Remember that complicated controversy around Diwali when Ajay Devgn slapped a - like we say in India - "court case" on Yash Raj Films (YRF)?
It all started with the release of Salman Khan's release Ek Tha Tiger. Its a long standing policy to release Salman movies on Eid (not only does it make commercial sense to tie releases to holidays but superstars are a superstitious lot). Eid al-Fitr was on August 19th, Ek Tha Tiger release on August 15th. Around this time Salman had delivered humongous hits and, if you ask me, resuscitated the Indian Film industry's finances via a series of throwback films like Wanted, Ready and Dabanng. Distributors clamored for Salman's next movie. Theater owners licked their lips at the number of people they could pack into their cinema halls (and sell popcorn to).
Sensing a tremendous opportunity, allegedly YRF made the distributors sign a package deal. They would let them have Ek Tha Tiger if they promised to book YRF's upcoming Diwali release in a certain number of theaters. The movie packaged with Ek Tha Tiger was Shahrukh's Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Two important things to note: (1) the release date for Jab Tak Hai Jaan had been announced way back in June 2011 and (2) JTHJ was produced AND distributed by YRF.
In May 2012, Ajay Devgn announced the release date of his tentpole release Son of Sardar. SoS was produced by the star's eponymous Ajay Devgn Films (ADF), it was being distributed by Viacom18 and Eros. Right around the time the distributors started booking theaters for their film they had an OH$&#%! moment. They realized that theater owners had committed their screens to JTHJ and there just weren't enough screens for SoS.
Why is this a problem? In the multiplex era, movie releases follow a complex dynamic brought on by audience demographics, viewing patterns, marketing push and popcorn (and if you don't believe that last part, please read this). Suffice to say that big movies need to open on a lot of screens to make a lot of money quickly.
Ajay Devgn Films took YRF to court-kacheri over this. Given Ajay Devgn's known awkwardness with his wife Kajol's pals - Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan - this controversy took on an added dimension. Three days later Yash Raj, much beloved in India, passed away. Public sentiment now became fuel to the fire of the controversy. Shahrukh spoke up and admonished Ajay Devgn Films. The whole shebang became huge. The rest of the Bollywood hastis, having to choose between stepping in shit or quicksand, went radio silent.
Both movies released on Diwali (November 13, 2012). JTHJ played in approximately 2500 screens while SoS played in about 2000. It was a clash of titans - Shahrukh is one of Bollywood's biggest box office stars and Ajay Devgn is its most emergent. So now that the dust has settled, who won?
Both movies did huge business - they both crossed Rs 100 crores in two weeks, which is a marker these days for what distributors call "a blockbuster". JTHJ beat up SoS at multiplexes - which means that Shahrukh's film was preferred by urban audiences. SoS did gangbusters on single screens - usually found in less urbanized or less affluent urban areas.
JTHJ pulled in 98.41 crores in its first week. 26 of these came from the big multiplexes: INOX, PVR, Cinemax and BIG. SoS was surprisingly strong - it registered 83.25 crores. In the second week, when collections typically drop dramatically for big movies, JTHJ pulled in just over 19 crores. SoS took over 18 crores. JTHJ is currently running about 16 crores over SoS, but its clear that both movies did huge business. The indications here are that over Diwali, the market is much healthier than most distributors believed. It also helped that the movies both played in different genres - JTHJ was the last of Yash Raj's famed romances while SoS played in the newly rekindled genre of Indian potboilers.
So what lessons have we learned?
Ajay Devgn showed near-suicidal guts, took on a major star and studio and won. (Shahrukh didn't lose either - JTHJ was his biggest opening ever).
Vertically integrated companies like YRF (that own production and distribution) are at an advantage and can offer packaged deals.
These practices might be monopolistic - the Competition Commission of India really needs to update its workings and lay down guidelines here.
The Indian market is robust enough to support two big releases over Diwali.
Big movies make most of their money in the first two weeks - so expect this period to become a hotly contested battleground in the future as studios jostle to place their movies.