ZIYA US SALAM
"Brokeback Mountain" sank. The box office was cool to "Capote". "Walk the Line" just about crawled to safety. Clearly there was more hype than viewers for Hollywood goodies in the Oscar-driven season.
It has been raining films! Only thing is, everybody is rushing for cover. There are hardly any takers for this Oscar bonanza, a season for "irregular cinemagoers who make up their mind through reviews and word-of-mouth publicity," as Vikramjit Roy of Sony Pictures puts it. Whichever way you look, newspapers are full of rave reviews for Oscar winners - there were more than a handful of speculative stories on who is likely to win, who is likely to lose out in the run-up to the big day last week - and channels have had special footage of the movies. But brush aside the hype, sandpaper away the glamour, the reality is starkly different.
Cool to Capote
At New Delhi's upmarket PVR cinema in Saket, there were more vacant seats than occupants for the first day-first show of "Capote", a film based on the life of Truman Capote. The film was released with just two prints across the country - the other one being in Mumbai. And despite the hype surrounding Philip Seymour Hoffman winning the Oscar for the Best Actor for his title portrayal, "Capote" has failed to notch up the numbers at the box office. It has garnered a sum total of Rs.5 lakhs from the twin territories. "Walk the Line" that got Reese Witherspoon the Best Actress Award did better, but only if one's lens is comparative. It collected a little under Rs.6.5 lakhs at PVR cinemas, prompting the guys to call it "a qualified success"!Much the same has been the fate of "Brokeback Mountain", widely tipped to win the Best Picture Award until "Crash" dashed all hopes. Ang Lee's film - he got the Best Director Award for his effort though - had a "red carpet" premier at Noida's PVR Spice cinema. Guess how many availed of his red carpet greeting? Only 62 people. Surprise of surprises, Bijan Bose, Manager, Programming, PVR Cinemas, calls it "very encouraging"! Again little surprise, "Brokeback Mountain" with a central story of two men in love, got three Oscars, and the media had a field day talking of the merits of "Crash" versus "Brokeback Mountain"! Interestingly, says Bose, "the collections of "Crash" did take a hike after the film won the Oscar for the Best Picture. Incidentally, "Brokeback Mountain" alongside "A History of Violence" could kiss the theatres in most places only after the awards had been announced, leaving one wondering if the Indian market even figures in the scheme of things of the big guns! And films like "Munich" and "Syriana" are still struggling to find either theatres or takers!However, it is not only these films that failed to cause even a flutter at the box office in this season of Oscar goodies. "Cellular" had much the same fate. "Walk the Line", that delectable bio-pic on Johnny Cash's life, had everybody who saw it raving about it. But the film opened to a lukewarm reception. It picked up after the announcement of the awards. Admits Bose, "The collections initially were low, then picked up as the word of mouth spread."Similarly, he defends the poor showing of "Capote". "There was not much awareness about the film." The point is reiterated by Roy who says, "it was a niche film for a niche audience".In fact that is the argument that runs parallel to all the Hollywood films that have opened this season. Even as Bose admits that "the expectations are too high. There is too much buzz in the trade circles, but the viewers are not interested," Roy discloses, "Market dynamics have changed, and we have been able to release a film like `Capote'. It may not have done well so far, but due to the award the film will be released at other centres now. And on the DVD circuit it will be a hit."He adds, "This is a soft period. Summer is jammed with blockbusters. It is that time of the year when irregular viewers, review-driven viewers come to watch films, not the first-day-first show kinds."
Earlier the better
Incidentally, even among the Oscar nominees and winners, some films that were released a shade before the Oscar fever gripped the circuit, have done better. Cases in point being "King Kong" and "The Chronicle of Narnia". While "King Kong" won three awards for visual effect, sound mixing and sound editing, "Narnia" won it for make-up. The former was released a good couple of months before the Oscars talk dominated our papers and shows, and went to smash box office records all over, including dubbed versions. The latter too was released well ahead of a horde of other films that ate into each other's business. Little wonder it went down well with the audience, most of whom had not read the book. Says Roy, "It was a big event film. There was a huge advertisement campaign. It was a more mainstream film. It has so far grossed close to Rs.10 crores. Again, its Tamil and Telugu versions have done as well. Its success is noteworthy because the film was released alongside `Rang De Basanti' in many territories."Much the same was the case with "Memoirs of a Geisha" that pipped other films like "Cellular" and "Transamerica" to Indian theatres. The film was released with 15 prints across the country, and has gradually picked up. "'Memoirs of Geisha' is a more vibrant film with greater visibility. Its brand equity was established at the time of release," feels Roy, pointing out how films need the visibility factor to make them count at the box office. Incidentally, that was the prime reason why "Transamerica" failed to deliver at the turnstiles. Narrating the story of a trans-gender woman who is a biological father to her son, the film was expected to get the Best Actress Award for Felicity Huffman. Instead, it only got feeble response from viewers here, and a no-no at the Academy Awards. Says Bose about the box office failure of films like "Transamerica" and "Brokeback Mountain", "Multiplexes may allow the release of such films but the audiences are still conservative. And some of the films go against our basic ethics. Everything that is humanity has to be immoral and everything that is foreign is not acceptable."Little wonder "Harry Potter", nothing more than a children's fantasy with its magic brooms and all, released a few months before the big night, floored all competition at the box office - it collected over eight crores. Yes, in this season of awards, there are few rewards for films released in a heap to capitalise on the perceived craze. As Bose says it, "The idea in releasing so many films is, if in a population of a billion, even if one per cent see the film, it would be fine." Well, that is fine for mathematics. At the box office, the numbers don't add up. And the viewers, said to be great fans of Hollywood mega stars, could not care less. Roy has the last word: "What works here is action and pure romance." Give us love, simple and straight, any day, any time of the year.