A dummies’ guide to the Devgn-YRF legal battle

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(contains interviews of other distributor and producer)

Choosing what movie to watch where is usually not a very complicated choice, usually made while flipping through the cinema listings page and seeing which theatre or multiplex is screening which movie. But what those lists will say this Diwali is not as easy a choice, at least not for the people who decide what their theatres will run, caught as they are in a somewhat unprecedented situation.

The logic of which movie is screened where is fundamentally not very dissimilar from the logic of which movie you watch. You have options, a first impression, word of mouth, the star cast, etc, and choose to put your money to go and watch one movie ahead of another when you have multiple options in hand. The theatre/multiplex owner’s logic is not very different. He assesses your interest level in turning out to watch a film and opts to run it in his theatre ahead of another, hoping for good business.

In principle, therefore, neither can you be made to choose one movie, nor can a movie exhibitor be made to screen one. And just as word of mouth can change our calls even after we have first made up our mind, initial turnout can make theatres change their schedules after the first week or even earlier, shuffling shows to bring them in sync with what the audience is consuming. A point to note – a multi-screen venue, what we call a multiplex, has the option to screen several movies parallel, and so the call is not really a make-or-break one, it’s more about the ratio. But a single-screen – a theatre – doesn’t have that luxury. It has only one screen. So when it says Yes to a movie, it, by default, is saying No to all others for that point of time.

Now, when Sholay was released, all this wasn’t such a problem. Movies had time to grow and expand by word of mouth, there were silver and golden jubilees, and the timespan for a movie to recover cost was infinitely greater. Today, when the great bulk of a movie’s money is made in the opening weekend, not even the opening week, any movie that doesn’t hit an adequate number of screens is kaput. You can keep praising the DVD later, as happens with so many award-winning movies that released in a handful of halls, but essentially, it’s sunk. But then, it happens all the time that some movies release in a hundred screens in a city and some in just ten, right? The guys who take the call on what to run – the exhibitors – can choose what they want to, it’s a free market, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal in this case is that a very large number of single-screen exhibitors are not really in a position to choose – since when they asked for prints of Ek Tha Tiger, the makers of the movie, YRF, made them sign an agreement that they could get Tiger only if they screened the next YRF movie coming on Diwali. Correction – only if they only screened the next YRF movie. So even if a theatre had, say, 5 shows in a day, it couldn’t show the YRF movie – Jab Tak Hain Jaan, which was untitled then – in 3 shows and something else in 2. It had to show only that in all 5 shows. Given the buzz around Tiger, and the economic muscle of YRF, the country’s biggest production house, and the not-so-strong economic muscle of the average single-screen theatre, most signed on the dotted line.

Which, of course, means that any other movie that began looking for halls for a Diwali release – and hall owners which began looking for it – didn’t have much of a choice. The number of halls left unfettered to choose if they would screen any competitor to JTHJ would go down sharply. The competitor, of course, is Son Of Sardaar. And how much has the number of halls potentially available to it gone down by? Devgn’s last starrer, Bol Bachchan, opened in 1200 halls. SOS is at the moment struggling to find 400. That means barely 30-35% of Bol Bachchan’s screens.

The implication: A potential loss of 70% of the money that the movie would have made from single-screen theatres. The consequence: Devgn moving the Competition Commission for legal redressal, and moving the High Court for timely redressal from the Commission.

When contacted, YRF representatives said that they had nothing further to add to their previous statement issued on this subject.

No. of single screens for JTHJ and SOS
Cities JTHJ SOS
Delhi 20 3
Bangalore 10 2
Saurashtra 18 3
Hyderabad 18 2
Dadar/ Mahim/ Matunga 6 1

YRF got my movie removed from all multiplexes: filmmaker
I am a Marathi movie maker and therefore, have less muscle power. But my first movie produced, Deool won a National Award, and so, everyone in the Marathi belt was waiting for Bharatiya, the second movie produced by me. Our film released on August 10, and we had ensured, after sharing production schedules with other Marathi filmmakers, that our movie did not clash with other movies. We were aware that Ek Tha Tiger was releasing on August 15. Nobody had, on 8th or 9th, told us there is going to be any problem, and a Marathi movie is no comparison with a YRF movie, so we did not foresee any clash. Suddenly, we were told that on 14th, our movie will be removed from all the multiplexes. We were told that ETT was looking at setting an unprecedented record, and so, Yash Raj had placed the condition that either they take all the shows, or they will get none.

It was a weekend, and I did not have time to go to courts, etc. Finally, I went to Thackeray saab, and played the Marathi angle. So, isn’t this an unfair monopolistic approach to put such conditions that affect others’ businesses because you want to make records? We also spoke to someone at the CCI at that time, but our voice was very feeble, and for me, the damage was done. The multiplexes, fearing unpleasant incidents, ran my movie for a couple of more days, but removed it after that. At least we could pressurise them, the single screens toh just refused to show the movie. And barring Marathi strongholds like Pune and Sholapur, our movies were off screens – reduced overnight, from 400 shows to some 80 shows.

So, my film suffered very badly. I also realised that the distributors are party to this along with the exhibitors. In fact, after I went to Balasaheb, I got calls from some exhibitor organisation saying I have not done the right thing, and that my forthcoming movies will face problems – almost a threat. This experience has left me feeling, to use a bad word, that this is goondagardi. Such one-sided practice is not a good thing in the industry. I come from the US – I have been there for 12 years, and had this happened there, the law would have taken action. But here, I now have to go back to those very exhibitors for the next film.
- Abhijeet Gholap, producer, Deool and Bharatiya

The aim of this practice is to corner any film releasing around Diwali: distributor

A condition was imposed on us, on each theatre, at the time of the release of Ek Tha Tiger, that they will only supply that film if we also screened Jab Tak Hai Jaan exclusively at Diwali. There was a single agreement for both films. We said that there will be other films also releasing at that time, but they said it had to be exclusively this film if we wanted Ek Tha Tiger. In Hyderabad, big films get about 20-25 single screens and about 10 multiplexes. Now, JTHJ has 15-18 single screens out of these. I have only two single screens left because at the time of ETT, YRF didn’t want them, even though I’d offered them; they didn’t release ETT there. Those are the only two single screens where I can run SOS.

The same pattern has been followed in Aurangabad, which is also in the Nizam territory. Out of five single screens there, YRF has taken four. Of these, two are mine, two they negotiated directly, and the one they left is only because it is one of two theatres in the same compound! In Bidar, Karnataka, out of three single screens, I gave them one, they got the second also, and the third only screens Kannada movies – so Son Of Sardaar will see no release there! This is definitely unfair practice. It completely kills the business of the distributors of Son Of Sardaar, and fortunately or unfortunately, I’m both a distributor of SOS and an exhibitor. The aim of this practice by YRF was to corner any film releasing around this time – agar doosri film ko screens milenge hi nahin, toh woh release kaise hogi?
- Dilip Tandon of Hyderabad,distributor of SOS in the Nizam and Andhra territory, which includes Marathwada

TOI