Volume 5 : Cover Topic - Contemporary Indian Cinema Society & Culture (2)




The Bollywood Blockbuster

Sitabhra Sinha

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‘‘When Indians go out for an evening's entertainment … they want an evening's entertainment – in scope as well as in length. They want the full, three-generation saga, the life story, with full-throttle melodrama and comic relief, with fights and beautiful sets and aching, soulful stares. And of course with songs’’.

–Richard Corliss

INTRODUCTION

India's movie industry turns out more than 800 feature films a year in various regional languages, a quarter of which come from the Hindi-language movie industry based in Mumbai, colloquially known as Bollywood. Compare this to about 250 odd movies produced by Hollywood annually. Although it may not dominate in terms of sheer number of movies released, half of the total turnover of the Indian movie industry is actually due to Bollywood. The only comparison with any other movie industry is with that of Hollywood (and maybe, Hong Kong).

To prepare the background for the analysis presented in this paper, it is worth mentioning that in both Hollywood and Bollywood, film production is driven by financial rather than by artistic considerations. From the point of view of the industry, movies are not works of art, but commercial entities. As James Monaco points out in How To Read A Film, the expense involved in making films necessary implies that cinema has to be a very popular form, catering to the tastes of the largest segment of the population. If a film is simply a commodity, we cannot justify making its potential audience ‘‘work’’ (even if it is just working their gray cells) for their entertainment. As a consumer product, film necessarily has to be manipulative: the more visual effects a film has, the better value for money the consumer has spent, dovetailing with the ‘‘paisa-vasool’’ mentality of the typical audience of a Bollywood blockbuster. In this article, we will be concerned with the Bollywood film as a marketable product, and therefore, as an indicator of contemporary socio-economic trends, rather than as art, i.e., as a subject of critical aesthetic enquiry.

THE BLOCKBUSTER

Blockbuster is a term that has been used to mean many things. It was traditionally used in Hollywood to designate any large-scale, big budget production. In fact, movies as old as Intolerance (1916) and Gone with the wind (1939) were called blockbusters in their day. However, the term received its current association in the mid-70s when a string of movies set box-office records of previously unimaginable magnitude. Rather than being defined in terms of production costs, blockbuster became a common term for movies that perform spectacularly when on their theatrical release, earning hundreds of millions of dollars. I use the term blockbuster informally in the above sense, to indicate any high grossing movie (technically, the Indian movie industry terms a movie blockbuster when it returns 400% of its cost).

At this point, it may not be amiss to say a few words about why the blockbuster became the dominant style in moviemaking in Hollywood. In the mid-60s, Hollywood seemed to be in good health, with films like The Sound of Music (1965) yielding huge profits. However a series of problems, such as expensive films failing at the box office, TV networks stopping to bid for pictures, and decreasing theater attendance, meant that by 1969 Hollywood companies were losing over $200 million annually. One strategy to counter this pincer attack of increasing production costs and diminishing profits, was to make low-budget films (such as Easy Rider). However, what did cause a turnaround in Hollywood's fortune was investing in expensive superproductions, starting with Jaws (1975). It inaugurated what is now the standard blockbuster strategy of high production budget, heavy pre-release advertising and widest possible release to guarantee as high an opening as possible. The logic was that the news of extraordinarily high movie attendance will spur many more people to come and see the movie for themselves. As a result of this ‘‘blockbuster revolution’, the 70s witnessed an inflation in the production costs of Hollywood films unparalleled in the industry's history. Between 1972 and 1977 the average production budget for a single film increased by nearly four times the general rate of inflation. Profits rose accordingly only if the film was a huge success, so the financial risks of production were substantially multiplied. This caused a trend to more calculated strategies for making and releasing movies – fewer films were produced, and more was spent (often as high as twice the production cost) on advertising and marketing campaign to insure the films’ success. While the profits reaped by a success could be immense (Star Wars returned as much as 200 times its initial investment), the penalty of a big-budget flop (e.g., Apocalypse Now) was the possible collapse of an entire studio. To counter the risk of failure, Hollywood has adopted sophisticatd techniques of contemporary market research in order to anticipate what the public wants and then ‘‘pre-sell’’ it. Not surprisingly, producers have also embraced the philosophy of creating a need for a product they are about to sell through advertising. Indeed the costs for distribution (which includes advertising) have steadily risen with greater film output and hence increased competition, currently standing at $30 million for a high-end film. The ‘‘surprise’’ sleeper hit of recent times, My Big Fat Greek Wedding cost $5 million to produce, but its distributor actually spent over twice that amount publicizing it.

THE BOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER

Satyajit Ray, writing in 1971, had the following to say about the typical Bollywood film: ‘‘The ingredients of the average Hindi film are well known; color (Eastman preferred); songs (six or seven?) in voices one knows and trusts; dance – solo and ensemble – the more frenzied the better; had girl, good girl; bad guy, good guy; romance (but no kisses); tears, guffaws, fights, chases, melodrama; characters who exist in a social vacuum; dwellings which do not exist outside the studio floor; locations in Kulu, Manali, Ooty, Kashmir, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo … who needs to be told? … the fervor and frequency with which this prescription is applied suggests that it has become like a game with a set of rules which is being played by both the backers and makers of the films…one never thinks of questioning the rules of the game, as one never questions those of bridge or chess or cricket.’’ [‘‘An Indian New Wave?’’. in Our Films, Their Films, Orient Longman, 1976, p. 90-91]. The fact that this statement apply equally well to the Bollywood films of the past few years, probably says as much about the audience who make such movies into enormous successes, as the industry that mass-produces them year after year, according to an unchanging formula.

Western observers often comment about the length of a Bollywood movie (typically upwards of 3 hours. The only possible explanation is that this is the minimum duration required to deliver to the average Bollywood consumer ‘‘value for money’’. And what the public wants, the public gets-the ‘‘masala film’’, aptly described by Richard Corliss as ‘‘an actionadventure- romance that is expected to offer a three-hour multi-course banquet of emotional flavors, encompassing slapstics comedy, romance, violent action, social and family melodrama, and of course, a half dozen or so song-and-dance sequences’’. No wonder, first-time non-Indian viewers sometimes find such combinations a disorienting emotional ride through various genre staples that in any other cinema culture would have required three or four different films to accomodate.

Just as 1975 was a watershed year for Hollywood when Jaws became the archetypical blockbuster movie of the New Hollywood, when its receipt breached the $100 million mark, it was also an equally (i.e., a ‘‘black-box’’ model, as neural network based statistical analyzers are often referred).

ANALYSIS OF THEATRICAL RUN OF MOVIES

‘‘Far more people will see a Hollywood film on video than in its initial release. Only a small part of the population visits theaters regularly. Studios earn much more from home video than from theatrical release. So why is the movie theater still important? The theatrical screening focuses public interest: critics review the film, TV programs publicize it, and people tell others about it. The theatrical run is the film's launching pad, determining how successful it will be in other markets.’’ D. Bordwell and K. Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 7th edition, MrGraw-Hill, 2004.

Most films do not make profits in theatrical release. Worldwide, the top 10% of all films released garner 50% of all box-office receipts. The most popular 30% of films account for 80% of receipts. One of the reasons for looking at quantitative data of movie income is to explicate the reason for this concentration of earning to a few films.

In a previous study focussed on Hollywood, we had analyzed the income data for most movies released in a particular year in USA for the years 1999-2004 (roughly about 2000 movies). The two most striking observations from the data set were: (i) the total income (as well as the opening weekend income) distribution of all movies released commercially across theatres in a year follows a universally valid statistical law: a log-normal distribution. The tail, which describes the income of the highest-grossing movies, seems to obey a power-law distribution having an exponent of-3. This says something about the probability (or improbability) of how much success a movie can have-e.g., the probability of a movie being twice as successful as say Titanic (in terms of gross) will be eight times lower. One can work out from this the relative frequency of occurrence of movies with varying degrees of success. Even more surprising, the tail is quantitatively identical in the distribution for the total gross as well as the gross on the opening week. This means that, for the high-earner movies, the opening pretty much determines how it will perform over its entire theatre lifetime. It does lend support to the effectiveness of the strategy used by major studios of ensuring as high an opening attendance as possible (the classic ‘‘blockbuster’’ strategy used since Jaws) by opening the movie simultaneously on as many screens as possible. The effectiveness of this is further supported by the second striking observation, (ii) the gross per theatre of all movies (no matter how they performed in absolute terms) show the same universal time evolution, with a power law decay over upto 20 weekends after release. In other words, the per screen income of a movie is inversely proportional to the time elapsed after its release. This implies that producers/ distributors will do well to release a movie across as many screens as possible, since per theatre performance for all movies over time are fairly similar. Of course, opening a movie on a large number of screens does not necessarily guarantee that a large number of people will come to see it, thereby generating a large opening gross.

Spurred by questions from various quarters on whether these results also hold for the Indian movie industry, we have recently collected and analysed the data for movies produced in Bollywood over the period 2002-2004. The data is not of as high quality as in our earlier study; however, the results shown in Figs. 1 and 2 broadly support our previous results obtained from US releases. This points towards a remarkable universality in the audience behaviour towards movies, and blockbusters, in particular.

Theatrical exhibition in the United States is seasonally driven, with people flocking to the cinema during June-August (creating the so-called summer blockbusters) and the period between Thanksgiving to New Year's. This is clearly indicated in the data available on box office receipts from Hollywood. We also see that the film producers take advantage of these seasonal peaks in movie-house attendance by timing the release of their showcase movies to coincide with these periods. A natural question would be whether box office receipts have similar seasonal fluctuations in India. Unfortunately, the data available to us is not extensive enough to see any significant peaks in Bollywood movie receipts. However, even if there is, the producer-distributor clearly does not take this into account, as we observe that movies are released at an almost uniform rate throughout the year. In fact, even within a monthly period, movies are not preferentially released in the beginning of the month – something that one would naively expect if a distributor wanted to take advantage of the fact that people are most likely to spend on non-necessary consumption at that time.

Fig. 1 Adjusted all-India net gross for the 50 most successful movies produced by Bollywood for each year in the period 2002-2005. Data for the different years are shown using different symbols (circle : 2004, square: 2003, diamond: 2002). The gross is shown on a logarithmic axis. Koi Mil Gaya (2003) was the highest grossing movie of this period. Fig. 2 The box office net collections of Koi Mil Gaya (2003) over all India (left, shown as diamonds and in the major metros (right). The left figure also shows the reported number of prints reported (circles) and the gross per print (squares). Both figures are plotted on double-logarithmic scale. Note: The figures are not currently available.

CONCLUSION

‘‘What is unpredictable or surprising about a movie becoming a blockbuster? I can guarantee that the new Star Wars sequel will be a big hit-simply because of the existence of a large Star Wars fan base.’’ – Janos Kertesz, in conversation with the author

Most films achieve their largest audience on the opening weekend, but a few build an audience more slowly as viewers tell their friends about them. Word-of-mouth (as opposed to influencing people by advertising) has been identified as the ‘‘most potent and least manageable factor in movie marketing’’ (Lees and Berkowitz, The Movie Business, Vintage Books, NY, 1981). To counter against possible negative word-of-month effect the producer builds up a pool of potential viewers by advertising widely in the media well before the movie is released, so that only positive information is circulated. Once a desired level of anticipation has been achieved, the movie is released. Waiting for too long risks a drop in this level due to fatigue, while one cannot release too early, as not enough awarebess has been achieved to insure a bit opening. For the opening few weeks, the movie has a positive adoption level, as the advertising blitz dominates over any possible word-of-mouth process that takes time to build up. Although advertising intensity drops a few weeks after release, maintenance advertising (at a much reduced level is continued to inform people who might not have been reached by either the initial advertising blitz or through wordof- mouth. This is especially true of movies that run over longer periods of time, often benefiting from positive wordof- mouth.

Interest in a movie drops subsequent to release, not only because of negative word-of-mouth, but also with the decline of the novelty value of the film over time. Newer movies are released continuously, and unless there is a substantial positive word-of-mouth effect, the attention of the potential audience who are yet to see this movie is captured by a later released movie. Exhibitors withdraw the movie from their theaters, once its revenue drops below a critical level, thus ending the theatrical run of the movie. Although it may continue to reach newer audience through DVD (say), the film cannot hope to achieve the level of popularity that it could have achieved in its first run. In this they differ from other intellectual consumer products, such as books.

A book can have a wild surge of popularity long after its initial publication; even for books (like the ‘‘Harry Potter’’ series) which have their biggest sales – much like movies – immediately after their release, they never quite disappear from view afterwards. Newer readers keep discovering the book anew, and occasionally, this can lead to another spurt of popularity.

To understand the reason behind this difference, is to understand something about the unique nature of movies as an art-form. Books, even the most popular books, are for solitary consumption. You cannot read a book as a group activity, as part of a social occasion. But movies are very much a group experience – something made for communal cnsumption. ‘‘Going to the movies’’ is as much a social occasion (of enjoying doing something with others, i.e., ‘social bonding’) as an occasion for personal enjoyment of a work of art. This is why a movie can be very popular during its theatrical run, but can sink without a trace afterwards (e.g., wheh its DVD comes out). While Blockbuster films provide the most visible evidence of the social underpinnings of appreciating a movie, a similar mechanism (albeit, one much less apparent) may be at work even when we watch a film as a work of art.

REFERENCES

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