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Festival Plight

With URI: The Surgical Strike zooming past the Rs 150-crore mark in style and much josh left in it still, one happy trend from 2018 seems to have continued into 2019 i.e. the increasing frequency with which non-superstar-led films are scoring big at the domestic box office.

And with last week’s releases Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi and Thackeray performing fairly but failing to emulate the triple figure numbers that we have come to expect from Republic Day weekend releases, a not-so-welcome hangover from last year seems to be continuing as well – that of hitherto marquee release windows failing to deliver as expected.

In that regard, just as 2018 will be fondly remembered for the remarkable performances of films like Raazi, Stree, Badhaai Ho, AndhaDhun and more, it will also evoke sad memories of the disappointing numbers of Race 3, Thugs Of Hindostan and Zero. Not only did we expect more (much more!) from these films because of the stature and past records of their superstar leads but also because each film released in what were traditionally our most productive release windows – the Eid, Diwali and Christmas weekends, respectively.

Just how underwhelming last year’s festival season was comes through quite emphatically when you track the contribution of these three prime festival weekends over the course of the last decade. As below:

To summarise the data: releases during the Eid, Diwali and Christmas weekends typically contribute more than one-fourth of the annual collections at the Hindi box office. This figure peaked at over 32 per cent in 2016 but the following year saw it dip to below 22 per cent. That downward trend not only continued in 2018 but also fell to an all-time low, with just about 11 per cent of last year’s box office receipts accruing from the films that debuted during those three weekends. In absolute terms, 2018 was only slightly better than 2011 was – even though the overall box office has doubled from then to now. 

The decline in the relative importance of the Big 3 festival weekends during the last couple of years is also borne out by an analysis of the highest-grossing films in each year of the last decade.

As evident from the table above, the three festival weekends have usually monopolised the list of chart toppers, especially the highest-grossing film of the year. That stranglehold was broken in 2017 when April release Baahubali: The Conclusion took pole position and worse was to follow in 2018 – a total blank as far as the top three spots are concerned.

While the seeming decline of hitherto bankable release windows may be a worrying trend for the film trade, one dare say that this development is not without its silver lining. 

For too long now, we have followed a pretty predictable path to choosing release dates for our films – the biggies lay down their markers on our presumed biggest weekends well in advance and the others scramble to gather the crumbs. Hence, our typically lopsided calendar, where on the one hand you have a handful of films holding sway over not only the five to six key weekends but also the preceding and following weeks because their reputations are so intimidating, while the remaining weekends see a glut of small- and medium-budget releases struggling to get anywhere close to a decent showcasing in terms of screens.

With precedents falling by the wayside – both in terms of what were once fertile as well as barren release territories – we will hopefully see a much more balanced release calendar and one in which filmmakers need not fret too much about not snagging a festival weekend.

After all, as URI: The Surgical Strike has shown us by making the numbers it has despite debuting in a period that was once considered the graveyard of releases, any weekend can now potentially spark off celebrations a la Eid, Diwali or Christmas… if (and that’s a very big if!) the content is right.

- Nitin Tej Ahuja


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