Mumbai: This October, Friday the 12th is deadlier than Friday the 13th. Ask the film-makers behind the eight movies that are expected to release on that day. The roll-call includes the Rani Mukerji starrer Aiyyaa, Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot Returns, the futuristic Hollywood hit Looper, the Liam Neeson starrer Taken 2 and the pre-independence drama Chittagong. There is also Makkhi, the Hindi dubbed version of the Telugu hit Eega, and the relatively obscure In the Name of Tai.
The original list was even longer: It included low-budget titles that are most unlikely to become sleeper hits, such as Prem Mayee, Rabba Main Kya Karoon, Login and Ata Pata Laapata. These films have now been bounced off the calendar, and they will emerge on unspecified dates later in the year (or, perhaps, never). The Hollywood drama Argo was supposed to be released on 12 October, too, as was Cover Story, the Indian remake of the Dutch film Interview. Argo will now emerge on 19 October, while Cover Story will unfold on 24 October.
The more releases there are, the better the choice for viewers, right? What actually happens is that multiple releases distort programming at cinema halls, especially multiplexes. Programmers tend to pick the movies most likely to do good business and restrict the rest to one or two shows. Single screens exercise further restraint, depending on the kind of movies their patrons like. This process helps weed out the releases that seem destined for flophouse status, but it compels bigger films to opt for fewer shows and increases the pressure on non-mainstream fare, like Chittagong.
The threat of strike by single-screen theatre owners in Maharashtra, which is supposed to start on 12 October, will further increase the pressure on multiplexes in the state. “We have got a promise of action from the government, but no written assurance,” said R.V. Vidhani, president of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India. If the government doesn’t commit to concrete action, the strike will go ahead as planned in Maharashtra’s 550-odd single-screen theatres, Vidhani added. The owners are demanding a change in land-use policy that will allow them to sell loss-making theatres and tax concessions from the state government.
“I am a bit tense but not too much,” said Sunil Bohra, whose Bohra Bros is distributing Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong. The movie is based on Manini Chatterjee’s non-fiction book Do & Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34. “We’re not looking at a huge release, but we’ll go to select screens,” said Bohra, who will issue around 200 prints of Chittagong. “This film will grow through word-of-mouth publicity,” he said. “We will be able to manage like Paan Singh Tomar. Many of the films coming on 12 October are from the same family, in a sense. For audiences, it’s like a buffet dinner. They can eat whatever they like.”
Movies with smaller budgets, riskier storylines and lesser-known actors often find themselves squeezed in between heavy-hitters and blockbusters, which plan their releases on potentially money-spinning days several months in advance. The calendar year is usually divided into lucrative periods (the Diwali holiday season, summer vacation) and risky months, such as Ramzan (during which devout Muslims stay away from the cinemas).
The movies that are rushing into the cinemas on 12 October don’t have too many options down the calendar. As of now, 19 October already has eight releases, including Argo, Karan Johar’s Student of the Year and the Hollywood thriller Premium Rush. “If you come out on 19 October, you actually get only a five-day week, since there is Dussehra and then Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh on 24 October,” pointed out Sunil Udhani, head of distribution at Multivision Multimedia, which is bringing Looper to India. He says his fight is mainly with Aiyyaa and Taken 2. “This typically happens when there are gap weeks between big movies,” Udhani said. “At any rate, there will never be a week that will be entirely free.”
Some films want proof of a theatrical release only so that they can negotiate a better price for satellite rights, added a distributor of Hollywood produce who didn’t want to be named. “If you can prove that you have a release date, you increase the value of your film,” the distributor said.
The new year is only weeks away, but 2012’s big releases haven’t arrived yet—the new James Bond movie Skyfall will open on 1 November, Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan and the Ajay Devgn starrer Son of Sardaar on 13 November and the Aamir Khan-led thriller Talaash on 30 November. Dabangg 2, the sequel to Salman Khan’s monster hit, will arrive just before the Christmas break, on 21 December. “There is typically a lean period after Ganpati and before Dussehra and Diwali,” said Nimisha Trivedi, former regional manager, programming, at Big Cinemas.
Multiplexes will play it safe for the 12 October week, she predicted. “For instance, Looper will play in select multiplexes patronized by English-speaking audiences,” Trivedi said. “Aiyyaa will play everywhere, as will Taken 2, which is a massy action film. Chittagong will play in select theatres and not beyond two-three shows. Since Makkhi is a dubbed film, it initially won’t get more than one or two shows.”
If English Vinglish spills over from 5 October—and Barfi! continues its dream run—it will make the programmer’s life even more complicated. “When four-five films release on the same day, somebody has to be sacrificed,” said a programmer at a leading multiplex chain who didn’t want to be identified.