Ever wonder who decides the number of screens a film has to itself at your friendly neighbourhood multiplex? Or its show timings? Or pre-release teasers? A bunch of people who can be found either at the crumbling Naaz building in Mumbai’s old quarter of Grant Road, or at suburban offices wallpapered with film posters further north.
These experts are distributors, and their business is not just to distribute films, but keep a finger on the pulse of filmgoers, wherever they live. This exercise explains why this season’s biggie, The Dirty Picture, has released as many prints in the South as in the North. Usually, Bollywood movies have a safer market in North India, where Hindi reigns. But The Dirty Picture has to be accessible to the region it derives its premise from. For those not clued in, the Vidya Balan-starrer is based on the love and sex life of the Tamil soft-porn star Silk Smitha. It’s a life that has long enthralled filmgoers in the South, and now producer Ekta Kapoor wants to sell the same “sexuality and oomph” experience—albeit more viscerally—to the same audience. She doesn’t quite say so, however; she seems in wilful denial of the film being based on the sex siren, whose family has threatened a law suit. “It’s a re-creation of an era,” Ekta recently surfaced on CNN-IBN to say, “There was a phenomenon in the 80s in the South film industry where a lot of women became superstars because of their sexuality and oomph.”
The decision-makers in this film’s case are her firm Balaji’s inhouse distribution specialists. They have been involved in this project from day one, meticulously planning its release strategy long before the film was ready. “Every film has its own distribution strategy,” says Girish Johar, head of distribution and acquisition, Balaji Motion Pictures, “For The Dirty Picture, we were on the job from the time its idea was conceived. There is demand for such films, and that’s why the job of a distributor assumes significance.”
Assumes significance? That is no exaggeration, as Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO, UTV Motion Pictures, confirms. “A distributor is someone who, in the value chain of the process of filmmaking and then its release, is at the last end, just before the exhibitor,” he says of this person’s role, “S/he is key to ensuring that a film is watched as widely as possible. You might make the best film on earth, but if the distributor is unable to strategically plan its release, it won’t work.”
And a feel for the audience’s pulse, region to region, is a must-have for a distributor. Of all those involved in moviemaking, it is the distributor who makes it a point to stay forever familiar with viewers and their socio-cultural ticks in assorted cinema territories. While the director practises the art/craft of filmmaking, the producer manages the film’s finances, and the actor gets busy acting, it is the distributor who keeps track of consumer behaviour and its changing patterns. If he fails to wrap his head round your attitudes, tendencies and choices, he can wreck any chance a movie has at the box office.
In that sense, a distributor’s job entails creativity even more than number-crunching. “A creative person is not just a creator of content, but also someone who understands the creativity behind this content and understands how the audience would respond, and tailors his distribution strategy to meet the needs of that particular audience in that particular market,” says Kapur, “So, if a distributor is purely reliant on figures and is not able to understand the idea and creativity behind the product, it’s going to be very difficult for him to distribute it.” After a pause, he emphasises, “More than anything, a distributor needs to be a movie buff. If he’s not that, he won’t enjoy what he is doing.”
India has about 600-odd film distributors, who in turn are associated with bigger players in Mumbai and Delhi, across the country. According to Atul Mohan, who runs the trade magazine Complete Cinema, India’s distribution territories are divided into circuits: Delhi-Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai and suburbs, Saurashtra, Nizam circuit, and so forth. There are more than 15 such circuits,
and this carve-up helps the smooth distribution of films. “Every circuit has distributors who know their consumers well,” says Mohan, “It makes sense for a producer to make a special deal with a distributor from Tamil Nadu if his film has the kind of content that can be sold effectively there.”
What is even less appreciated is how distributors often act as investors in a project. The most common distribution deals include minimum guarantee (MG), commission basis and acquisition/sale deals. Of these, the MG kind are the most favoured, whereby a producer sells the distributor the right to distribute a film for a pre-agreed figure (sometimes while the film is still being made); the distributor, in turn, recovers his investment from box office revenues (minus the theatre’s cut) uptil a pre-set ‘MG’ figure, after which the ‘overflow’ earnings are shared between the producer and distributor. Under such an arrangement, typically, the distributor bears the risk of a film’s failure, while sharing the spoils of a bumper success. A risk-free way for a distributor to operate is via a straightforward commission deal in which he need not invest anything; all he earns is his slice, a pre-set percentage of the earnings. In an acquisition deal, in contrast, the distributor simply acquires exclusive rights for a film, in which case he makes or loses money depending on how the film fares at the box office.
It’s a complicated job, and most of Bollywood’s top studios today, such as UTV, Balaji, Eros, PVR, Reliance Big Entertainment and Yash Raj, now have their own distribution networks.
This threatens to render independent distributors jobless. Some of them have found refuge in B-grade movies, including Bhojpuri and other regional films, while others have aligned themselves with corporate distributors as commission-earning partners.
Corporate distributors are new to India. Hollywood studios like Fox Star, Warner Brothers and Sony Pictures, while here to make movies, have begun acquiring Hindi movies as distributors (though only gingerly). Their record so far suggests they have plenty to learn. “Dev Anand’s Chargesheet was distributed by Warner Bros. Look what happened,” scoffs an independent distributor, “That’s why you need a sane distributor who knows which project to acquire, and even if he does acquire a bad product, should know how to sell it.”
The distributor hits the nail on the head, but foreign studios are fast learners with deep pockets, and once they get the hang of their audiences, their threat is sure to loom large. Independent distributors, the few who remain in business, would be even harder hit. Already, Naaz, a building where distribution strategies were worked out for some of India’s epic silver screen successes, is only a shadow of its former self. Few top distributors have offices here now, and those who do often fail to show up. Also, long gone are the days when a distributor could nudge a filmmaker to liven up his film with a song-and-dance sequence. “Why single out the distributor for that?” asks Kapur, “Sometimes, a producer may want to make some additions or subtractions to make his project commercially viable. One has heard such things happen to smaller films, but it’s not a practice, certainly not among the studios.”
Ramesh Sippy, an eternal optimist who still has an office at Naaz, holds out hope for the survival of independent distributors. They will survive, he says, even thrive. “Nobody knows the consumer like he does,” he reasons. An old hand himself, at it for over 40 years, he is not the Ramesh Sippy you think he is, though. He didn’t make Sholay—that was his namesake. But within distribution circles, he’s the more popular Sippy around. The business, he says, has undergone remarkable changes since the time he began in 1968. “I have seen the digital format come in, the multiplex boom, and the entry of corporates. Money has definitely quadrupled,” he says. Bollywood is routinely spoken of as a $2 billion industry, though no precise figure exists. “There was a time when distribution was a field job. Now, it is what I call ‘laptop distribution’,” says Sippy, “You have data collected over decades, and you sell your film on the basis of data that is inaccurate. Smaller towns, once poor, are now prosperous, and hence more films release there. Who’ll account for such changes? Distribution networks are evolving and the consumer profile is changing, but those sitting in top-floor offices think they know it all.”
Others, too, call upon Bollywood to re-acquaint itself with Indian reality. “Independent distributors are like single screens,” says distributor Rajesh Thadani, “we keep talking about revenue from multiplexes, but the fact is that the share from single screens far outweighs that from multiplexes.” Indeed, India has about 13,000 single screens, as opposed to 300-400 multiplexes.
Yet, Bollywood bigwigs don’t seem to be listening. This leaves distributors like Sippy worried about facing corporate competition. “[They are] flush with cash,” notes Sippy, “I don’t have public money. I may consider opting for public funding, but I don’t know…”
Is distribution, then, a thankless job? In a way, it is. Media apathy is partly to blame. For all the risks and pulse-readings they take, their role remains a mystery to most people beyond the trade. Sighs Thadani, “You will notice that even a theatre owner is written about more than a distributor.”