How do you spot a hit film? From the minute it hits the screen on Friday, you're bombarded with figures of opening day collections, followed by weekend collections, and so on. Soon photos of the film's cast at a success party will emerge, front page newspaper ads and Instagram posts screaming '100 Crore' pop up, and the final judgement is served by trade analysts tweeting 'BLOCKBUSTER' in all caps. This is how lay viewers, journalists, as well as the film fraternity is informed that a film has struck gold. Not anymore. For the past year and a half, films have been directly released on streaming platforms and they, as a rule, do not divulge details about a film's performance, not even to its makers. So then how do you define a successful film today?
The box office kept a count of the bums on seats which until recently was the only metric in assessing the performance of a film. In its near-absence through the pandemic, intangible parameters like 'buzz' and 'perception' have taken over. Explaining this, filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar, who has made Taish for Zee 5 and one of the films of the anthology Navarasa for Netflix, says buzz is an amalgamation of reviews, the general chatter around the film on social media, and viewers posting their thoughts. "My last couple of experiences have taught me that you're completely dependent on the perception of your product. Success is being granted only when a film is unanimously accepted by all. I'm saying not even 10 out of 10. When 11 out of 10 is positive (feedback), that means you've hit it out of the park. The problem is when 7 out of 10 people have liked it. It means the majority have good things to say but it will still fall in the category of 'mixed response'."
When Nambiar has a film out on streaming, he launches a deep-dive into the deep recesses of the internet to decode this buzz. "This is the only way you can get data now. My team and I go through hundreds of opinions to figure out what is not working, what people are talking about…I also hashtag the actors, and I have a separate filter just for critics to see how many connected to it. Reviews, in a sense, have become more important now because they decide the perception of the film," he says.
But buzz isn't everything. Every week media consulting firm Ormax rolls out a list of the most-watched Hindi content on streaming. This is an estimated figure based on a survey in which they interview 600 viewers. Ormax doesn't factor in social media buzz; they focus solely on how many people watched a piece of content and for how long. Every other week the Ormax list throws up names of movies and shows that have little conversation around them on social media and are almost never favourably reviewed, yet millions seem to have watched it. This too is its own kind of low-key success. "A big factor is the platform itself. MX player is free. So even if something is very, very average on MX, it is likely to be higher than most things on Netflix or Amazon at least for one or two weeks till it fades out. Similarly, Hotstar has roughly 30-33 million subscribers in India while Netflix is around 6 million, so they're immediately at a disadvantage," explains Shailesh Kapoor, Founder and CEO of Ormax.
The box office kept a count of the bums on seats which until recently was the only metric in assessing the performance of a film. In its near-absence through the pandemic, intangible parameters like 'buzz' and 'perception' have taken over.
Moving away from the box office being the only arbiter of truth is both freeing and a step in the right direction, says Vijay Subramaniam, head of content at Amazon Prime Video (He has since resigned from the company). It also makes room for a more qualitative judgement on films. "Before the pandemic you had one measurement which was the box office that was helping you determine how popular the film is. But the theatrical reach of films in India has never been more than 3 to 5%. And yet, we place so much emphasis on the great opening weekend. Nobody really talks about all the other things that continue to keep a film on its journey of success. Its performance on streaming, television, the repeat value of a film in the library, organic conversations on social media… There are so many inputs that we unfortunately never really factored in till now because box office results were instant," says Subramaniam.
Streaming platforms worldwide may not be forthcoming with the data on their content, but not for the lack of it. In fact, they are privy to minute details about consumer behaviour. Subramaniam says some of the things Prime Video pays attention to is how many new customers a movie brought in, whether people saw it in one sitting or took their time over it (this shows how engaging the content is), and if it's being watched in communities beyond the one the film was intended for. This would mean a Malayalam film getting a great response from North India.
According to Kapoor, a solid mark of a streaming blockbuster is if a film is being watched in large numbers a week or two after release. By his estimation the only Hindi film to have achieved that is Sidharth Malhotra-starrer Shershaah – an undisputed streaming hit which is still being watched in large numbers after a month of its release. Amazon Prime Video, too, has confirmed that it's the most watched movie in India on their platform till date. "The other big success was Dil Bechaara but we have to remember that it was made available for free. Even Akshay Kumar's Laxmmi got a good start because it was on Hotstar but it didn't sustain beyond a few weeks," says Kapoor.
A young filmmaker, who didn't want to be named, warns that the ambiguity over data leaves too much room for manipulation. He believes that there's still no greater validation than having people take time out of their lives, buy a ticket and give them three hours of their day. "The moment a new film releases on Netflix it reaches the top 10 trending bar. You can't trust that because Netflix is using it to promote what they want you to watch. There was a time I trusted IMDB ratings but it's owned by Amazon so they'll push their own content on it. So you can't entirely trust that too. And everyone knows social media trends can be bought," he says.
But generally, the feeling on the ground is that no one is missing the box office. Producers make their money when they sell the film to a streamer and don't have to deal with the consequences of it being a bad movie. An Ormax report from July shows that had all the 26 Hindi films that went to streaming released in the theatre in a non-Covid situation, most would have underperformed, and that producers have made more money, than lost during this time. This is thanks to the sizeable premium paid by streamers and the money saved in marketing and promotion. Content creators too are relieved to be no longer burdened by the fear of the box office. As for the lack of any tangible validation, as long as they keep getting hired for more work by platforms, it's all good.