Saturday, April 25, 2009

in which the producer-multiplex owner battle forces the blogger to protest

(Caution: a bit of a ramble and a rant.)

Was talking to some friends - about films, good and bad, about books and the market, the usual sort of random chatter.

Somebody mentioned walking out of film theatres after having paid for tickets and how much it hurt. I said something about how it isn't so bad when you watch the same film on television or DVD because it costs less. Then later, I chatted to somebody else about people's expectations from those who need and consume entertainment/media. And was relieved to find that I was not the only one who thought that most artistes have unreasonable expectations of their audience, and its tolerance of their art.

I can only illustrate this through a personal example.

Born into this movie-mad nation, I grew up watching predominantly Hindi films. I have lied in order to watch films. Got into a lot of trouble for the sake of films. Drove from one town to another to watch films. Wept real tears if I couldn't watch a film. In short, I did the usual stuff millions of young people in this country do, just to be able to watch films.

By the time I went to college and starting buying movie tickets myself, I spent an average of Rs 28 per movie outing. The ticket (balcony) cost Rs 17, a cold drink or pastry or popcorn or samosa in the interval cost Rs 5-7, and Rs 2 for the tempo ride either way. If we were in an awful hurry and took an auto instead of a tempo, we spent maybe Rs 32.

This was a small town, true. But even when we went to the bigger cities, we never spent more than Rs 50 per head for a movie.

I still remember the first time I went into a PVR complex to watch a film. I was quite impressed with all the glass and the deep colours and carpets and humungous tubs of popcorn which nobody could quite finish. I didn't know how much it cost. My uncle, being a kind, gentlemanly type, did not enlighten me.

A year later, I bought my own PVR ticket for the first time, and almost died. One hundred rupees! Just for one ticket? I tried to confine myself to non-posh, cheaper cinemas. Two years later, the cheaper cinemas started disappearing and ticket prices began skyrocketing.

Within four years, I went from paying Rs 17 for a ticket to Rs 150, on an average. Another two years and I was paying Rs 200. On weekends, this could be Rs 250. Add to that some popcorn, a cup of coffee, and auto/taxi fares. A movie outing could cost Rs 500. Per person.

I couldn't afford that. Not every week. Not twice a week. Not then, and not now. Friends who make thrice as much money as me also agree that Rs 500 per head for a movie outing is outrageous. It means Rs 2000-2500 for the average family outing.

How many students, how many struggling artistes, how many young couples, how many teachers, how many non-corporate professionals in India can afford to spend such money on weekend entertainment? I can tell you, not many writers can.

And the thing is, these are precisely the people who might be interested in a new or different kind of cinema. If there is only one film being released every Friday, then perhaps they will patronise that one film. But if there are two or three, then they will watch only one; that is, if they step out of the house at all.

Recently, I read somewhere that occupancy in multiplexes stands only at around 40 percent, and I am not surprised. I went from watching almost every film I could sneak out for, every film that happened to be playing in the local theatres, to watching maybe one or two films in a month.

If you were a freelance writer, watching one movie a week would mean being able to sell at least two to three extra stories to the newspapers every week. I cannot name a lot of movies that were worth so much time and effort. Can any filmmaker working in this country honestly stand up and say his/her work is good enough to claim one tenth of the average audience-person's income?

The gains that were made through the multiplex culture - allowing for five or six different films to show simultaneously - are lost because of unreasonable pricing. There are enough people here willing to watch almost every kind of cinema you can conceive of. I rememner that we were just a bunch of students at a convent in a small town, yet we went to watch Deepa Mehta's 'Fire' two times, while cinema halls were being attacked in other places. We didn't know what to expect from the film but we were willing to give it a chance. I would like the chance to go on giving all kinds of films a chance. But get real about how much I'm willing in invest in that sort of chance.

Now, I find myself getting more and more intolerant of the few movies I do watch.

When I was spending Rs 17, I could walk into a hall playing 'Daag - the fire' with my mother, just because I couldn't think of anywhere else to go and sit on a hot afternoon. I saw the movie through. It was bad but it didn't hurt. We all sat through some films simply to be able to make fun of them.

In contrast, the last time I took some people out to a big-budget star-studded movie, I spent upwards of Rs 1500, and found myself cringing, wanting to walk out during the interval. It wasn't the worst film I'd ever seen; it just felt like that. It made me want to smack the filmmaker.

It is not like I expect tickets to stay at Rs 17 forever. I understand inflation. I understand infrastructure and maintainence. But reading about the current standoff between producers and multiplex owners, one would imagine that audiences are essentially interested in air-conditioning and the 'get-up' of the place. Or else, in just watching a film no matter what the cost in terms of time or money.

I say, ask me! I am your audience. And I am a good audience, reasonably intelligent and patient and generous when it comes to art.

Yes, I like nice cinema halls. Yes, I would like decent sound and clean toilets with running water. And I would prefer not to have rats and cockroaches underfoot. But that is not the point. The point is that I was anyway going out to watch movies despite the rats, despite the ripped seats, despite the amorphous, declassed 'crowd'. I resent being made to pay for facilities which should be the norm. All public spaces need to be clean. All theatres need to have decent toilets and running water and emergency exits. You need to hire enough staff and make sure that people do their jobs well. And I am willing to pay a little extra to make this happen.

But I resent being charged ridiculous amounts of money for popcorn and bad coffee. I resent people not respecting the little money I have and am willing to spend on their work. I resent the fact that people are paid in double-digit crores and they still cannot come up with anything remarkable, or even original. I resent the fact that those same people still want me to get out there and spend my money anyway, even though they wouldn't spit at amounts so small when it comes to their personal lifestyle or entertainment choices.

A pretty dress or a pair of shoes also give me pleasure. Music or theatre or going dancing gives me pleasure. If I have to pay Rs 40 for a cup of coffee in an airconditioned space, I might as well go to a cafe; why bother with cinema? If you cannot match a certain level of pleasure or offer the goods at better prices, then, well, tough! Make do with 40 percent occupancy. Go on raising ticket prices.

One of these days some cool cat in the media/software worlds will come up with a way to make internet cinema pay for itself. Already, we get most of my cinema from television or DVDs. Soon there will be something else.

In the meantime, sometimes, we pay those crazy prices despite the resentment. But filmmakers need to think about these questions - of the audience's valuation of the worth of cinema, of the common viewing experience, and of infrastructure. They will have to think a little harder than they seem to be thinking right now, especially if they want to make different kinds of films.

I stay away from a certain film not because I want a fixed amount of masala with my art. Nor because I am afraid of experiments. But if you're going to part me from my hard-earned money, then deliver. Deliver what I (which is not me personally, but the average audience member) expect and I will come to see your work again and again. I will come drawn by your name, your sensibility, your history, your passion.

Even if you cannot deliver, I will still come to watch some films. But I will play safe. I will start showing up to watch only when I am at least assured of some eye candy, or my favourite actors. For instance, I'll watch almost anything with Jude Law in it. And if I can watch Jude Law and get a reasonably interesting kind of cinema at the same time, why will I bother with a Hindi film heartthrob? More and more Indians speak and/or understand English. More and more of them have access to dubbed foreign films, or DVDs with sub-titles. Think of that.

I will probably watch Hindi movies anyway, even though I want to smack their creators sometimes, because I belong to this culture, because they're almost in my blood. But my loyalty to Hindi films is linked to their creators' loyalty to me and my expectations.

It is the same way with plays or books. I keep hoping that some storyteller is going to surprise me, enchant me, leave me with a scrap of beauty and truth, or change the way I think, or allow me to look at lives I'm not familiar with. But if he/she cannot do that, the least I expect is a little laughter and love. Which is why humour and romance - or the combination - draw people. Not because that is the only thing people want. But because that is the least they expect. There's a difference beween what people want, what they will settle for and what they expect.

The sooner we work that one out, the better it will be for all of us.


jyothy karat said...

totally agree! bet taking a chance with a movie and a nice dinner, i chose the dinner.

Vijayeta said...

I agree with you on the exorbitant ticket prices at multiplexes! But then again, where does one find single screen theaters anymore? When I was in Delhi, I watched as many films as I could in Chanakya till it was closed down. And I just felt so so sad that day.
Thing is, it does hurt when you pay a bomb when the film doesn't live up to your expectations. But then, of course, we don't mind watching bad films for cheap in smaller single screen theaters and as you said, often they turn out to be a fun experience!
These days, the producers hardly have any choice. They want an audience and it seems, majority of them are to be found only in multiplexes. Hence the new film genre 'multiplex audience'.
How many single screen theaters are there in cities like Bombay and Delhi? Hardly half a dozen, strewn in far flung places with no online booking facility or any other facilities for that matter.
I've grudgingly walked to PVR to catch a film after finding out tickets were not available at Chandan. Sometimes, the film gets pulled off but it'll still be playing at some multiplex or other. Even in small towns like Ajmer, 2 single screen theaters (incl. the one where we watched Fire) have shut down, while Majestic plays ancient porno films. Everyone's flocking to the two brand new multiplexes that have come up here in the last few years. (One right next to Sophia College, making it the chosen venue for many many covert dates all through the day.)
It sure makes me sad because even now, when filmmakers want to gauge actual public response, they go to Gaiety-Galaxy in Bandra and more often than not, the crowd reaction is a precursor to the fate of the film. Yet, the multiplexes are burgeoning all over and the producers' have no choice really! And to give the devil his due, multiplexes have actually made the whole mivie watching process more fun simply by offering a wider choice. Everyone hates going back from a theater 'cos tickets were not available, or it was House-Full! While in a multiplex, one often ends up watching something else if tickets for the preferred movie are sold out. Besides that, the flexibility of timings are a huge plus, and you're no longer limited to just 4 shows a day.
So, theoretically, for filmmakers it's a happier prospect. More people watching their films etc. etc. Even in the recession, while news media suffers, the film industry is left unscathed and it's a known fact that ppl prefer watching a film than going for a fancy dinner or shopping!

But end of the day, choice of films is a very personal matter. A classic case of one man's meat being another man's poison.
For instance, I much preferred the new Don (with SRK) to the old one. Everyone I know disagrees with me on that, but I still stick by my choice. Similarly, many people did not like Dilli-6 while some simply loved it!
So to say: "But if you're going to part me from my hard-earned money, then deliver. Deliver what I expect and I will come to see your work again and again" is a tad unfair, I think. No producer WANTS you to spend 500 bucks on a film. The whole stand-off is 'cos the producers hardly make any money from ticket sales in multiplexes. They'll be just as thrilled if you watched it at Chandan or Gaiety, maybe even more cos they get a larger share of the profits from them!
Believe me, the multiplexes are the wicked witches in this story. I'm quite in favour of the producers' decision to tie-up with DTH services and release films directly on TV the way they do it in the US, just to teach these guys a lesson!
And maybe, the salaries of people like me can go up too :)

Vijayeta said...

Whoops!! That was a rant, not a comment. And I didn't realise how long it was till it got posted. The little comment box is very misleading.
Sorry :p

harini calamur said...

it's serindipity to read your post. -but i was having a similar conversation with a friend who is a film producer on getting people back into theatres. - my response was a 50 buck ticket multiplex. where khana costs not more than 10% more than the udupi. i would have gone to see Chandini Chowk to China if it was not for the ticket price - if only to laugh at everyone involved :)

40% occupancy of multiplex' is optimistic. most cases there are 6-10 people in the hall. the funda is that to get you to the theatre they have to hook you with stars - not story. publicity and hype - not substance ... and this is where it breaks down.

There was a time when 100% recovery & overflow on films happened only via ticket sales. Today it is less than 40%.

most multiplexes are charging too much. but at this point of time they still have their tax holiday frm the Govt. next year many of them would have completed 5 years and the tax breaks will go. And, then the fun will truly begin.

Banno said...

You've hit the nail on and through the head. I never thought there would come a day when I would actually think twice before going to see a film. I saw them all, good, bad, as long as I could afford to.

But now I feel exactly the same way as you do. Most of the time I just want to smack the filmmaker who's given me a shoddy product in lieu of hard-earned money.

I feel cheated. I feel as if the filmmaker doesn't care two hoots about their audience and in fact, is making a fool of them.

So yes, DVDs are the best option for now.

Annie Zaidi said...

Vej, I agree with most of what you say. Which is why I said "The gains that were made through the multiplex culture - allowing for five or six different films to show simultaneously - are lost because of unreasonable pricing. There are enough people here willing to watch almost every kind of cinema you can conceive of."
And when I said "I", I meant the average audience member, and have made that clear in the post too, now.
Harini, I disagree slightly on the 50 Rupee capping. These days, coffees cost more than that and it is interesting to see how much people are willing to spend on two hours of the alternative to book/cinema/theatre entertainment. I believe (and R. Sriram too has said this several times) it shouldn't be more than two cups of coffee. I agree totally on the food/drink pricing though.

Banno, DVDs are live-savers.

gaurav said...

Hi Annie,

This is Gaurav, worked at Tehelka once. This post has pricked a raw nerve of mine. I am a lover of cinema too, but multiplexes and this new corporatised cinema -- it's the 'entertainment media' now, isn't it -- has ruined my love. The films made these days seem to be heartless, but that's another matter.

The multiplexes have just killed all the old, lovely theatres not just in the metros, but also in smaller cities like my hometown Lucknow. Cinema has become a shopping mall experience, under strict surveillance and terms and conditions. I can't take anything inside, have to buy even water, and the sound system is so blaring loud that I have to keep covering my ears. But even that's another matter.

The first major problem is that multiplexes have blocked out the plebeian audience, which used to fill the traditional theatres. This audience has lost its beloved cinema. The old theatres in Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi have either shut down or show movies from the 1980s and 1990s, and nobody watches these. This audience used to whistle, clap, throw coins at the screen, make witty or lewd comments, and sometimes dance in the aisles. This happens no more.

The second major problem is that cinema has been co-opted into a capitalist structure that denies freedom in the name of freedom, which it promises through 'competition' and market logic. All multiplexes look and feel the same to me, all have standard 'industry' practices and norms, all are found in identically built malls. If competition means 10 companies offering the same product, I don't understand how it empowers the consumer. The only other option is a 'Gold Class' or some such overpriced shit. Each of the old theatres offered a unique experience, from location, architecture, comfort, to the food in the canteen. Most blissfully, the sound was easy on the ears, not as excruciatingly loud in the multiplexes.

But then everything seems to be growing louder and louder these days, the 'talkies' have become 'shouties'. I have begun to wish I was born in the age when they used to make silent movies.

Prasoon said...

Its seriously boring without new movies around here. Luckily in hyd, there are still plenty of small screens very nominally priced. Also mplex prices are all at 100 except the luxury seating and cinemax and bring in the ones at outskirts of the city - the multiplexes show digital prints for 40 bucks still and now, I cant recall when I last visited them. :(

I hope they sort out differences real soon.

Aman said...

Piracy is the cure! Download & watch. If there is someone I hate after Builders it's the Multiplex-wallahs!

Unknown said...

Bravo, Annie, well written. Just the way a movie maniac feels about watching films. I guess multiplexes are digging their own graves and soon what you said will come true. Who wants to go to those glass and granite repositories of boredom anymore when we can get it over the net.

Great thought!


Sue said...

I'm so glad you wrote this post!

I used to be the movie every weekend girl and now I try to avoid them simply because of the expense. It makes no sense to me at all. Surely late night shows ought to be cheaper? If you're charging Rs. 40 for a cup of coffee, surely I should get more coffee than that thimbleful? It's crazy. If only they'd moderate their prices, I'd go back to watching a movie every weekend. En famille.

Pallav said...

It might interest you to know that Big Cinemas offer tickets at 50 bucks all days a week. I mean, I saw Wolverine and Terminator at 50 bucks. Though i spent 150 for popcorn and drinks, i guess it's a fair deal.

Agreed multiplex prices are exorbitant and even more on weekends. And it bites for sure.

Ah, I'm off to Big Cinemas for watching Ice Age 3 tomorrow :) hope the 50 bucks price is still there!

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