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Abhilasha Ojha: Lights ... action ... cut!

Abhilasha Ojha  |  New Delhi 

Even if and film producers patch up, it'll be at least five weeks before a new movie hits the screens.

The stand-off between the country’s film producers and multiplex-owners, who control around 60 per cent of box-office revenues, is costing both dearly. While multiplex-owners are being forced to down shutters as audiences don’t want to watch the Hollywood films and re-runs they’re offering, a slew of big-banner movies is waiting to be released. Producers don’t want to release them in only the smaller, down-market, single-screen cinemas. If the stand-off lasts, it will badly affect the fortunes of the Rs 12,600 crore industry.

At PVR’s Anupam theatre in South Delhi’s Saket (one of the first PVR multiplexes), for instance, the only movies playing right now are Aloo Chaat, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Tasveer 8x10 (both of which have already been declared flops) and a host of Hollywood films. Not surprisingly, audience sizes have been steadily falling at all since the indefinite strike began on April — from 35 per cent, occupancy rate in has dropped to an all-time low of 10 per cent. PVR has 108 screens spread across 10 states. Fame India, which has 75 screens across the country, has already closed down more than half of them, and operates with just 38 at the moment since, according to its Managing Director Shravan Shroff, the operational costs are very high. Individual multiplexes, who claim their losses run up to Rs 20 lakh a day, are desperately trying to find new ways to bring in audiences. Fun Cinemas, which has 73 screens, for instance, is planning to stage theatrical plays and world cinema titles in association with NDTV Lumiere. Few believe the move will have more than a limited impact on audiences, but anything’s welcome in these tough times.

At the other end, film producers are also suffering, though the pain is limited right now. Some of the big budget movies whose release has been held up include Yash Raj Films’ New York, UTV’s Main aur Mrs Khanna and Kaminey, Vashu Bhagnani’s Kal Kissne Dekha, Boney Kapoor’s Wanted, Eros International’s Aladdin and Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kambakkth Ishq. The industry is in a mess, says a top producer, who points out that even if the strike ends in a week’s time, the time needed to complete the advertising and publicity drive for films (for which studios/producers spend anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent of the film’s total budget) will ensure that no film releases before the next five weeks. And how much has the delay in movies cost the film fraternity? “Since the release dates of some of the more important films have been pushed back, Rs 250 crore have been blocked already,” according to a member of the United Producers and Distributors Forum that was formed to take on the multiplexes. Blocking Rs 250 crore in an industry worth Rs 12,600 crore isn’t too much, but it will begin to add up as the weeks pass.

At the heart of the fight is the revenue that film producers share with multiplex-owners who, thanks to the large investments they’ve made in upgrading their facilities, today account for nearly 60 per cent of box-office revenues. Currently, according to Fame India’s Shroff, in the first week, producers take back 48 per cent of box-office collections (after netting out the entertainment tax component of ticket sales); this falls to 38 per cent in the second week; by the fourth week, and for as long as the film runs, this falls to 25 per cent. Film producers want this to be revised up to 50:50 for the first four weeks.

As in all such fights, both sides have seemingly legitimate cases. While the producers say multiplexes have been arm-twisting producers and distributors to take a much smaller share than they deserve, multiplex-owners cite examples of flops like Chandni Chowk to China and Tashan that, despite their high budgets and dependable stars like Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan, failed to click at the box-office. “multiplex-owners are simply stating that if a film works well, producers can take back 50 per cent for all four weeks; but if a film doesn’t do well and is a flop at the outset, asking for a 50 per cent share is unfair,” is the way Shroff puts it.

Ironically, director Anurag Kashyap defends the view of multiplexes. The director of films like Gulaal, DevD, No Smoking, Black Friday and Paanch, Kashyap is often regarded as the voice of independent Indian cinema. He says that while multiplexes charge way too much money for movie tickets, “Film banners like Yash Raj Films make movies at multi-crore budgets with amazingly shoddy content. How can they ask for an equal share?” The head of a well-known multiplex adds to this, “What’s the guarantee that films made at budgets of Rs 100 crore (Kites and London Dreams, for instance) will do well at the box-office?”

For now, the charges are flying thick and fast, so much so that even small issues are being projected as grand conspiracies. One producer, for instance, talks of a small-budget film (which cost Rs 3 crore) called Little Zizou and the grand conspiracy of the multiplex-owners. According to him, “a leading multiplex agreed to release the film’s print in Bangalore on the condition that we also released it in Chandigarh and Indore. A small-budget film like Little Zizou, which is targeted at a specific audience group, will never find audiences in Indore but this multiplex obviously wanted us to release more prints so it could turn around and say that our film had flopped”. Believe that if you will.

On their part, multiplex-owners cite what they’ve done to promote big banner movies and the way they’re being treated now. Before Aamir Khan released his move Ghajini, one multiplex-owner recalls, the actor called them to his farmhouse and wanted them to join hands to publicise the movie in a unique manner. Staffers at multiplexes like PVR, for instance, all got the kind of buzz cut that Khan sports in the movie. A marketing head of another leading multiplex adds, “He [Khan] got PVR to back his projects and now he doesn’t want to touch them.” While PVR is not commenting on the issue, it’s no surprise that, like the others, it is struggling to survive the current battle. On their part, producers are re-running films like Chak De!India, Rang De Basanti and Ghajini, to take some examples, in single-screens with revenue sharing of anywhere between 10 per cent and 15 per cent (on a weekly basis).

Eventually, of course, the outcome of the battle will depend upon the staying power of the two sides. Multiplex-owners are confident of their position, since they control around 60 per cent of all box-office collections; as for the producers, the loss they’ve suffered so far is not that big. Who will break first remains to be seen. For now, however, to use the name of an Aamir Khan film, it’s Taare Zameen Par.

First Published: Thu, April 30 2009. 00:30 IST