Exhibitors say WB being too pushy with terms

The problems were sorted out quickly and the damage was slight, but a boycott of “The Simpsons Movie” by Indian exhibitors could be a sign of things to come.

The pic, owned by 20th Century Fox and handled by Warner Bros., should have skated into Indian cinemas on Aug. 3. Instead it was shut out of hardtops, as several multiplex operators across the country put together an organized boycott.

Had Apu, the Hank Azaria-voiced owner of Kwik-E-Mart, finally got tired of saying “Thank you, come again!”? D’oh. No.

Rather, according to the locals, Warner was getting too pushy with its terms and conditions. Per local reports, Warners insisted on five or more shows per day, played cinemas off against each other and did not deliver prints until the last minute.

“WB was asking exhibs to give us the contracted shows. These contracts were signed between us and the exhibs,” Warner Bros. India topper Blaise Fernandes told Variety. “We confirm that there was a partial boycott for ‘The Simpsons’ over the weekend. The same has been resolved since, and there is no boycott any more. All the multiplexes are now screening the film.”

Seems the dispute was resolved by Aug. 7 after the intervention of Fox (Australia), though Down Under Fox boss Sunder Kimatrai will only say: “The film is on screen now.”

On a global scale, the spat amounted to no more than a pile of Homer Simpson’s favorite donuts. Sources say pic may have missed 200 screenings and placed financial impairment in the $10,000-$15,000 range.

But others are touting it as the first notable head-to-head between a Hollywood distrib and India’s hardtop circuits. Such skirmishes are everyday occurrences between Bollywood studios and the country’s largely under-developed and still fragmented exhibition sector.

Still, to put up the backs of the Fame, Inox, Adlabs, Fun, Cinemax, Movietime and Citypride chains and spur them to collective action took some doing. Instead of opening on 40 screens nationwide, the movie got off to a start only in big cities, with PVR Cinemas (formerly Priya Village Roadshow) the most supportive.

As so often with exhibition disagreements, the underlying problem is a tussle between strong films seeking optimum screen play. Despite showing many times a week on News Corp.-owned Star pay channels, “The Simpsons’ ” theatrical appeal in India is modest, especially when competing with hot local

releases “Cash” and “Gandhi My Father,” timed for India’s 60th Independence Day celebrations on Aug. 15, and a strongish holdover for “Partner.”

But after successful wide releases of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” “Fantastic Four” and “Die Hard 4,” Warner could be forgiven for thinking that Indian auds are ready for much more Hollywood. (Ironically, Sony’s “Surf’s Up,” also released Aug. 3, may have benefited from Homer’s partial absence.)

In fact, Hollywood is having a great year at the Indian B.O.

Boosted by other hits including “Spider-Man 3″ and

“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” Hollywood’s market share is tracking at around 8%-10% this year. That’s whammo in a country with an all-powerful tradition of watching Bollywood and other local-language movies. And it compares well with a short while back when 3%-4% for Hollywood would have been considered good.

What’s making the difference is India’s hurtle toward economic modernity and the willingness of distribs to mix it up and experiment with such things as multiple-language dubbed versions.

The multiplexing of India is making more screens available, and an increasingly world-wise Indian population doesn’t want to wait for entertainment that is available elsewhere.

As five or six screeners replace single theaters, there is much more choice for cinemagoers and room for programming diversity. Hollywood movies have been the main beneficiary, though on July 27 India saw what is believed to be its first Korean pic, “The Host.”

Emergence of multiregional hardtop chains means studios can negotiate with fewer local distribs and put together more nearly simultaneous releases.

While that plays to the big marketing strengths of Hollywood distribs, it also puts today’s exhibitors — stock market-listed companies rather than mom-and-pop operations — in a stronger bargaining position. More Homeric spats seem likely.

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