Bollywood ends another lacklustre year with fewer box office hits and no solution in sight to address falling theatre footfalls. The industry's woes were compounded by falling data costs in a booming mobile phone market, the increasing popularity of streaming services and the crumbling of the star system used for decades to ensure a film's success.
As of last weekend, only one Bollywood film (Golmaal Returns) had crossed the 2 billion rupee ($31 million) mark at the box office in 2017. Salman Khan's "Tiger Zinda Hai" is expected to reach that figure in the next few days given its bumper opening last week. The highest grossing film in India this year wasn't even a Bollywood film. The Hindi dub of Telugu film "Baahubali 2: The Conclusion", an epic fantasy about warring kingdoms, grossed more than 5 billion rupees ($78 million), an unprecedented figure even for the dominant Hindi film industry.
Bollywood's combined revenue fell to 23 billion rupees ($360 million), from 27 billion rupees ($423 million) last year. This figure does not include the box office figure for "Tiger Zinda Hai", which is expected to cross at least 2.5 billion rupees in ticket sales.
"For the last four years, growth has been static, and this year, considering inflation etc, it has gone down almost 10 percent," Shailesh Kapoor, who heads media consulting and research firm Ormax Media, said.
What made matters worse for the industry was that the once safe option of casting an A-list star failed to draw audiences. Shah Rukh Khan's two films - "Raees" and "Jab Harry Met Sejal" - had tepid collections. Salman Khan's big Eid release, "Tubelight", where the star played a well-meaning but dim-witted man, barely managed to collect 1.1 billion rupees when it was expected to earn double that figure. Ajay Devgn's "Baadshaho" also failed to impress audiences, although the actor redeemed himself with the comedy "Golmaal Returns" - the festival hit of the year.
"Smaller films will keep getting made and doing well, but it is the big films not doing well where the real impact is," Kapoor said.
Top Indian actors like the Khans, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn usually charge astronomical fees, raising overheads and making any star vehicle an expensive film. Since the success or failure is also largely dependent on these actors, it's a tradition in Bollywood for them to compensate producers and exhibitors if their films don't do well.
"The content economics cannot be lopsided. Whatever little I know, Salman and Shah Rukh have returned a certain percentage of money to their partners. Everyone down the line has to make some amount of money and no one has a lion's share, no matter what the size of the revenue," trade analyst Girish Johar said.
Filmmaker S S Rajamouli's "Baahubali 2: The Conclusion" showed that Bollywood could put its money to good use (read: technology) other than splurge it on big stars.
Rajamouli, a director from the South Indian state of Telangana, made a two-part epic mythological series, the first of which released in 2015 to bumper ticket sales. The second installment, which released in April this year, saw audiences flocked to see CGI-enhanced palaces, rampaging armies and magical kingdoms, all woven into a story around Indian mythology.
"If a genre doesn't need a star, then it needs technology. We don't have that genre. In Hollywood, out of the top 15 films, 10 will be superhero or franchise films. There, the dependence on the star system has reduced because they've made technology the hero," Kapoor said.
Even as big star failed, others like "Lipstick Under my Burkha", "Hindi Medium" and "Newton", made on smaller budgets and depending entirely on their stories, received critical acclaim and enjoyed box office success.
The year also saw the return of comedy. "Golmaal Returns", "Judwa 2" and "Fukrey Returns" were warmly received by audiences. Kapoor of Ormax Media said their success and the relative dearth of good comedy flicks in recent years showed that Bollywood wasn't aware of what audiences really wanted.
"Seventy percent of footfalls come from the youth, between 16 and 25 (years). Comedy and slapstick were sidelined in the last few years because the industry thought if films like "Neerja" and "Queen" were doing well, people don't want to watch mass comedies. And this used to be the staple genre four years ago," he said.
Netflix, Amazon.com and the more than 30 OTT platforms currently active in India, coupled with falling data costs, also meant more competition for Bollywood. While both Netflix and Amazon are looking to Bollywood for content, signing deals with leading production houses and studios, it also meant that many loyal moviegoers are now spoilt for choice.
"Right now digital is a revenue source for Bollywood, but even that is tied with how a film does at the box office. If a star doesn't do well in theatres, his film won't have as much equity in the digital market. And if the audience loses the habit of going to theatres, then it is difficult to bring them back," Johar said.
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