2009: Bollywood's Bad Year

For most observers, 2009 was year of mixed fortunes for Bollywood. While the industry took efforts to globalize and some of its talent got global recognition in the form of awards, it had a lean year on the domestic front.

A multiplex strike and a drought of hits got the industry into a tizzy. The saving grace was the end of the year Xmas release, the Raj Kumar Hirani-directed Aamir Khan starrer 3 Idiots that went on to become the highest grossing Hindi film ever with a gross collection of Rs 3.15 billion and counting.

The year‘s highlight was the aggressive moves by the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Big Pictures into Hollywood. Reliance Big and American filmmaking icon Steven Spielberg locked the first phase of financing, sealing an amount of $825 million that would allow the joint venture to make six films annually for global audiences.

Reliance Big Pictures also signed script development agreements with Nicolas Cage‘s Saturn Films, Jim Carrey‘s JC 23 Entertainment, George Clooney‘s Smokehouse Productions, Chris Columbus‘ 1492 Pictures, Tom Hanks‘ Playtone Productions, Brad Pitt‘s Plan B Entertainment, Jay Roach‘s Everyman Pictures, Brett Ratner‘s Rat Entertainment, Julia Roberts‘ Red Om Films and Ron Howard‘s Imagine Entertainment.

Karan Johar‘s Dharma Productions and Shah Rukh Khan‘s Red Chillies Entertainment finalised an arrangement with the Murdoch owned Fox studios in the middle of the year for the then under-production My Name Is Khan.

Under this, Fox Star Studios would be marketing and distributing the film in India, while Fox Searchlight Pictures (which was responsible for the marketing of Slumdog Millionaire and Avatar) would handle the American release. US major studio Twentieth Century Fox would coordinate the release outside the US and India.

The real biggie was the winning of globally renowned awards by Indian talent - namely AR Rahman, lyricist Gulzar and Resul Pookutty. Rahman pocketed so many awards for his music and songs for Slumdog Millionaire that he probably has lost count of them.

Two Oscars (one jointly with Gulzar for the song Jai Ho), a BAFTA, a Critics Choice Award, a Golden Globe, and three Grammy nominations, among several others. Pookutty, on the other hand, walked away with a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award for his involvement in the film as a sound engineer.

2009 was the year when the global financial turmoil took its toll on Bollywood, forcing production houses to scale back. Adding to its woes were the general elections, cricket bonanza IPL which forced audiences to stay glued to their TV sets, and the multiplex faceoff between exhibitors and distributors.

The second quarter between April and June was rocky. First, were the general elections which were held in five phases between 16 April and 13 May when people were busy with electing a new government. Naturally, people avoided going to the movies.

Then there was a two-month multiplex strike from 4 April to 5 June that witnessed a virtual drought of movies. Though single-screen theatres remained open, films released in that period were hardly worth a mention.

IPL season 2 played between 10 April and 29 May was shifted to South Africa because of the elections but that did not deter cricket buffs who watched the matches late in the evenings and into the nights. Result: footfalls in theatres for the evening and night shows dipped drastically. The swine flu scare also added its bit to keep moviegoers away.

"Last year has been a tough one because of a couple of reasons. First, for three months there were no releases which caused a dent and a lot of movies bunched up that further ate into one another‘s revenues. Then, because of the abundance of movies, audiences declined," observed UTV Motion Pictures CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur.

Estimates are that about 140 films were released during the year. Attempts at releasing differentiated cinema were made with titles such as Delhi 6, Luck By Chance, DevD, Quick Gun Murugun, Rocket Singh, Wake Up Sid among many others. But they failed to strike moviegoers‘ fancy and did average to poor business at the box-office.

Even star power did not help: the Akshay Kumar starring Chandni Chowk to China, Blue, Kambakt Ishq, Tasveer left the cash coffers relatively empty. As did Dil Bole Haddipa (Rani Mukerji, Shahid Kapoor), Luck, All The Best (Sanjay Dutt), Kaminey (Shahid Kapur), What‘s Your Raashee (Ashutosh Goawariker director), Aladdin (Amitabh Bachchan) and Main Aur Mrs Khanna (Salman Khan) and London Dreams (Salman Khan). No amount of fancy cinematography, visual effects or involvement of international artistes such as Kylie Minogue could save the much hyped and big budget Blue.

Says trade analyst Amod Mehra, "For some years now, the concept of a ‘media hit‘ has come in, and so Dev D, Wake Up Sid and Kaminey were termed as hits, though the numbers just did not add up."

According to Indiantelevision.com only four films - apart from the biggy 3 Idiots- could be termed successes: New York, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, Wanted and De Dana Dan.

In trade parlance, a super-hit must gross at least thrice the money for which it has been sold. This year, only 3 Idiots, besides two Hollywood films 2012 and Avatar could be termed super hits.

It may be noted that the year 2008 had seven blockbusters while 2007 and 2006 tied with six grossers each.

On a cost-to-profit ratio, 3 Idiots and and Yash Raj Films‘ New York did well. On the footfalls front, Wanted, the Hindi remake of the Telugu blockbuster Pokkiri, took the lead, especially at single-screen theatres.

Other films like Paa, All The Best, Raaz- The Mystery Continues and Wake Up Sid did average business. The Hindi version of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire managed to make a small profit while the English one fell flat.

Yash Raj Films and Eros Entertainment came out with four films each in Hindi of which all bombed or did average business at the box-office.

On the film production front, film making companies like Studio18 desisted from releasing any films, focusing instead on cleaning up their acts while others slowed down their production schedules.

Eros reached a milestone when its Marathi film Mee Shivaji Raje Bhosle Boltoy set the cash registers ringing. It was the overseas distributor for De Dana Dan that dished out commendable business.

In the period of financial woes, satellite movie channels and filmed entertainment owners found a business model in syndication. The big deals swung during this period were movies from UTV and Eros. A few outright purchases were also made by Sony, Star and Zee Group.

Multiplexes, who will have to dish out more towards content cost in relation to their revenue share after their new pact with the producers, have been bruised for two straight quarters in the fiscal. But with Bollywood churning out a few hits towards the end of the year, the plexes are sitting happy and expect revenue buoyancy in the last two quarters of the fiscal.

The industry will have to face challenging times in 2010. Single-screen theatres have not done enough to attract audiences. As far as multiplexes are concerned, rising ticket and food prices have meant that moviegoers are becoming choosy about the film they would like to spend to watch.

Hence, it is quite likely that the era of many blockbusters in a year might well be a thing of the past. The industry is likely to see fewer big hits, some releases with minor profits, some breakeven and most that will possibly bomb.

Additionally, film makers will also have to take a hard look at costs. The trend towards multi-star films, rising star (whether in front of the camera or behind) fees, high marketing investments have made recoveries from ticket sales extremely difficult. Of course, they will also have to take care not to bunch releases close to each other; something which could prove difficult, though not impossible.

Observers believe 2010 could prove to be a landmark year for Bollywood internationally. A lot will depend on how My Name is Khan does at the box-office globally. If the international distribution experiment by Fox delivers for the US studio, it could well pave the way for Bollywood to break into Hollywood film audiences.

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