Business Today

No Country for Oscars

Dearton Thomas Hector        Print Edition: March 17, 2013

In 2008, No Country for Old Men, a film directed by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, won the Best Picture Academy Award. The Academy Awards recognise excellence in films released during the previous year. The film, a dark and absorbing tale about a fortune, a busted drug deal, and a hitman, won three other Oscars: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. With that kind of pedigree, it should have done well at the Indian box office.

Instead, it earned a mere Rs 20 lakh. The biggest Hollywood grosser in India that year was Spider-Man 3, which earned Rs 68 crore . A couple of years later, The Hurt Locker, a film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The film, helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, also met the same fate at the Indian box office, earning just Rs 2 crore. That year, the biggest Hollywood flick in India was Avatar, which grossed Rs 110 crore. It remains the biggest Hollywood grosser of all time in India.

Avatar did win three Oscars, but all lesser ones, involving visual effects and cinematography. Those features, particularly the special effects, played a big role in its box office appeal.

With the exception of Avatar and Titanic, both directed by James Cameron, films that have won prestigious Academy Awards have not been very successful in India. Even Slumdog Millionaire , which had an all-Indian cast and a plot based entirely in India, did only moderately well, with box office takings of Rs 20 crore. The film did better outside India - it had worldwide gross earnings of $377 million.

"Awards don't matter at all at the Indian box office," says Komal Nahta, a film trade analyst. "The Oscar festivals conducted by multiplexes are a marketing gimmick. They want to stay in news. They know that they won't be able to get enough footfalls," she adds.

Kamal Gianchandani, President of PVR Pictures Ltd, the film production and distribution arm of the PVR Group, points at the lack of a commercial quotient in these films. "Movies such as the Harry Potter series or 2012 are highly commercial and cannot be compared to Oscar nominated movies. They are more visual-oriented," he says. 2012 was dubbed in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi and is estimated to have grossed around Rs 90 crore.

Rs 1.25 cr Collections of the Oscar-nominated Lincoln in India, to date

Apart from Best Picture, the Best Actor and Best Actress awards are among the more coveted Oscars. These usually go to those who feature in biopics or dramas, and those do not always do well at the box office either. Recent Academy Award-winning biopics include Capote, The Queen, Milk and The Iron Lady. This year, Lincoln is in the running. But it hasn't done too well so far; Lincoln has disappointed," says Faisal Farooqui, Founder-CEO, MouthShut.com, a review site. To date, the film has earned just Rs 1.25 crore in India. Incidentally, Lincoln is a co-production between the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox and Amblin Entertainment. It has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards.

"Be it a local award or an international award, it doesn't matter. There is curiosity but the reach is limited. The majority of people look for entertainment," says Taran Adarsh, a film critic and trade analyst. "I would say that unless these (Oscar-winning) films have the required dramatic tadka for an Indian audience or have a setting closer home, with characters who can be identified, they will find the going tough in India," adds Farooqui.

Titanic, a film about the huge passenger ship that sank in April 1912 after crashing into an iceberg, had a lot of that "macula". The film, released in 1997, had a romantic plot weaved in, giving it a commercial appeal. It remains the highest grossing Best Picture winner in India, with gross collections of around Rs 52 crore.


To be fair, Oscar-winning films not doing well is not an India-only phenomenon. Even in the US, they tend to disappoint. For instance, in 2011, the highest grosser was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which grossed around $380 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The Artist, which won the Best Picture award, garnered only $40 million. It's pretty much the same with other Oscar winners. The only exception to this trend (since the 2000s) came in 2003. That year, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which bagged 11 awards, including Best Picture, was the biggest grosser with $377 million.

Limited theatrical releases are also responsible for the poor response in India. "Oscar movies release only in around 100 screens whereas the more commercial movies get released in 800 to 900 screens," says Gianchandani. However, that is beginning to change with the switch to digital technology. "In the past, very few prints (of Oscar-nominated films) came to India. Studios now release more prints," says Alok Tandon, CEO of INOX Leisure Ltd, a multiplex chain.

"The Indian market has changed. There are a lot of multiplexes now. If there is an Oscar nomination, the films get more publicity and it creates a buzz in social media," adds Jehil Thakkar, Head of Media and Entertainment at KPMG India.

Perhaps, there is hope yet for those who get their hands on the 13.5-inch statuettes.

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