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Summer Bummer

Misery is said to love company. So here’s some ‘good’ bad news for an industry reeling from wave after wave of shocks emanating from the box office: we are not alone!

North America, which includes the United States and Canada and is the home market of the Hollywood film industry, has just reported a record-breaking poor performance during its summer season. The collections of USD 3.83 billion registered during this period marked a 14.6 per cent decline from last summer’s numbers – the steepest-ever year-on-year fall. This year’s summer was the first since 2006 to not notch up USD 4 billion in revenues and perhaps the most worrying statistic of all: actual attendance, i.e. footfalls or tickets sold, plummeted to 25-year lows.

A quick primer on the North American film trade. Just as we have our Diwali, Eid, Christmas and a few other marquee weekends during which our biggest films are released and (in theory at least) our biggest business is amassed, Hollywood targets two key time periods – the ‘Summer Season’, which spans May to end-August, and the ‘Holiday Season’, which starts late November and runs through the Christmas and New Year holidays.

As a thumb rule, the summer season contributes almost half of North America’s annual theatrical revenues and that underlines its critical importance not only in financial terms but also as a barometer of the health of the market.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the summer of despair has set the alarm bells ringing in Hollywood. We, the Hindi film trade, have been hearing that heart-sinking siren for a while now!

While there can be no escaping – nor absolution – from the fact that the hole we are in is mostly of our own digging, the news that all’s not well in the world’s most important film market either would suggest that perhaps there is a seismic (and universal) change underway in terms of audience tastes and/or the way films are consumed that goes beyond the regular rise and fall of business cycles.

After all, the slump neither here nor in North America can be attributed to any lack of firepower expended by both industries. While we’ve had virtually all our big box office stars feature in releases during the last few months – Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar, Ranbir Kapoor, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, among others – Hollywood too rolled out some massive artillery with films like King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Lights, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy and Baywatch with such usually bankable stars as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and more. Unfortunately, in most cases and in both markets, the big guns ended up either shooting blanks or falling well short of their targets.

So what exactly is going on and how do we navigate out of the choppy waters that we find ourselves in?

That, quite literally, is the life-and-death question that filmmakers across the world have to find the answer/s to. And to set the ball rolling for this crucial introspection, here are some supplementary questions:

– Are we in a phase of an accelerated and revolutionary – rather than evolutionary – generational change? Many of us grew up in a time when tastes, whether in terms of narratives or narrative styles or onscreen talents, transformed gradually. It was quite common for teenagers to like the same films/film stars that also appealed to their parents and grandparents. Is that era of universal and abiding appeal now over and have we been caught napping in keeping up with the preferences of the youth?

– To what extent has the expansion (read: explosion) of entertainment options, especially in the directly co-relatable audio-visual arena, i.e. television and video streaming websites/apps, affected the propensity to watch films in cinema halls?

– What role does social media play in deterring potential audiences by amplifying bad word-of-mouth – irrespective of whether that critique is justified or not?

– What is the co-relation between ticket prices and footfalls? Mind you, this is not necessarily a repetition of the ‘prices-are-too-high’ lamentation. It is within the realm of possibility that the demand for film tickets is relatively price inelastic. Meaning, lowering prices may not attract a substantial chunk of new viewers while the high level of prices may not deter the hardcore film buff. But whatever the dynamic between price and demand, we need to know for sure. It’s too important to be a matter of conjecture.

We may have posed the questions but don’t claim to have all the answers. Perhaps no single individual/body does. It is only through a shared and honest introspection/investigation that we can hope to first understand, and then address, this crisis. Because a crisis it certainly is.

Lest this editorial seem alarmist, let us at least conclude on a positive note. Another interesting commonality in the midst of all the gloom and doom at home and abroad is the fact that there have been some outstanding successes too. Just as we had Baahubali: The Conclusion shattering all records and surprise hits like Hindi Medium, Hollywood too saw films like Wonder WomanBaby DriverGirls Trip and Spider-Man: Homecoming performing well above their perceived potential.

So while cinema may be down, it is certainly not out. And the writing on the wall is this: it is no longer a case of survival of the fittest… it’s now about survival of the finest.

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