International Bollywood film business in 2008

By Tanuj Garg

In the journey from my first international film release three and a half years back, to my eighteenth film five weeks back, the landscape, whilst continuing to exhibit consistency in terms of its behaviour on certain aspects, has concurrently gone through a metamorphosis. While some new territories and rights are emerging, some of the existing ones are dwindling. The result of which is that marketers and distributors must wake up to a new reality every morning. As the profile, behavioral traits and media consumption habits of the movie-going audience abroad is in sharp contrast to that of India, it is hard to assume that what has worked / will work in India, will automatically work abroad and vice versa.

Given the prevailing recession and therefore, the limited disposable incomes, even the audience is becoming increasingly discerning about the kind of films that they want to watch. This coupled with the glut of content in the market, is leading to conventional fare (featuring popular faces) enjoying precedence over new concepts and genres, and propositions that are devoid of face value.

I don't suppose it's unfair to say that the international movie business, being more knowledge-intensive, uncertain and eccentric than its Indian counterpart, holds a far greater enchantment and challenge.

The year gone by has witnessed an unfortunate economic downturn consequently hitting admissions in the US. That said, the gradual elimination of sole proprietary ownership of the select exhibition outlets and their take-over by a corporate entity will hopefully result in greater transparency on the reporting of gross figures. In the UK, the sharp depreciation of the pound sterling has been translating into relatively lesser returns than before, though the number of screens that are willing to show tent-pole Bollywood has gone up marginally. In contrast, the Middle East has been rock-steady, robust and lucrative, generating almost equivalent (if not more) revenues than the UK & US.

The year 2008 was disappointing for Bollywood Inc. internationally, but this does not have as much to do with the markets per se as it does with the overall quality of output being sub-par. Several big-star vehicles crashed (partly due to miserable promotion). The starless ones were either unreleased or tanked, when someone was brave enough to give them a theatrical outing. Titles that went straight to DVD dwindled in number given the rapid shrinkage of the home video market, as a direct result of the rampant physical and online piracy.

Only a handful of films ticked at the overseas box office this year. Jodhaa Akbar opened the innings with a solid run in the US and some other markets, while, in the UK, it scraped into the millionaire's league (£1m) by a few pennies, aided by an uninterrupted run. That thrillers don't fare well overseas was dispelled by the jubilant marathon of Race, notwithstanding the lucrative Easter factor. Kajol's presence lent incredible gravitas to U, Me Aur Hum delivering reasonable box office numbers, the chartbusting soundtrack of Jannat gave Emraan Hashmi his fifth overseas release (and second mini hit), while Aamir Khan's marketing hurricane for Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na was effective in introducing his nephew to the Asian households. In August, Singh Is Kinng stormed the scene re-writing box office history and thus emerging as the biggest overseas grosser of Akshay's two decade-long career. Eid (the best time to release in the UK & Middle East) saw two of the unconventional titles of which Kidnap was the more successful one. Though largely tepid, it surprised in the UK with a reasonable gross despite an overseas-unfriendly cast and genre. Predictably, 'Golmaal' brought tidy 'Returns' on Diwali and Dostana hit the bull's eye straight away and how! Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi opened to good numbers though what remains to be seen is if this SRK-Aditya Chopra combination (after eight years!) can notch up a lifetime gross to match that of Veer Zaara, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.

Sadly (and scarily), not much became of the other releases this year, effectively implying that only a small proportion of the annual output kept the international industry mobilized.

In terms of the market size, the UK, US & Middle East lead the way, followed by Australia, Mauritius and South Africa. Select films have had a day-and-date release in East & West Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany, Netherlands and Scandinavia. Indonesia, once lucrative, has collapsed, while Pakistan, which successfully opened only a year and a half back, seems to have closed down pre-maturely (starting Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) in the light of the attacks in Mumbai.

All eyes are now on the keenly anticipated Ghajini, which faces opposition from five major Hollywood releases on 'Boxing Day' in terms of screen space. And while its strong action component might be a deterrent for the family audience, Aamir possesses the uncanny knack of pulling off a pleasant surprise that is really the need of the hour!

(Tanuj Garg has a breadth of experience and expertise in production, marketing and distribution. Based out of London, he heads International Marketing & Syndication and Distribution for the UK & Europe at Studio 18)

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