This is supposed to be a busy time of year for Bollywood. School exams are over and Hollywood’s summers blockbusters are typically still a couple of months away, making it the perfect time to release India’s big spring flicks.
Instead, the corona virus pandemic has brought the world’s most prolific film industry to a halt. Movie theaters have shut their doors, production companies have called off shoots, and film studios have delayed releases — including the debuts of at least two major films that were expected to carry the season. The highly anticipated action film “Sooryavanshi” and the cricket biopic “83,” the latter of which tells the story of India’s 1983 World Cup victory, were both pushed back for “health and safety” reasons. The producers did not say when they would be released.
“The films were huge,” said Shubhra Gupta, film critic. “There was a huge deal of anticipation from the audiences. It’s a big loss.”
The pandemic has likely cost India’s film industry more than $330 million in lost box office revenue and canceled production shoots, according to Komal Nahta, a film trade analyst and television host.
More than 1,800 movies were produced in India in 2018, according to Statista, a research and data website. That was more than any other country’s film industry that year.
While Hindi-language Bollywood films dominate the industry, there are other significant players, including the regional hub Tollywood (Telugu language), along with films made in Marathi, Bhojpuri and Bengali.
Box office revenue in India was $1.4 billion in 2019, a nearly 12% increase over the year before.
Film producers in India don’t just want to please their Indian fans, either. Some of the biggest names in Bollywood, including Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone, help the industry rake in revenue from audiences around the world. Last year, the action thriller “War” took in $13.7 million overseas, about a quarter of its total box office haul.
“With India, the problems are manifold because all the cinemas across the world will have to open,” said Nahta. “Overseas revenues for big Hindi films form a huge component of the total revenue.”
But the corona virus pandemic has completely upended any plans to release movies in the near future.
“We’re going to see a cascading effect on films,” said Gupta, the film critic. “This will affect the entire slate of movies for this year.”
Even if movie theaters do reopen, they will continue to lose money if they are unable to seat full crowds, according to Nahta. He pointed out that Chinese cinemas have been selling movie tickets with social distancing rules in effect.
“If you’re selling tickets based on social distancing, you’re reducing your capacity because for every seat you sell, you keep one vacant,” he added. “If your capacity is 50%, it will not support the huge film budgets.”
With film production on hold, many in the industry have been left without much work to do.
“The truth is we are not going to be working indefinitely,” Nayar said. “You can’t practice social distancing, everyone works so closely.”
When it comes to recouping lost budgets, Nahta predicted that big names — both in front and behind the camera — may have to take a pay cut. He noted that fees for top stars constitute the highest portion of the budget, and are especially likely to be targeted.
Meanwhile, Gupta said she believes the pandemic will prompt more conversations between production houses about release dates, so that two big films don’t release at the same time and eat into each other’s profits. She added that she thought the industry was likely to see other changes, too.
“There will be more rationalization, cooperation, empathy and the consideration of the long-term health of the industry,” said Gupta.