Mumbai: Once Upon ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! seems to be tailor-made for single-screen cinemas, but if it hasn’t opened in as many of them as its producer would have liked, blame it on the dream run of Chennai Express and backroom manoeuvres that are worthy of firing the imagination of enterprising filmmakers and writers.

OUATIMD, a gangster movie and love triangle starring Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha and Imran Khan, opened on Independence Day at approximately 1,700 cinemas across the country. More screens will be added only on Friday, which means that the production won’t be able to take advantage of the increased footfalls generated by the national holiday. One reason is the blockbuster earnings of Chennai Express—the 9 August release, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, posted an unconfirmed net box office collection of 137 crore as of Thursday. Another is an alleged commitment by cinemas, especially those with single screens, to keeping the Shah Rukh Khan release running for one whole week.

Tanuj Garg, chief operating officer of Balaji Motion Pictures, which has produced and distributed OUATIMD, said, “Pan-India occupancy is between 95% and 100%, and the movie has opened to a flying start in all centres country-wide." Disney UTV, which has co-produced and distributed Chennai Express, didn’t comment on whether they had locked cinemas into screening their movie.

The tussle for screen space between the two movies made it difficult for Shringar Films to release the new Paul Walker action movie Vehicle 19 on 9 August and for PVR Pictures to release the Steve Jobs biopic Jobs on 16 August.

“We weren’t getting good showcasing from exhibitors, but I believe that in a week such as this, if there was another smaller and good film, it could be easily be programmed along with a big movie," said Aditya Shroff, executive director at Shringar Films Ltd. “It gives the audience some choice rather than sending all of them for one film."

The kind of cinema people want to watch, and what the film industry orders them to see, are often two different things. In the El Dorado that Bollywood sometimes resembles, the hunt for golden rewards is cutthroat, volatile and relentless.

The key players of the ‘Is My Box Office Bigger Than Yours’ game include reputed family banners, star-led production companies, studios and multiplex chains.

The usual operatics that accompany releases—mainly over profit-sharing terms (typically split halfway between the distributor and the exhibitor in the case of a big-budget movie), the number of screens when the hall is a multiplex, and show timings—become much more shrill in the case of a multi-crore project involving big-name filmmakers and actors. Hence the pre-release scrimmages, the frantic toing and froing between interested parties and the bitter complaints (often voiced off the record), about arm-twisting producers, over-ambitious distributors and money-minded cinema programmers.

The stakes have been clambering upwards over the last few years because of an expansion in the film business, said a senior-ranking employee with a multiplex chain, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The number of screens has multiplied across India, and several of these screens are inside shopping malls in tier-II cities and rapidly growing small towns where movie-going is the topmost leisure activity, the employee added.

More screens equal more shows equal higher ticket prices equal a minimum of 100 crore business—that unshakeable logic means that a movie release is an extended event that ends only when it’s the turn of the next blockbuster. The rules of this game change depending on who is at the top of the heap—Yash Raj Films yesterday, Disney UTV today, somebody else tomorrow —and how smartly they can market the release as a rare planetary occurrence that can be witnessed only during its first three days.

“Everybody wants to watch a blockbuster on the opening weekend," said Neeraj Goswamy, associate vice-president of distribution at Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

“An estimated 35 crore worth (of) tickets get sold every weekend, and you need to split that as little as possible," he said.

“Programmers know what clocks footfalls on an opening weekend, so they tend to frontload the cinemas. I remember when Titanic opened in Mumbai in 1998—it was released with two prints. We used to open advance booking on a Monday and be sold out by 6pm. Now, even Hollywood movies open on 1,000 screens across India," Goswamy said.

Where does the pressure to carpet-bomb cinemas with a single movie come from? The answer depends on whom you talk to. Some producers feel that there simply aren’t enough theatres in India to absorb the English and Hindi releases, let alone regional language titles. “There is a glut of content in the market, and surplus content requires surplus room, but our infrastructure is less than our appetite," said Garg of Balaji Motion Pictures.

Another leading producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that both his peers and exhibitors are to blame for flooding the market in a manner that makes it impossible for weaker competitors to survive.

“Exhibitors are buckling under pressure from producers and distributors at the time of release," he said.

Exhibitors, especially multiplexes with halls to fill, sometimes get so desperate for content that they take short-term and short-sighted decisions, the producer added. At the time of negotiating for a prestige picture, an influential producer or distributor might extract a promise that the next few, not-so-prestigious films from the same banner also need to be adequately showcased.

“No exhibitor should encourage that as a practice," the producer said. “Producers cannot do without multiplexes, especially the national chains. But somewhere, the exhibitor needs to be able to say, we will do what we think is right. Even a bad film has the right to travel in the box office to a point."

But it’s not like exhibitors and producers are glaring at each other from different corners of the ring. Rivals can also be allies in the 100-crore game. Earlier, programming was about letting a movie have a long run, but that has now changed, said a senior programmer at a multiplex chain on condition of anonymity.

“The producer and the star—and sometimes, they are the same person—want to do better than the others," he said. “They want to break records within the first three days itself, since they know that hype evaporates."

Cinemas benefit vastly from the gargantuan ambition of filmmakers—they can raise their ticket prices and ensure full houses.

The timing of a release has everything to do with reading the tea leaves—or, in this case, the traces left on the box office by the previous week’s fare. Chennai Express rolled into cinemas even as older releases like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, The Conjuring and BA Pass were still going strong, which is why OUATIMD faced severe challenges, the programmer said.

“Ultimately, producers take the call to either move or clash with the rest," he said.

Previous examples of head-to-head confrontations include Saawariya versus Om Shanti Om, Don versus Jaan-e-Mann, and Son of Sardaar versus Jab Tak Hai Jaan.

In Hollywood, competition works perfectly for exhibitors and audiences—but only if the films are different, said Gitesh Pandya, founder of the Hollywood box office tracking website Box Office Guru.

“Bigger multiplexes often have 20 to 30 screens and can accommodate several big films letting audiences decide for themselves what is most popular," Pandya said. “And on holiday weekends, the marketplace tends to expand allowing for many films to sell."

For the Memorial Day holiday over the last weekend of May, the action movie Fast & Furious 6 and the comedy The Hangover Part III opened on the same day, while during the American Independence Day weekend, the animated movie Despicable Me 2 came along with the fantasy adventure The Lone Ranger.

“So the screens are there for multiple films to release, what matters more is consumer demand." Pandya said. “You can have screens in every major city, but if people don’t want your movie then your cash register will be empty."

The only way to know is to actually enter the cinema—if you are allowed to. The Fridays preceding the 9 August weekend were packed with modestly-budgeted movies. One of them that didn’t make the date was Ashish Shukla’s Prague, which is finally opening on 6 September.

“If you are making 20 films in a year, you have more muscle and control," said Prague’s producer, Rohit Khaitan. “There is a gap between what consumers like and what is being given to them. Films like Prague will find their audience, but market forces don’t find them lucrative because they don’t see the business on paper."

The best recent example is Ajay Bahl’s erotic neo-noir BA Pass, which opened on 2 August with at least five other movies, and which is still holding strong because of a combination of box-office boldness within and without.