2013 was a great year for Bollywood in North America. New Box office records were set by Chennai Express in August only to be bested, a few weeks later in December, by Dhoom 3. Collections: An all time record of $3.3 million on opening weekend and $8.5 million to date. Screens: A record 236 screens, including 40 Imax screens. In North American box office history, this was the largest number of premium Imax releases for a non-Hollywood movie, ever.
The growth story does not end there. Along with desi audiences, multicultural audiences grew too. Today, most of the big Indian movies are being sub-titled in over 30 languages, to address ever-expanding global markets.
Time to distribute the ladoos? That’s the billion dollar question.
Let’s celebrate the sweet success, but let’s keep it real. While great content has continued to expand audiences for Indian cinema, the structural fault lines in distribution – or the lack of it – have widened perceptibly over the past 3-4 years.
In 2013, the cumulative box office revenue in North America of the top 4 distributors – Eros, UTV, Yashraj and Big Cinema – was around $33 million from 31 releases. This is a substantial growth from 2012 when cumulative collections were $28 million from 35 titles and an even more impressive 110% growth over 2010 numbers. However, although the Indian movie industry churns out around 1200 movies a year, Bollywood still remains a bonsai plant among the redwoods! To understand the real picture, keep in mind that Hollywood produces about 250 movies annually, so in that context, Indian cinema seems woefully under-represented and poorly monetized. Particularly when you consider that Bollywood themes and creative delivery are singularly unique, appealing to audiences from countries as diverse as Russia,Japan, and Egypt, you wonder why its impact is so subdued.
Clearly, a lot many more people are watching Bollywood than ever before, and yet, we see a yawning gap between box office data, and real viewership. Why is that? The one single reason is piracy. In North America alone, the Indian entertainment industry loses revenues between $300 million to $1 billion each year to piracy. A recent E&Y study estimates the loss at $2.8 billion annually. Even if we look at the lower end of the estimates, revenues lost are 10x that of box office collections. Furthermore, as a result of piracy, over 800,000 direct jobs are lost every year according to E&Y. So it’s much more than just a minor headache. The industry is hurting, and hurting bad.
Mainstream media, led by Hollywood, have vigorously addressed this issue with encouraging results. They pursue every legal option against piracy, quickly and effectively. Concurrently, they keep widening their base, by expanding legitimate distribution through systems such as Netflix. Bollywood, however, has virtually no other distribution avenues. Box office sales are the only way to earn any meaningful revenue. So the entire Indian film industry continues to be held hostage to piracy, with no solution to the problem.
The friendly neighborhood video store, for example, sells you a DVD of any movie, old and new, for under $2/- . These spurious sales rake in over $100 million a year in North America alone. The irony is, the very same dollars could well have been channelized towards legitimate sources of content, if only such content was made available. Viewers would be happy to pay a bit more, for legit, high-quality content as ITunes and many others have shown. But as of now, fuzzy camera-print DVDs are all they can lay their hands on, so that is all they buy.
Online piracy has queered the pitch even more. South Asians are known to be heavy consumers of online video. Broadband penetration among South Asians over-indexes the general population by almost 20%. Not surprisingly, therefore, streaming of illegal content has grown by over 400% in the past 3 years! In the gloom and doom scenario, there is some good news – legit services grew too, and in North America where alternatives like Netflix are available the share of illegal downloads actually dropped by 30% over the last couple two years. This underscores the fact that consumers will pay for content, if they can get it.
In the US, efforts to snuff out illegal distribution of Indian content have not been successful in the past. Law enforcement officers have been reluctant to engage in the fight against Bollywood content piracy, citing the lack of resources. The hands-off approach reflects their reluctance to get involved in what they see as a ghetto scrap that is best left to the feuding parties to resolve by themselves.
Bollywood must punch back, dhishoom-dhishoom style!
All this makes a strong case for Bollywood to fight back. Producers must expand distribution platforms for their content. As the market grows, and more films are made, there will be many more compelling stories to showcase to international audiences. The huge variety of Indian content will reflect the diaspora’s distinctive cultural perspective, including our rich heritage in regional cinema. Talented filmmakers within the diaspora will then get the opportunity to present their unique creative vision to the world at large. As their stories resonate among cross-cultural audiences, their reach will expand too, across new borders and boundaries.
So why is any of this relevant to Indiaspora?
I think Bollywood is arguably India’s most potent instrument to establish its ‘soft power” credentials. North America, the backyard of Indiaspora, is the most multicultural and receptive market in the world. If we can lend our voice to the discourse on piracy, persuade authorities to act against it and support new distribution initiatives we can contribute greatly to enhancing India’s soft power status.