The Hollywood evolution in India
For as long as I can recall, there is one single question we ask ourselves – what pulls audiences to the theatres? The one undeniable truth is that the Indian audience has loved its stars for as long as 100 years! They talk and sing and dance like their heroes, at weddings, their baby showers, their 18th birthdays, on those long drives, or stuck in traffic on the Western Express Highway. They take it to heart. But it is right here – at the heart of it all, where things are changing. They have been slowly over the last decade – but more rapidly over the last 24 months. And whilst change is constant – in this case it is also disruptive. And change isn’t just about how an iconic film from Hyderabad spoke to audiences in Mumbai, Gujarat, Punjab and much more. It is also about what Sairat, Natsamrat and Lai Bhaari did – and it is also definitely about what The Jungle Book and the Avengers franchise did in India. It is from this change that growth will come – and that one feels will redefine what works – yet again. What is common across all these movies is that they pulled in audiences pan India in a way we have never seen before, what was different across these movies, was the original language of the movie. There hasn’t been a 24-month period quite like this!
In the 80s, going to watch an English movie in a cinema hall was a relatively rare experience. There were fewer screens playing English movies, and most of the ones that did, would only dedicate a limited number of shows to it. For the audience, that meant a willingness to travel outside the neighborhood and preferred show-timings. Only a handful of Hollywood movies got released in select theatres after the film had a successful run in western English-speaking markets.
And then in the 90s, VHS tapes happened, cable television happened – heck television went color across the country! Audiences suddenly had never seen before access to Cinema. And going to the closest single screen was a trek which one did not have to undertake. The humongous single screens were not necessarily packed, golden jubilees had become a thing of the past, and for those who didn’t get the American accent – movies even had subtitles at home on their TV sets!
There was a definite deterioration of cinemas. People needed a better reason to get out to watch content.
This is perhaps why the Indian multiplex was born. Spearheaded by the Delhi’s old Anupam Cinema, a refurbished, swanky, international style facility with more than one screen was put into gear. Upmarket Saket, New Delhi in 1997 saw the local family-run exhibitors, (Priya Exhibitors Ltd), tie up with the Australian Village Roadshow Ltd to this new avatar, and re-launched themselves as PVR Anupam.
This was also the time of an influx of international brands in the Indian market, the booming Indian middle-class – in search for wider, international caliber entertainment choices. And PVR Anupam and other such exhibition revamps catered to just that. Success here – meant expansions – to other cities and amongst other chains. Exhibitors needed more content to run through the day across screens. Complementing this development was the willingness of Hollywood Studios – who wanted to experiment and cultivate new markets by sending prints to Indian multiplexes.
Showcasing an English movie in cinemas however, remained an expensive affair compared to Indian ones. A single print would cost somewhere between INR 50,000 to 70,000! The positive, the logistics involved in international shipping, custom clearances, DTS disks – all made it clunky. It was worth thinking about the ROI of Hollywood films in cinemas.
One single print would be shuttled between theatres to recover its high cost. Exhibitors in India had to wait for another English-speaking market to finish a film’s run, and then give them second runs – this second-hand model was cheaper – but far from ideal. Jurassic Park (1994) was perhaps the first big English release of the 90s that had a resounding impact on what the potential of Hollywood in India could be. The film was dubbed in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi – as Badi Chipkali – and saw several takers. Although the dubbing process took nearly a year – the film saw a delayed release – but when it did, the film ran for over 6 months in Indian cinemas!
Exhibitors and distributors knew there was something there – but the economics were still tough. Despite the success that Spielberg’s Jurassic Park had seen, three years later in 1998 when the movie phenomenon James Cameron’s Titanic was released – only about 10 prints of the film entered India. I still remember the long never-ending lines outside Regal theatre in Colaba where it was impossible to get tickets for the full week! And the film grew. Celine Dion’s My heart will go on was played on a loop – and urban India loved Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio. The movie reportedly ran for nearly 18 months with an expanded release of close to 90 prints! At the time, the average ticket price was as low as `40! The late show at Sterling in Mumbai was packed even on weekdays, just as long as there was an English movie playing!
The tectonic shift happened in 1999; the release of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace – was the beginning of the transition from analogue to digital prints. It took 15 years for it to become pan – India – but it began in the US in 1999 with just 2 screens. This meant – reduced costs, satellite deliveries, easier projection, negligible logistics and so much more. The story on VPF is for another time, but suffice to say, that digitization made the math make sense for the Hollywood brand in India. Reach to the second and third tier was widened for Hollywood exponentially.
The exposure to international content, increased travel, the prolific nature of the satellite television influx – all contributed to greater affinity and acceptance of content from Hollywood – which was both universal in genre and was of spectacular cinematic value.
The internet only contributed to this familiarity. It did make the world a smaller place. And from the early 2000s we began to see English language films being released in India day and date with other English speaking markets. The Indian audience was aware, receptive and curious and an important contributor to international revenues. Studios set up offices in India to market and distribute their content and feed the need of the moment.
In December 2009 with the release of James Cameron’s much awaited 3D sci-fi film Avatar where they seamlessly combined live-action and computer-generated characters with live environments – India, like the rest of the world invested in 3D projection systems. The film released with around 700 prints – and in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and English – and one week before 3 Idiots. The second weekend saw no reduction in showcasing – there was demand for this product – it was a visual spectacle – and Indian audiences wanted in! The film earned a staggering number at the Indian box office. It was an equal combination of the universality of the theme of the film, its simple – yet provocative plot – and the visual spectacle.
Marvel Studios’ Iron Man, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Ice Age, X Men Origins: Wolverine – all added to the access that the Indian consumer wanted. They were all available in 3D, they were all dubbed in local languages – and they were all finding new audiences.
Today, nearly a decade later – we seemed to have taken a quantum leap on all fronts. Let us begin however – with what is most intrinsic – localization. The strongest case of success because of the seriousness given to this aspect – has been Disney’s The Jungle Book.
Here was an opportunity recognized by the Studio at the right time. The local context was given critical thought. It was a story set in an Indian jungle. But it had no Indian superstar cast, item songs, flipping cars or aspirational locations. But it was a ripe opportunity, the way we saw it. Localization at this point was redefined – and not just limited to getting the film dubbed. The Studio worked to on-board writing talent (Mayur Puri) with who they had worked earlier (ABCD), revered musical talent (Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar) who had a legacy connect with an earlier rendition of the story and song, A rate acting talent (Priyanka Chopra, Shefali Shah, Irrfan Khan, Nana Patekar and Om Puri) and a unparallel and robust local marketing and PR strategy. The final coup was bringing in the Indian origin Mowgli – the 8-year-old actor, Neel Sethi to interact with the Indian media. The distribution planning was equally critical. The release date of the film was advanced before its North America release to maximise the post exam period in India. That was the confidence in the content of the film. And it showed in every move we made. People were singing “Jungle jungle baat chali hai, pata chala hai…”
The film released across 1250 screens in India across Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and English – and ran for over 30 weeks! It became a milestone and stays un-beaten as the highest grossing Hollywood film in India – almost twice as much as the second highest grosser in the same category.
The number of dubbed English films have grown from 7% about a decade ago to a staggering 50% today – Hollywood product is clearly serious about localization – a move in the right direction.
Perhaps worth a mention is a reverse example – of an Indian film – correctly localized working its charm at the box office of an International Market. Case in point – Dangal in China. The film was dubbed in Chinese with leading local talent voicing for Aamir Khan, the marketing and PR efforts ensured that the film was anticipated highly in the region. Khan travelled to China for a spectacular junket that was kicked off at the Beijing Film Festival, thereby leveraging the National and International press core present there. The junket itinerary which panned across both Beijing and Shanghai, ranged from photo-ops with Pandas, martial arts sessions, reality shows, interacting with students and sports enthusiasts, one on one interviews with all major outlets amongst other initiatives. The film closed 8 weeks after its release in China, at a staggering 60 times that of the first day’s collection in the region!
But it isn’t a one stop shop. While localization goes a long way in drawing a connect in the minds of an audience, and bringing content closer to home – especially in a country like India, where we have an abundant and emotional connect with local movies; it can only take a film thus far. Eventually – the content has to resonate.
And content that appeals across cultures is hard to come by. And successful films are usually those – who hit the nail on the head with the universality at the heart of their story. Good vs evil, redemption, revenge, coming of age themes, the victory of David over Goliath – sounds familiar? It is. Entrenched in the Indian story telling tradition – these themes are also universal – and resonate cross cultures. It is perhaps why The Jungle Book made sense across markets, and Superheroes work in India as much as they do in the West or the Far East.
Of the top ten Hollywood films in India, 7 belong to genres which one could generalise are universal – be it creature features, disaster films, horror, good vs evil plots, redemption plots, superheroes saving the world. English Horror movies in fact have a fan base in India and we have seen it over the years, where a movie like Conjuring 2 will gross more than Hindi Medium will in Indian theatres. Films which are inherently language agnostic – and often enough devoid of equivalent Indian avatars.
These movies often acquire a cult status, and a loyal dedicated audience.
The average duration of an English movie tends to be around 2 hours, this really is a big plus in choosing to watch an English movie over any local movie. It is time for us to adapt local storytelling to changing audience attention spans!
Perhaps we should also shine the light on Hollywood narratives becoming more diverse. Talent across cultures and ethnicities, stories set in space which belongs to no one, or lands which are fantastical. It is today a lot easier to walk into an English film in an Indian theatre and connect than ever was before.
Another truth about the Indian audience that one could generalise about is that they love stories they can connect with and continue watching the character and story progressions. If something has resonated with them the first time around – they come back for more.
They like being invested in the characters, the plot lines and are likely to bring their friends and families the second time around. This explain why ABCD, Baahubali, Dhoom, Krrish have so much love amongst audiences. This also holds true for Hollywood in India – be in the Fast and The Furious, Bond – or the entire gamut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Marvel releases in India have so far generated a total of 102.16 million admissions at the Indian box office. These have in fact become “event films”.
Over the last 24 – 36 months, we have seen a dramatic shift in the way content is consumed. With the growing popularity and acceptance of digital platforms, and bettered data connectivity – Indian audiences have found alternatives to cinemas in their homes. Entertainment is no longer a 3 hour experience, it involves binge watching 7–10 episodes over a day off, it involves curated playlists served to consumer –based on what he / she likes, it involves watching what you like – when you like, pausing to answer a phone call, access to un-ending International content and more than ever legitimate consumption at home in less than 4–6 weeks of its theatrical run. The audience is increasingly welcoming of a wide variety of formats and narrative structures. It is worth considering this as a threat – but perhaps if one were to flip it on its head – it is also where the next audience revolution will come from. Because now, they are open to a wider array of stories and experiences and – more than ever, want to go to the theatre for a “cinematic event” – often found in Hollywood spectacles. IMAX, 3D, Dolby Atmos, 4DX, VR lounges are available to the Indian audience – and we are on the ebb of so much more that the cinemas will offer.
More than once, a Hollywood tent pole has outdone a big-budget Indian film. The Jungle Book was not just the highest grossing Hollywood film in India, but was also the third highest film across all languages in 2016!
What we see changing today is also the screen where content is being watched. It is so very compelling to binge watch the high-quality content that is all around us across digital services. We see the independent movie industry in the west moving largely to non-theatrical windows. At a time like this, pulling an audience to a theatre is even more challenging. Word of mouth, rotten tomato scores, IMDB ratings are way more influential in decision making than any other factor. Even a bankable genre like the superhero genre, needs to be treated with fun, irreverence, humor, empowerment in movies like Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool.
As an industry, across languages, it is now our responsibility to nurture the theatre going experience and habit and to give our audience what they want at the movies! It is up to us!
(Written by Amrita Pandey – Vice President, Studios, Disney India)