Boffo for Bollywood: Indian films earn a devoted following in U.S. cinemas


This fall, something unusual happened. Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a Bollywood film distributed by Yash Raj Films, made it into the top ten weekend releases. Opening on just 161 screens, the romantic drama featuring megastar Shah Rukh Khan earned $1.2 million, and would eventually take in $3 million. While Bollywood movies rarely make it into the “top ten” cutoff reported in most media, 11th to 20th place appears to be the box-office sweet spot for American releases of Indian pictures.

“Generally, every year a dozen or more Bollywood movies end up in the top 20,” Gitesh Pandya, editor of and a media consultant for Reliance Entertainment and other Indian film distributors, approximates. “Reaching the top ten is incredibly rare. It’s only happened three times ever.”

Two weeks later, Talaash opened even higher, to $1.6 million, but in a crowded post-Thanksgiving weekend that gave it a 14th-place finish. The neo-noir was even more successful abroad than it was in India, thanks to the presence of one of India’s biggest stars, Aamir Khan, who Pandya describes as a “thinking man’s” hero who offers particular appeal to the sophisticated members of the Indian diaspora.

While many Americans have seen a French-language romance or a foreign-language martial-arts film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, fewer can say they have seen a Bollywood movie, even as Hollywood directors—like Baz Luhrmann with Moulin Rouge and Danny Boyle with Slumdog Millionaire—incorporate some of their genre flourishes into their own films.

Yet there exists a growing market for Bollywood movies in the U.S. South Asians, a group that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, numbered 3.7 million in the 2010 census, and are one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. They tend to be educated and affluent, since many come to the U.S. on H1B visas, which require being sponsored by an employer. Since this type of immigration is conditional, there’s even more reason to stay connected to one’s country of origin.

Even with a booming population, box-office growth has outpaced population growth. Instead, better distribution and exhibition practices have made it more convenient to connect Bollywood fans with their favorite movies.

India has one of the most passionate movie cultures in the world, and that excitement for the cinema persists generations after a family has settled in the U.S. On Film Journal International’s website, reviews of Bollywood movies routinely show up in the “Most Viewed” section. Pandya, who helps make sure Reliance’s Bollywood movies gets reviewed by major publications, is not surprised. “The audience for this content is very hungry. They love these films. They want to know what does this critic say? What does India say? What does the U.S. say? Part of the reason for reviewing these films is that the traffic for these reviews be huge. The fans just love these movies so incredibly much.”

Traditionally, many Bollywood films were handled by mom-and-pop exhibitors. According to Sumit Chadha, the U.S. head of Reliance Entertainment, many theatres in smaller markets used to operate using minimum guarantees, which paid the distributor a flat amount regardless of ticket sales. Without standardized tracking, it could be difficult to gauge performance. Now, most distributors have more standard agreements based on percentage shares of the box office. “Every location is reporting on Rentrak. You can track on an hourly basis, and that transparency is there,” Chadha says. These changes were driven partly by the acquisition of many independent theatres by the U.S. branch of Big Cinemas, the exhibition arm of Reliance MediaWorks. Once acquired, these theatres continued to play Bollywood content, but reported box-office results to the distributor, further standardizing the market for Bollywood content. In many cases, markets that were thought to be small turned out to be much bigger once Reliance could see the box-office returns.

The biggest expansion in distribution in recent years has come from big industry players like AMC, Regal and Cinemark playing Bollywood movies in their theatres. When Pandya first started out in the business in the late 1990s, a standard release would have been on 80 to 90 screens. Now the bigger wide releases are opening on 160 to 170 screens. Smaller Bollywood releases may command a few dozen screens. Most of that increase does not come from independents, but exhibition chains. AMC first began playing Bollywood films in the late 1990s in one or two locations, according to Andra Kolega, programmer of special content for AMC Entertainment. Now the biggest Bollywood movies open in 50 locations. That’s a third of the total distribution. Regal Cinemas tells the same story. After “playing in a limited fashion for more than decade,” reports Russ Nunley, Regal’s VP of marketing and communications, Regal now lists 37 locations on its website that play Bollywood films regularly.

“The emergence of larger, more established U.S. distributors of these films” played a part in the expansion, which Nunley says has been the most significant over the past 18 months. But ultimately, distributors and exhibitors are responding to customer demand. “People vote with their box-office dollars,” Nunley sums up. “As we see more interest among moviegoers attending films, then both the exhibition industry and distributors will respond to that demand by increasing the supply.”

Pandya also points out that the infrastructure to distribute Bollywood movies in the U.S. has no equivalent. There is no U.S. distributor that specializes solely in French or Mexican films, for example. Yet there are three distributors that specialize in Bollywood releases. “India is the only country which has a regular system of their movies coming here, and distributors releasing them,” Pandya emphasizes. “Reliance, Yash Raj, UTV—these guys are releasing the biggest films, and the movies are coming out all 12 months of the year.”

Part of the growth in Bollywood moviegoing comes from turning people who used to get pirated cammed copies of movies days after their release into moviegoers. When it comes to piracy, Bollywood has charted a reverse course compared to Hollywood. Long before torrents threatened Hollywood movies, Bollywood distributors had to contend with bootlegs that could show up in America days after a movie released in India. People in smaller markets had no other choice if they wanted to see a film at the same time as their friends and relatives in India or bigger cities. Even if the latest Bollywood release was playing, it could require a long drive just to get to the theatre. Someone who lived in St. Louis, Missouri, could easily find a copy of a pirated movie at a store that catered to South Asians, but only with difficulty could watch the same movie in an actual theatre.

The demand was there in the 1990s, but the distribution was not. Now that people can watch Bollywood movies in theatres, they do. Even when movies release midweek because of big holidays, like Diwali for Hindus or Eid for Muslims, they always release day-and-date with India to combat piracy. Since many in America may take these days off anyway, the movies do big midweek business.

Starting a few years ago, Reliance actively worked to improve its distribution patterns. Besides looking at things like census data and prevalence of South Asian radio or newspapers, Reliance tapped into the resources of its sister company, Reliance Communications. With more than one million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada, Reliance Communications is used by a sizeable percentage of Indians, who sign up for their calling plans to make international calls at good rates. “We worked very closely with them to identify where the subscribers were, then identified key markets, and then went to AMC/Regal, and explained how big this could be for them,” Chadha recalls. “They were very open to experimenting with this.” The proof is in the results. Pandya and Chadha point to two locations that often post the highest per-screen averages for a Bollywood release: the Regal Commerce Center Stadium 18 in North Brunswick, NJ, and the AMC Mercado 20 in Santa Clara, CA.

“I would say 90% of the time they end up beating the Hollywood film that is playing in these locations,” Chadha figures. When 3 Idiots came out, the 2009 blockbuster that broke records in India and overseas, the comedy had a higher per-screen average than Avatar at the Regal Commerce Center in New Jersey. While the movies may be in the top 20 at the nationwide box office, they usually post one of the top per-screen averages in a given multiplex.

Bollywood movies generally do not have MPAA ratings, although audiences may be aware of the ratings they received in India. Some exhibitors are hesitant to release unrated content, but Indian films are much less explicit than U.S. films, particularly when it comes to sexual content. They’re more likely to provoke the audience than the ire of any regulators. “Lip-to-lip kissing may still prompt some gasps in the audience, depending on who’s there,” Pandya assesses. “Things like nudity are not a part of Bollywood films.”

Almost all Bollywood movies have song-and-dance sequences, and their quality can have a huge impact on the box office. The songs release four to six weeks before the movie, and can be a reliable gauge of a film’s success. If people like the music, they’ll show up. Even more than in the U.S., stars can spell success for a Bollywood feature. The three biggies, who tend to release one movie a year, are thinking man Aamir Khan, romantic hero Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan, who Pandya compares to “Stallone in the ’80s: low on talk, high on action, all brawn and no brain.” Salman Khan is “number one in India,” but doesn’t play quite as well in the U.S. Americans who get used to the extremely high production values of Hollywood action films don’t get quite the same thrill out of the star’s action outings.

That’s one of the subtle ways Bollywood movies play differently overseas. The total box office for Bollywood still comes primarily from domestic audiences. India has four times the population of the U.S. Attendance is high—but ticket prices are low. In many overseas markets, tickets cost much more. Films may incorporate English dialogue, or use international locales such as New York City or London, to increase the appeal to both the diaspora and better-off audiences in India.

American movies with intermissions died out sometime after the 1960s, but Indian movies, which can sometimes top three hours, usually include a break. That means customers may hit the concession stand twice, potentially raising an exhibitor’s “per-caps,” or spend per customer. While independent theatres have long offered samosas and other snacks to appeal to South Asians, bigger exhibitors are getting in the act. AMC will begin testing Indian-centric concession items, including samosas, in its theatres early this year.

Bollywood movies provide entertainment, but they also offer something extra for South Asians: connection to one’s culture. “Song and dance are so culturally embedded in Indian society,” Chadha reflects. Even for those who have established roots in the U.S., Bollywood movies have a larger purpose of keeping them connected. Chadha mentions his niece, a “typical American” girl born in the U.S. “Kids of her age would probably not go and watch them on their own, but she goes with her parents. When people go with their friends and families, it’s a big social interaction experience. It keeps them close-knit with their home country, and even keeps the kids that are growing up here connected.”