Digital Drives Indian Box Office to Higher Stakes

Hollywood benefits as technology helps satiate Indian auds’ hunger for movies, while the sector experiences huge growth

Ugly Review

The current story of Indian cinema is that of unprecedented growth and rapid change. In 2011, consulting firm KPMG predicted a 7% growth rate in India’s domestic theatrical sector for 2012. Instead, it grew 23.8%. Total revenues, including domestic and overseas theatrical, homevideo, cable and satellite and other ancillary revenue streams raked in 112.4 billion rupees ($2.1 billion). It is now projected to grow 21% annually to hit $3.6 billion by 2017.

Apart from the insatiable appetite of Indian audiences for home-grown films, the engine of growth and change has been the rapid digitization of the country’s 12,000 screens with nearly 80% now converted.

Due to the relative cheapness of non-DCI compliant digital prints and satellite delivery, films can be shown on digital screens in tiny cinemas in small-town India. Digital prints also allow films to open wider than ever before. Big-budget pics with A-list stars now routinely open on 3,500 screens and usually make 60%-70% of their revenues in the opening week.

Hollywood’s market share has grown to 8.5% with 35% of that total coming from dubbed versions. P&A spend is up. “The Avengers,” for example, opened on 1,000 screens across India and the marketing spend was some $1 million, a fraction under what a big-budget local film would spend. It grossed $12.6 million, second only to the $14.5 million collected by “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the $17 million for “Life of Pi,” which starred local hero Irrfan Khan.

Much of the growth has been driven by multiplexes. Though screens number only around 1,500, they are usually located in malls and, much like in the West, shopping combined with food and a movie is now a day out for a family in most urban centers. The rise in the number of multiplexes has encouraged distributors to release smaller independent films, something unheard of even five years ago. The success of these films, coupled with changing audience tastes and a burgeoning independent cinema movement characterized by new and differently told stories, is exposing auds to new themes and filmmaking trends.

“Indians were used to one kind of cinema, but now there is a clean divide and younger audiences embrace edgy films while the older ones complain,” says filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who was in Cannes last year with “Gangs of Wasseypur” and will be back on the Croisette with “Ugly” this year.

Indeed, the blockbuster “masala” films — where a multitude of genres are crammed into one film and leavened with several songs — are still the top draws in India. Last year, two of the biggest hits, “Ek tha Tiger” ($37 million) and “Thuppakki” ($33 million), were of that genre.

But piracy remains a problem. According to the MPA, the Indian film industry lost $1.2 billion to piracy in 2012. Kashyap feels that this could be a blessing in disguise.

“The audiences are opening up. Everything is opening up. One big reason for change is (peer-to-peer file-sharing sites) torrents — festivals, multiplexes and torrents. Piracy is changing Indian cinema. Economically piracy is bad, culturally it is the biggest boon,” he says, adding that younger audiences are exposed to world cinema.

“A whole new generation is asking why we can’t have those kinds of realistic films,” he says.

Kashyap points to the South Indian Tamil-language filmmaking center of Chennai, where pirated world cinema titles are widely available.

Some markets reflect this theory: Most big-ticket, star-driven Tamil films are tanking at the box office while low-budget films with strong, unusual storylines made by, and starring, unknowns are finding favor with audiences. These include horror tale “Pizza” ($279,000 budget, $1.5 million gross), centering on a delivery boy’s bloody interaction with ghosts, and comedy “Naduvula konjam pakkatha kaanom” (“There Are Pages Missing”) ($148,000 budget, $1.1 million gross). “Naduvula” revolves around a bridegroom with amnesia and his friends who try to get him to the wedding on time without anyone being the wiser about his memory problems.

“Since the last decade, there has been a shift with contemporary filmmakers across the country and not just Bollywood,” says Nina Lath Gupta, managing director of India’s National Film Development Corp. where Cannes Critics’ Week selection “The Lunchbox” was developed.

These filmmakers have progressively been adopting a universal language and technique in making their films, while retaining the local and grassroots flavor of Indian culture, paving the way for Indian films in the international markets. With this, the audiences today have a wider genre of films to choose from, leading to a constant change in tastes and preferences.

Birth of a Passion
Indians first saw cinema in 1896 when the Lumiere shorts were screened in what was then Bombay

Early Steps: The first Indian short was Hiralal Sen’s “The Flower of Persia” (1898).

Longer Look: The first Indian feature was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra” (1913). Phalke also made the first animated short, “Agkadyanchi mouj” (1915).

Italian Connection: Madan Theaters’ “Nala Damayanti” (1921) was co-directed by India’s Jyotish Bannerjee and Italy’s Eugenio de Liguoro. The success of this led Madan to team with Societa Italiana Cines for India’s first international co-production, “Savitri Satyavan” (1923), directed by Giorgio Mannini.

First Talkie: Ardeshir Irani’s “Alam ara” (1931).

Color Coordinated: Though V. Shantaram’s “Sairandhri” (1933) had scenes in color, it was processed in Germany, thus Moti B. Gidvani’s locally processed “Kisan kanya” (1937) is considered India’s first color film.

Toon Time: Gunamoy Banerjee’s “The Pea Brothers” is India’s first animated feature.

Wider View: Guru Dutt’s “Kaagaz ke phool” (1959) is India’s first Cinemascope film.

New Depth: Jijo Punnoose’s “My Dear Kuttichathan” (1984) is India’s first 3D film.

Bigger Screen: Vijay Krishna Acharya’s “Dhoom 3,” due for a Christmas release, will be India’s first Imax film.

1,000-Plus: The number of films produced each year in India.