The silver screen's silver lining

It is just a sliver of good news. But it is worth hanging on to. Indians bought 1.03 billion movie tickets in 2019. That is up 9 per cent over 2018 when they bought 945 million tickets, says a recently-released Ormax Media Box Office Re­port for 2019. The rise is not huge but it is good news for three reasons.

One, because it is arguably the only one so far in what has been a miserable year for In­dia’s Rs 1,67,400-crore media and entertainment industry. A combination of factors — the economic slowdown, Te­le­com Regulatory Authority of India’s me­ddling in television pricing and the complete lack of any big picture policy to foster growth and employment — has hit the sector hard. Growth in ad revenues is down to single digits, while pay revenues are struggling. Pick up the quarterly reports of any of the large li­sted media firms — Zee Entertainment, Network18, Jagran Prakashan or DB Corporation (flagship Dainik Bhaskar). The news is bad. On the unlisted front almost every major firm — Disney-Star, Times Group among others — are struggling to meet targets. Though the proof so far is only anecdotal, there have been job losses. Note that TV and print are bellwethers of the media and entertainment industry. TV brings in roughly half and print over 18 per cent of its revenues. Film brings in just over 10 per cent.

And that brings us to reason number two. For about four years now the number of tickets sold had been falling or stagnant even as average ticket prices kept rising. Tickets sold usually hovered in the 800 million to 900 million range. In the financial year ending March 2019, India’s top three multiplex chains sho­wed a rise in ticket sales after three ye­ars. The Ormax report validates that rise at a national level and shows that it held steady through 2019. Going by the broad trends the report points to — more languages, better stories and a declining dependence on the first weekend — the rise will continue.

The most important of these is the way India’s diversity is finally reflecting in numbers. The billion-plus tickets and Rs 10,948 crore box-office revenue figure was split among Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Hollywood and others, in that order. “Overall language is becoming more important. More than 60 per cent of the box-office revenues for Saaho (a trilingual film in Hindi, Tamil and Te­lugu) came from Hindi. A part of the War (Hi­ndi) business came from Te­lugu. We are getting into a scenario where many of the top 10 movies are multilingual,” po­ints out Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media.

Hollywood is a case in point. Its share of revenues has been creeping up; it went from 12.5 per cent in 2018 to 15 per cent in 2019. But this is because it has begun dubbing and releasing films in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu among other Indian languages. 

“For Avengers, 40-45 per cent (box office revenues) came from Hindi, Tamil and Telugu (releases). This holds true for all franchise films or big releases that get, on an average 35-35 per cent from Indian languages,” says Kapoor.

Whether it is Hindi films du­bbed/remade in other Indian languages, non-Hindi films dubbed/remade in Hindi or English dubbed in Indian languages, multilingual films are bringing more ticket sales and therefore topline to the box-office.

The third reason this report is good news is because more people are walking in to watch films in a theatre. This matters since more than 70 per cent of what the film industry earns comes from the box-office. Of course the reach and impact of films goes way beyond the billion-plus tickets sold. More than one-fourth of the total TV viewership is on films. Streaming video brands in India see disproportionately high amounts of time spent on films and film-related content. But the film industry makes its money primarily from the box office. Its success there means better deals from streaming video brands and TV stations.

But remember this is a just a sliver of good news. To use it to paint a happy scenario overall would be misleading. Like one minister did recently, many people might argue that if more film tickets are being sold, it means that there is no economic slowdown. That is a fallacious argument. Because if ticket sales was a metric for macro-economic health then we were in deep recession for the last four years.

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