hindi speakers, leading to the phenomenon called the “pan-Indian film”. Obituaries were written on Bollywood, which depends on having as wide a reach as possible to recoup the high landing costs of the average production.
But the truth about whether Bollywood is dead, or dying at any rate, is far more complex, argues Ashish Saksena, BookMyShow’s COO – Cinemas. A respected film industry veteran with wide experience in programming during a long sting at PVR Cinemas, Saksena has seen both the short-term effects of the pandemic as well as the ways in which audiences have returned to theatres. In an interview with Scroll.in, Saksena spoke about the resurgence of the big-screen experience, the pan-Indian film trend, and the ways in which Bollywood can cope with shifting audience tastes.
After a dull patch, audiences are returning to cinemas. From your perch, how has the situation played out?
The last year has been very good for us. We reached pre-pandemic levels by December 2021, at a time when people were saying that Hindi films were not doing well. Three or four big films from the South did well for us. Perhaps the skew changed a bit in the favour of southern films, which also came huddled together one after the other. But ultimately it will even out. Brahmastra is the indicator that things are changing and balancing out.
The issue wasn’t just about the quality of films, it was about safety. In 2021, it became safer to go back to the cinemas. Whenever a big, well-positioned film came, it ran.
Ignoring theatrical revenue stream is difficult as it is very high and remains the largest business model, contributing over 65% of a film’s revenue. The fear that the theatrical business will go to streaming platforms is unfounded. That will never happen in India, which is traditionally a movie-crazy nation.
This kind of a slump has happened before – when video came in the 1980s, for instance. I remember an anecdote about how Subhash Ghai shot Karma in mostly long and close shots, skipping mid-shots altogether, so that when it played on a small screen, the faces would get cut off. You could see the film in its best quality only on a big screen. That was a conscious decision to get people into cinemas.
Viewers are now spoilt for choice. Apart from television, we have films and web series. Do films need a pull factor more than before?
All of us stakeholders holding various roles in the industry must recognise that there is a need to energise and reinvent ourselves. There is a learning for everyone across the board.
A good film will always find its audience. We can’t take audiences for granted and will have to be more comfortable taking risks to know what works and what doesn’t at different points in time.
Audiences often need a strong pull, larger-than-life stories, propped up by 3D or IMAX formats, for example. None of these expectations or responses is recent.
Sometimes, big films that take a certain risk or change in position have the ability to drive industry change and the way cinema can be consumed. For instance, most of the 3D screens in India came into play at the time of Avatar’s release in 2009. The kind of film that Avatar was and what it was able to convey through that 3D format was unlike anything we’d witnessed at that scale earlier. It made the 3D way of watching a way of life at the movies.
Producers will take a call for a technological upgrade that can be a game-changer, such as releasing films only on a 2K version. Sometimes, that makes all the difference.
The other aspect that is critical is the focus that is required prior to the release of a film. One way to set the ball rolling in the right direction is often to have a great trailer – basically, going back to when trailers were an important part of movie promotions. That’s more than half the work done. A badly done trailer is likely to impact the first impression of a film.
That said, people are saying, has the film been shot for the big screen? Is it worth going to a theatre? If a film will come to a streaming platform eventually, will it kill the film? This has been the case with television too.
Ultimately, producers will go to streaming platforms if cinemas are not available, but the theatrical experience will still be their first choice. Theatrical and streaming will co-exist, making people appreciate films only more. We believe that the theatrical and OTT platform complement each other well.
Have audiences become more price-sensitive? Producers have been slashing ticket rates in the belief that lower prices will bring in more audiences. We even had a National Cinema Day on September 23, where tickets were uniformly priced at Rs 75.
There is no right answer, but what we keep learning from different trends at different points of consumption is important. There is no “One Price Fits All” formula that can be implemented as a blanket approach. Whether a lower pricing works in week one or later weeks is an experiment that will have to be done for different films, and will yield different results each time.
National Cinema Day saw all films priced at only Rs 75, and that did very well. For instance, Goodbye offered tickets on its day of release for Rs 150. Ajay Devgn’s Drishyam 2 is offering a 50% discount on tickets booked for the film more than a month in advance on October 2 and 3.
Admissions might be higher in specific cases with lower price tickets, but the jury is still out on whether prices can be kept low all the time. Being flexible with pricing and basing it on what the movie commands is more important and has the ability to be more impactful.
Not every movie needs to be priced lower. There is an old saying that films don’t fail, the pricing does. If a film is good, it will work. We have seen instances where films do not work even when tickets are given out for free.
It is important to recognise that it is neither the cinemas nor producers who decide on pricing. Sometimes cinemas understand the buzz around a film and seek higher pricing. There are times when producers have a strong belief in their films to command a certain pricing.
Pricing is thus critical and best arrived at jointly between cinemas and producers. I have always believed that pricing should be as per the movie. That parameter of the pricing of a film at release versus its scale is a critical one. The sooner the worth of a film is realised, the better it is for its pricing and business potential.
That pricing drives volumes is an old-fashioned thought. If people turn away from a film on a weekend, there is possibly something wrong with the showcasing. It is unlikely that they will turn up on the weekday. The skew between weekend and weekday admissions has been largely consistent despite discounted weekend tickets because India wants to watch a film as soon as possible. That is why the theatrical business is so strong here in India.
Box office predictions and analysis seem to have become a national obsession. The discussion these days isn’t whether a film is good or not, but how much it has earned.
Earlier, movies wouldn’t release simultaneously across markets but in parts in Delhi, Maharashtra and so on across regions. The concept of pan-India wasn’t a factor as we see it today. Now those parameters have changed. A film’s showcase on 3,000 screens has become the norm.
Previously, the parameter for success was 25 weeks. Then the Rs 100 crore benchmark came in. These days, the conversations are on the lines of, what is the opening like? Is this film bigger than the other one? Will it make Rs 100 crore? Even the Rs 100 crore phrase has no sanctity anymore.
We must understand that the definition of success differs across the movie entertainment industry starting from producers, distributors, to exhibitors or cinemas to entertainment and ticketing platforms like us. Depending on who the stakeholder is, both the relevant numbers and parameters should be taken at face value because it is relevant to their value chain.
If a producer notes that the film has made X amount of money, should we really be disputing it? From where we are sitting at BookMyShow, if a film goes into 50 per cent occupancy in the third week at the cinemas like Brahmastra has done, it’s a superhit in our books.
A film that’s a hit or a blockbuster is deemed to be “massy”. We now have a new concept to deal with: the “pan-Indian film”. What do you make of these terms?
Personally I find that labelling a film as “massy” means that it is without logic, or has action-oriented scenes. The term “massy” has to make some sense since audiences have even rejected big-budget films under this categorisation. “Massy” does not mean something senseless – rather, something that is commercially acceptable as entertaining at scale.
My definition of the pan-Indian film is a bit different. It doesn’t have to do with a film’s release in multiple languages. At one level, “pan-Indian” means a film that is dubbed or with subtitles and is released on the scale of a regular Hindi film. This means a massive screen count that gives you the true scale to test it at a national level. This shows that one has the confidence to release the film on the same number of screens as a medium-level Hindi production.
Conversely, when Hindi films are dubbed into southern languages, they can’t be called pan-Indian unless they are released on that scale. So this phrase can simply be a function of the screen count, rather than a descriptor of a kind of film.
Apart from being a part of the theatrical side of films, BookMyShow also has its own streaming platform, BookMyShow Stream. How has that done for you?
Transactional video on demand, as it is known, is a very big business. We have released over 2,000 titles since our launch in February 2021.
We don’t infringe on the traditional window between a film’s release in theatres and later on a subscription-based streaming platform. We are also picking films that don’t come into cinemas at all.
We have long-term partnerships with leading global studios including Sony Pictures, Warner Bros, NBCUniversal, Universal Pictures and Paramount. They come to us either directly or as their first stop after the theatrical release.
There are independent distributors too, such as PictureWorks and Impact Films. Then there are acquisitions that we have done from across various film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Sundance, to name a few.
Some of our data suggests that users who would buy tickets for live events have started watching films on BookMyShow Stream. A lot of this consumption is of foreign-language films and series. At least 35% of users of BookMyShow Stream were first-time users to BookMyShow itself. The highest sales have been in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Pune, Kochi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Vijayawada.
People are consuming more and more. They are not necessarily picking one over the other. Not everyone has multiple streaming platform memberships to be able to skip a theatrical release and wait for the film to come on an OTT platform.