The man who has seen it all, shares sepia-toned memories from the pre-digital, pre-multiplex era
I started my career in distribution independent of my family business, in the early 90s. My first film was Yeh Dillagi, followed by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Since my family had been in the exhibition-cum-distribution business for a long time, I followed suit. I am privileged to have witnessed all the changes in the business over a long period of time, which I have attempted to summarise below:
1. In those years, films used to enjoy a very, very long run. Sometimes, a film would even run for a couple of years. This was considered a ‘golden period’ and what more could an exhibitor ask for? It was fascinating. I don’t think any other country has experienced a phenomenon like this. Today, a record-breaking collections period is a maximum four weeks. After that, the movie altogether vanishes from cinemas. There has been a sea change in the longevity of a film since those days. And, as a distributor, I had the chance to be a part of this with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which ran for years. It ran for over a year even in the popular cinemas. The rights of that film are no longer with me and it continues to run in cinemas.
2.We used to have reels or prints of films in those days, whereas this is the era of digital cinema. I prefer the way things are now as it saves a lot of money, it is much cheaper to distribute, and films have a much wider reach. Contrast this with times when we used to store prints in warehouses! Eliminating this itself saves us a chunk of money. This is another radical change.
3.The third major change is the transition from single screens to multiplexes, which sometimes contribute as much as 80 to 90 per cent of a film’s revenue. Now, we have more cinemas and more screens. Also, cinemas offer movie-goers so many facilities today, which was not possible earlier.
4.I remember releasing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in times when every territory had a different distributor. Although that system continues today, one can also have one single distributor releasing a film pan-India. This is another major change. In those days, a producer had to deal with minimum 13 distributors from each territory whereas today he has to deal with one distributor who handles the entire business for him. So that has also been a very radical change in distribution.
5.Back in the day, we used to release a film gradually. We would begin with a limited number of screens, and pan-India meant 100-150 cinemas. Then, if the film worked, the number of prints would go up to 600-700. Now, it’s the reverse – we go wide and then shrink. Earlier, for a very successful film, its first-week numbers could be the lower then the following weeks, whereas the first-week numbers are now usually the highest in terms of gross collections. This is because the distribution pattern has reversed.
6.Another turning point, where distribution is concerned was seen with the film Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! In fact, one can categorise distribution into the pre- and post-Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! eras. With this film, the trade adopted a new release strategy and was able to curb piracy. Before that, producers were bleeding money to piracy as pirated film video and CDs were doing roaring business. They were therefore going wide to release a film, to beat video piracy. But, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! released in a limited way and producers and distributors let word-of-mouth do the rest. The number of screens was increased subsequently.
So before the film reached any towns, B-towns or C-towns, the audience already knew about the film, the audience knew all about the film and was waiting for it to release locally. This film was therefore a trendsetter in terms of longevity post the video piracy days. Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! was revolutionary in the new-age, pre-multiplex days, in terms of distributing strategy, release pattern and curbing piracy.
7.Earlier, distributors like myself, used to book cinemas three to four months prior to the release of a film. Nowadays, we start booking cinemas only a week prior to the film’s release.
Nowadays the release date is often decided on launch of the film itself unlike earlier release dates would be decided in accordance to the availability of the main cinemas. So a release date depended on when the cinema in question was scheduled to have a slot free. We would get to know this a little in advance and make our bookings accordingly.
So, earlier, a release date was decided by the availability of the cinema, which is not not how it is today. Now, single screens business has lessened considerably. Then they were the money spinners. Now the competition for screens is intense.
In the main cinemas, a film would run for an entire year. It was huge. I remember Hum Aapke… ran in Liberty, Bombay, for two years. It was an amazing feeling. Collections would increase every day and the cinemas used to run to capacities and one could see the HOUSE FULL boards outside cinemas. Now this seems to be a rarity.
In those days, since we wanted to save as much money as we could on the cost on prints, we used to ‘shuttle’ prints between cinemas located close to each other. Someone would literally rush with the reels from one cinema to another. So we used to keep a gap of 30 minutes between show timings in those cinemas. Moving to digital changed all that. Also, while we once had a maximum four to five shows a day in a given cinema, we now have multiple shows running in a multiplex, every day.
After a print had exhausted its run in a particular cinema in a A-Tier city,it used to be taken to cinemas in B-Tier and C-Tier city. Cinemas in all tier cities could not be released simultaneously due to high cost of the prints. One had to wait for the film to complete its run in A-Tier cities, so that we could use the print in smaller centres.
As told to Soumita Sengupta