'Inside The Box' is a series in which we will take a deeper-dive into the Box Office collections and web numbers of major films released across India.
January 2022 was supposed to be the month of cinegoers. It was supposed to be the month of major films, including RRR, Jersey, Valimai, Radhe Shyam and Prithviraj. It was supposed to be the month where post-pandemic theatrical recovery hit its peak.
Alas – it turned out to be the month of circling back, with the theatrical calendar being reshuffled and revised, yet again. Sooryavanshi, which was set to release in April 2020, was held back for 19 months to see a theatrical release. Kabir Khan's 83 was held back for almost 21 months. And now, many big-ticket films, including the aforementioned, find themselves in a similar quandary.
In fact, projects like RRR and Jersey, which got postponed days before their theatrical releases, have already lost huge sums of money with their marketing campaigns being in full swing before the Omicron cases surged. "This is bound to have a chain reaction on the rest of the theatrical schedule too. One can already see that with postponements of Prithviraj and Radhe Shyam," says Rajkumar Akella, Managing Director, Comscore Theatrical.
For a film of the scale of SS Rajamouli's RRR, made on a staggering budget of approximately Rs. 560 crores, it doesn't make sense to release it at a time theatres are getting shut all across the world. "The makers were willing to release the film even after it was announced that the theatres in Delhi were to get shut," says Akella. Even as they would've invariably incurred losses by missing the northern belt, the team had decided to go ahead with its release. However, with Maharashtra announcing further restrictions by cancelling the popular night shows and other major states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka following suit, alongside countries like the United States, the decision of a delay became hard but inevitable.
The losses then become inevitable too. There are the tangible losses – for example, the compensation owed to exhibitors for booking the theatres and a certain number of screens, only to decide to not go ahead with the film's release. Then, there are the intangible losses. Films like RRR, Jersey and Radhe Shyam, were either in the middle of or almost in completion of their on-ground and online promotional campaigns. From trailers and album launches to on-ground promotional activities such as interviews and TV appearances, the cast and crew had exhausted all conventional methods of creating a buzz among the audience. "Restarting the campaign would not only involve the challenge of additional costs; the bigger challenge would be to create new assets when they restart their campaigns," says Gautam Jain, Partner at Ormax Media.
However, for films intended as 'cinematic experiences' – as in the case of earlier releases like Sooryavanshi and 83 – the losses incurred now are expected to be far lesser than the expected ROI once the film is released in relatively better circumstances. "These films would never opt for a direct-to-OTT release," says Akella. "There are losses for sure, but the stakeholders are aware that people will flock the theatres if it's released in a better time."
"Money power, how long you can wait without worrying about the interest rates going up and not worrying about how to pay your staff," says producer Ronnie Lahiri. As the Director of Rising Sun Films, the production house behind two pandemic releases, Gulabo Sitabo and Sardar Udham, he has taken tough calls, deciding to opt for direct-to-digital releases at a time most films with bankable stars held back their releases.
In case of Sardar Udham, which released on Amazon Prime Video in October 2021, Lahiri and his team waited a year before deciding that the money involved wouldn't have helped their cause. "It's a very individual situation. My production house – a boutique production house – does one film at a time. The revenues earned from our first film goes into the making of our second," he explains. "Our entire filmmaking process draws to a halt if one film is held up. Bigger corporates, on the other hand, can hold on to their films for a longer period because they have depth in a situation like that."
A film has its own set of stakeholders – including exhibitors, distributors and satellite owners. When a release then is put on hold, the interest rates of the investors also keep increasing on a month-by-month basis. At times, entire value chains of a film could undergo a relook. "In some cases, the various theatrical and non-theatrical rights could go through re-negotiations on the basis of the box office performance of recent films. The time period between theatrical and digital release [currently in a 4-week window] could also be negotiated," explains Jain.
However, the scope of drastic reassessments is relatively narrow considering the enormity of the pandemic. It is more likely that the stakeholders themselves, especially of tentpole films, would advise against a theatrical release at a time footfalls are low. "Rajamouli, for example, had a meeting with all his stakeholders before deciding to postpone RRR. It's not a unilateral decision anymore. Everyone would partake in the process," says Akella.
Unfortunately, yes. The re-opening of theatres in Maharashtra saw several big-star, tentpole films line up one after the other, rushing to block major dates, including the upcoming Pongal season. This resulted in smaller-budgeted films that had initially planned their releases around the same time backing out, and as a result, delaying their post-production. In a situation like today where it's probably disadvantageous for a film of RRR's scale to release, a smaller film could've still released and earned some revenue out of the footfalls during the season despite restrictions. However, a delay in post-production for most such films meant that no films would be ready for release in time.
Another long-term implication would be the fact that the additional backlog of films will now make it harder for one major film to release at a time. This could lead to more clashes of projects – something producers were looking to avoid since the reopening of the theatres – and as a result, the revenue of all films involved could be hampered.
What's more? Films with a pan-India intention, like Adipurush and Liger are likely to be the most affected. "They would need a window where there are no big films across major languages," explains Jain. And with so many films across languages now being held, it'll be difficult for them to find exclusive dates not just in a particular region but across India.