Bollywood may be broken and the blame is on itself.
This is the verdict of one of its biggest and brightest stars after the latest flop of a Hindi-language film industry that has long fascinated Indians and the world, with its dazzling brand of escapism on the big screen that sings and dances.
“Movies don’t work – it’s our fault, it’s my fault,” Akshay Kumar told reporters last month after his new movie Raksha Bandhan exploded at the box office. “I have to make the changes, I have to figure out what the audience wants. I want to dismantle my way of thinking about what kind of movies I should be doing.”
The rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime during the Covid pandemic has conspired with growing Bollywood fatigue among younger generations who view many of its films as outdated and old-fashioned.
Of Bollywood’s 26 releases this year, 20 – or 77% – were flops, defined as losing half or more of their investment, according to the website Koimoi, which tracks industry data. That’s about double the failure rate of 39% in 2019 before the pandemic shook society and forced hundreds of millions of Indians to wean themselves from cinemas, the decades-long bastion of Bollywood and his main source of income.
Christina Sundaresan, 40, a mother of two teenage girls in Mumbai, used to see at least one Bollywood movie a week in cinemas before the pandemic. Now she rarely goes there.
“I mean, they can be watched when you need a laugh, but I wouldn’t go to the theater for them,” she said. “My daughters used to watch all the movies with us, but now they are not interested either. They really like the Korean shows and series that are broadcast on these streaming platforms.”
They are not the only ones to convert to international streaming services, which arrived relatively late in India – Netflix and Amazon Prime launched in 2016 – offering varied content made in America and Europe as well as India and elsewhere in Asia, from Parasite and Avengers to Squid Game and Game of Thrones.
A quarter of India’s 1.4 billion people now use these services, up from around 12% in 2019, according to market data firm Statista. The figure is expected to reach 31% by 2027, and there is room to grow; participation is around 80% in North America, for example.
The core issue
India’s box office revenue rose every year for a decade to reach around $2 billion in 2019 before crashing during the pandemic. They show few signs of rebounding.
Ticket sales have fallen every month since March this year, sequentially, according to industry trackers. Revenues from Bollywood films in particular are expected to fall 45% in the July-September quarter from pre-Covid levels, according to research by investment bank Elara Capital.
Bollywood can no longer take audiences for granted and must adapt if it hopes to survive and thrive, according to Reuters interviews with moviegoers, as well as half a dozen industry players, including producers, film distributors and cinema exhibitors.
Four of the executives painted a picture of confusion and concern in the industry as studios release films that were supposed to hit the market before the pandemic hit and consumer tastes have changed with the rise of streamers, known in India as OTT or over-the-top services.
The history is the problem
Fans of Bollywood, a century-old institution, say it can evolve to stay relevant. Recent changes to better reflect society include the introduction of same-sex relationships and gender-changing characters, for example. The writing was on the wall last month when a pair of big-budget films bombed despite starring two of Bollywood’s box office darlings, Kumar and Aamir Khan.
The poor screening of Kumar’s Raksha Bandhanabout the bond between a brother and sisters, prompted the actor’s comments about the movies not working. Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddhaa remake of the 1994 Hollywood hit Forrest Gumponly grossed around INR560 million in ticket sales – about a quarter of its budget – despite being released on August 11, on the eve of a Long Weekend party.
The flops represented steep reversals for the two A-listers, action and comedy favorites whose films are known to recoup all costs in the first week over the years.
A senior Bollywood producer, who has two big-budget films pending release, told Reuters on condition of anonymity that producers are “recalibrating everything” for new projects underway, from budgets and scripts to actors’ choices. “We have to adapt to the audience and what they want,” the producer said, but added, “I don’t have the answers anymore.”
Cut of the masses
The cost of going to the cinema is another key issue cited by moviegoers and industry players at a time when India, like much of the world, is grappling with a cost of living crisis.
A trip to the cinema on the big screen can typically cost a family of four between INR3,000 and 5,000 ($35 to $60), a high price in a country where many people live in poverty, the average annual income is around INR160,000 and monthly subscription fees for streaming services like Netflix start at around INR150.
“There has to be a correction somewhere – budgets need to be reworked and the cost of going to the cinema also needs to be reduced,” said Anil Thadani, who owns a film production and distribution company and is married to Bollywood actor Raveena Tandon. “The Hindi film industry makes films cut from the masses. A lot of our people don’t always identify with these films.”
Karan Taurani, media analyst at Elara Capital, said he expects a rebalancing of the fees paid to major cast members, with most producers moving towards a revenue-sharing model and a larger portion of the production budget. a film going to production and special effects.
“It’s been over five months since the cinemas were fully functional and only three movies were hits – and not all of those three are big stars,” he added. There will be no immediate Bollywood overhaul, Taurani warned. “The shake-up will take place early next year when the current crop of films that were made during and before the pandemic is complete.”
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