'Inside The Box' is a series in which we will take a deeper-dive into the Box Office collections and web numbers of major Hindi films released across India.
Kangana Ranaut-starrer Thalaivii, the much-talked about biopic of the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, has been in the news for several reasons. It was based on one of the most influential names in Indian politics, it starred Ranaut in her first major South release as the titular character, and it was releasing in not one, but three languages – Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. After facing multiple delays, the film finally released last Friday. And yet, the numbers look dismal. It earned a crore nett in Hindi, and a total of 4.75 crores over its opening weekend, according to Box Office India.
One of the primary reasons for this though, came from the fact that national multiplex chains – including PVR, Inox and Cinepolis – decided to not release the Hindi version of the film owing to its shorter theatrical window. "The numbers are not good in Hindi at all since it hasn't released in PVR, Inox and the bigger properties. So, it never really stood a chance," says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media.
The problem started when Thalaivii was sold to two OTT platforms – Netflix for its Hindi version and Amazon Prime Video for Tamil and Telugu. While the release window for the latter was kept to four weeks after the film's theatrical release, the former shortened its theatrical window to just two. While multiplexes had already reduced their theatrical window from 6-8 weeks to 4 weeks post the coronavirus lockdown, shortening it further would've been a tough call to take. "Everyone had to look at the situation in a short and a long-term scenario," says film exhibitor and distributor Akshaye Rathi. "After a big star movie like Bell Bottom was given a four-week window, if somebody else is allowed a two-week window, then every other producer with whom the multiplexes had formed an understanding with would end up feeling shortchanged going ahead."
After a long-standing back and forth between the producers and the multiplex chain owners, there was no common ground found, and the multiplexes decided to only take forward the releases of the Tamil and Telugu versions of the film. This decision limited the film's release – and eventually its revenue – in the northern regions of the country, with only 500-odd screens being available for the Hindi release. "If any film in Hindi doesn't release in multiplexes today, the Box Office is almost not going to be there," says Kapoor. "The makers were probably hoping that in the two-week window, they would also get enough theatrical business, but then the multiplexes decided to not release it, which didn't work well for them."
Why the scattered release then? To put it in a word: premium. "Had the price for the four-week window been X, the price becomes X + Y for shrinking it to two weeks," explains Rathi. "While the producers are missing out on the collections of the national scene, they will get an additional share from the streaming partner." With the delay in theatrical releases for many films, producers now find themselves at a point when their films are ready but because of the lower theatrical business, they have to find ways to maximize their profits from OTT. "Had they gone for a direct-to-OTT release, they probably would've earned a bit more. So, in a way, they sacrificed 10-15 crores just to have a theatrical release," points out trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai.
However, if makers are opting for a shorter window and there's a lack of multiplex support as an after-effect, even as theatres in Maharashtra – the most important revenue-generating state for Hindi cinema – remain closed, the film is more or less reliant on its digital release to generate revenue. "Anyone going for a lesser window is willing to sacrifice the box office thinking that they would rather make money from OTTs. So, anything less than four weeks would now effectively mean a direct-to-OTT release," he says.
What would help, both the theatres and the producers though is Maharashtra's return in the picture, literally and figuratively. Producers Guild Of India and the Multiplex Association Of India, had in fact, appealed to the Maharashtra government earlier in September to consider the reopening of theatres in the state citing a loss of Rs. 4800 crore since March 2020. "Due to state-wide lockdowns, the cinema exhibition industry has run into an extremely adverse and hostile situation: it was the first sector to be shut down and will be the last sector to reopen," read the public statement issued by the MAI.
"Had Maharashtra been open, this decision taken on Thalaivii wouldn't even have happened," says Rathi. "With it being shut, it becomes unfeasible for a lot of big-ticket local content to plan its release because the state contributes to 25-30% of the national box office. Because it's not open, a lot of Hindi films aren't planning a release. As a result, cinemas that are open in other states are also suffering due to the shortage of content. At some level, it has held the entire film industry to ransom."
In the South, where films like Seetimaarr are doing good business, Thalaivii's performance has been underwhelming despite receiving mixed to positive reviews. While it has released with a 50% occupancy in the theatres there, it is, as of now, running only on 20-25% occupancy rates. One reason for this could be the lack of a local face. Jayalalithaa was a revered figure in Tamil Nadu, and it's perhaps hard for the audience to not find a local connect to the actor portraying the titular role, no matter how dependable they may be as performers.
Another reason boils down to the potential return of the superstar culture: the film has a lack of star pull for the mass audience – something that the Vijay-starrer blockbuster, Master, was able to achieve post the first wave. "I'm looking at a probable Diwali release like Rajinikanth's Annaathe to revive the market now," Pillai says. "Who will come to the theatres and spend money on other stars when the money market is down and you will anyways get to watch it on OTT in two weeks' time? The market behaviour for Hindi films too will be a lot more understandable once the top 5 stars of Bollywood release their films."
On OTT, the biggest Hindi release last week was the Saif Ali Khan and Arjun Kapoor starrer Bhoot Police that released on Disney+ Hotstar. As per the media consulting firm Ormax Media, the horror comedy garnered 3.3 million views over the weekend, becoming the most-watched Hindi film in India during this time period.
However, this is not as encouraging as it seems to be. "The film has started decently but it's not a breakout number," says Kapoor. "We have to keep in mind that anything that is on Disney+ Hotstar will always get good numbers because it's the biggest platform in India." Disney+ Hotstar had around 46.4 million paid subscribers as of August 2021 – much-higher than any other leading streaming platform across the country. "Therefore, anything that comes on that platform has a natural advantage of getting the initial audience," he explains.
In the past, films like Laxmii (15 million) or Coolie No. 1 ( 14 million) generated wider number of views but failed to sustain them over the next few weeks. "It's not like a theatrical release where 70% business comes from the first week and after that it'll start dropping. In OTT, what you sometimes see, are films like Shershaah, where if the content is right, you will get the audience for a period of 3-4 weeks. Films and series have a bigger shelf life. For example, Scam 1992 kept generating good numbers even after the first three months," Kapoor says. For OTTs, sustenance is key to determine the success of a film since reviews or referrals from friends and family members play a key role in the addition and longevity of its viewership.
The film received negative to mixed reviews upon release, with critics calling out its lazy writing and lack of wit. However, what seemed to have worked for the film is its early release. Scheduled to release on September 17, the film's release was pushed ahead to September 10 – during a week when Disney+ Hotstar had no other major releases (its next big release is Annabelle Sethupathi on September 17), and a week where Hindi films in general saw no other big releases. This has cleared its path to have an edge on the viewership till the end of the ongoing week. "Also, the Indian Premier League begins from the 19th, which too, will be streaming on the same platform," Kapoor adds. "The platform probably decided to prepone it so that the two wouldn't come around the same period. It's logical too, because the Bhoot Police campaign also gives a push to the platform ahead of the IPL, so it works well for both."