'Box office clash' has become as integral a part of the Indian film trade terminology as "100 core." Whenever two or more films announce the same release date, all hell breaks loose, at least in the way the 'clash' is reported.
The very connotation of the word is that of cut-throat competition, implying two films are given to eat into each other's business if they release on the same day or even a few days apart. While that may not be the case every time, and a film may actually aid another releasing on the same day, the Coronavirus outbreak has eliminated or minimised the conflict.
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This week, as many as four films will release around the same date. Honey Trehan's whodunit Raat Akeli Hai (Netflix), Anu Menon's biographical drama Shakuntala Devi (Amazon Prime Video), and Rajesh Krishnan's comedy Lootcase (Disney+ Hotstar) will release this Friday on 31 July, whereas Tigmanshu Dhulia's crime drama Yaara will release on ZEE5 a day earlier on 30 July.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a still from for Raat Akeli Hai
But the reports of a 'clash' have been few and far between. The only discussion around this 'digital clash' is that it is as unprecedented as the times we are living in. All of these films were scheduled for theatrical releases this year before the coronavirus outbreak closed the theatres. In an exercise that most notably started with Amazon Prime Video acquiring Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo in May, all the above streaming platforms now boast of similar acquisitions that will be spread across the next few months.
It was a spectacle sport to track the opening box office numbers of the films, and compare them without factoring into their respective budgets and screen counts. However, since the streaming platforms do not disclose their viewership, numbers will not dictate the conversations around the films this weekend and beyond.
Of course, one or two films may get the upper hand when it comes to leading the conversation on social media, online forums, and review columns. But the others may pick up eventually courtesy word-of-mouth. That is usually the case with smaller films that release in theatres, but by the time they gain traction organically, their theatrical run gets exhausted.
Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi
The physical space of an exhibition centre, however, is not a constraint for digital platforms at the moment. In a country where the ratio of theatres to the population as well as to the number of films churned out every year is highly skewed towards the latter, the need for more exhibition centres has often been stressed upon. But the migration to streaming platforms saves the economic hurdles that come with the challenge of combating high screen density, like paucity of land and heavy cost of expanding physical infrastructure.
In fact, there have been numerous films which have enjoyed a new life only when they debuted on streaming platforms after a disappointing theatrical run. This renewed interest bears testimony to the long shelf life of a film on a streaming platform.
Additionally, a streaming platform also allows an equitable distribution of the film geographically. There have been instances of films which consider certain distribution sectors as their key markets, but end up getting far less screens in those areas. A tie-up with a multiplex like PVR and INOX will allow the film to travel as far as where multiplexes of these chains operate. For instance, Anurag Kashyap's 2018 sports drama Mukkabaaz was reduced to a very limited release in Uttar Pradesh, the state where the story was set, and the audience which the makers considered its primary target.
If a film catering to the masses dominates the single screens, that usually robs the opportunity of a smaller film to gain a foothold in crucial areas where multiplexes do not operate. But in the case of a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, a direct-to-digital release amounts to the exhibition across over 190 countries at least, including the key markets.
The clash sometimes ends up benefiting the smaller film as well. The bigger player gets say, four out of five screens at a multiplex, allowing the smaller one to reserve the rest. In the absence of a tentpole releasing around the same time, the multiplex often chooses to forego the smaller film as it would not meet the costs of operating that screen, as per conventional wisdom. But in the streaming ecosystem, a small film does not have to depend on a bigger one to ensure its little corner in a multiplex. On a digital platform, it exists, and often thrives, as an independent entity.
Even when the theatres reopen, and the ratio between the supply and capacity is at an all-time high, streaming platforms will prove to be great levellers. One may not have the numbers to prove that, but the decision of a film to opt for a digital release over a theatrical one on the same day should not be treated as a compromise.
A Mid-Day report analyses tracking agency Ormax Media's stats to reveal Mukesh Chhabra's romantic drama Dil Bechara, that released on Disney+ Hotstar (also made available to all non-subscribers) last week, had 95 million viewers tuning into watch the film within the first 24 hours. When translated to a box office opening (multiplied by the average ticket price of Rs 100), the figure turns out to be a staggering Rs 950 crore.
If the numbers are to be trusted, the figure is by no measure a mean feat. And where the streaming platforms register an advantage is that another film releasing on the same day can very well rake in similar numbers because one is not pitted against the other. Moreover, these platforms let us rise above numerics, and celebrate cinema like it ought to be " a confluence of cultures, rather than a clash of numbers.
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