In order to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster imported to Mumbai, one must obsessively recheck BookMyShow, the Indian equivalent of Fandango. Missing the posted showtimes can mean missing the movie entirely — many titles come and go in just a week, with theatrical windows outside of the U.S. getting narrower and narrower as cinema competes with streaming. The world of television and the new mechanics through which it’s delivered — Netflix, Amazon and countless other services — provide an on-demand, at-your-convenience viewing model that movies can’t seem to keep up with.
That’s where companies like Vkaao and 1018mb enter the picture. They’ve spent the last year and a half changing the film distribution game in India, allowing audiences to decide what they want to watch on the big screen, when they want to watch it, and where. It’s a model that could prove pervasive as the war for attention wages on.
Here’s an example: In one of the final weeks of summer, the front page of Vkaao featured the Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder rom-com Destination Wedding, while 1018mb touted the Indian romantic drama Once Again (which also went straight to Netflix a few weeks prior). Neither film had enough buzz to receive a full theatrical rollout in India, but if enough people had bought tickets to the prospective showings (the minimum number to “greenlight” a screening varies by time and location; for these two, it’s about 70 buy-ins) then either film would play for a single night.
The Indian apps make distribution a democratic affair, placed directly in the hands of the audience. The Marathi-language drama Lathe Joshi — ironically, a film about the pull and push of technological progress inspired by the death of celluloid — was a recent beneficiary of the new model; it slunk away after a meager two-week run, which few people took advantage of. However, through 1018mb, word of mouth was strong enough that the film had a series of revival screenings less than a month after its release.
Companies like 1018mb and Vkaao are focused on changing audience habits, and anticipating the needs of a rapidly evolving marketplace is their bread & butter. Fittingly, Vkaao co-founder Karan Ahuja has the same instincts; when I sat down with him to discuss the company model, he answered most of my questions before I even needed to ask them.
Launched in January 2017 as part of India’s PVR chain of multiplexes, Vkaao recently teamed up with ticketing hub BookMyShow (Vkaao’s own purple fits the app nicely), allowing a wider digital platform for indie films that can’t afford physical marketing.
“[The founding of Vkaao] was essentially driven by two things,” said Ahuja. “One was from the cinema’s point of view. Especially over the weekdays, there’s a lot of vacant inventory available, which practically goes unused. The second was on the consumer front, where we realized that whatever is currently being played in theaters may not always attract everyone. There is always a need for consumers to watch something more discerningly and have a sense of empowerment over what they want to watch.”
“You cannot think of not giving a choice to the consumer,” Ahuja emphasized. As the culture becomes more fractured vis-à-vis entertainment — only big studio productions tend to find widespread success; everything else is a niche — fewer films receive enough attention to warrant even week-long engagements.
Between mainstream Hindi studio films (“Bollywood”) and the various regional industries, India produces around two thousand films annually (1,986 last year, to be exact). Add to that the American studio blockbusters that make their way to Indian multiplexes and smaller international films that receive award-season acclaim, and you’re left with a demand-supply disconnect.
A Fantastic Woman, the 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, for instance, couldn’t possibly afford a full run in Indian theaters, let alone bring in the kind of audience that would justify it financially. Vkaao, however, managed to program it for one night across various metropolitan cities this past August, effectively applying the click-to-watch model to a shared experience.
Newer releases aren’t this model’s only focus. Vkaao and 1018mb’s libraries run hundreds of films deep, offering digital prints of everything from recent Hollywood hits like the Harry Potter films and The Dark Knight to classics of yesteryear from the world over, including Amar Akbar Anthony (India, 1977), Ozu Yasujiro’s Late Spring (Japan, 1949) Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1958), and even 1920s silent films like The General and The Lost World.
India’s repertory scene is practically nonexistent. In Mumbai, one cinema plays “classics” on Sundays, while museums and organizations like the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image are able to put together occasional screenings. But there’s no dedicated programming on par with metropolitan rep palaces like the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles or The Metrograph in New York City, which have regular lineups of old film prints and undiscovered gems.
There is, in part, a technical reason for this disparity. Of the aforementioned 1,986 Indian films produced last year, exactly zero were shot on film, following the collective decision by Indian cinemas to abandon film projectors. An unfortunate artistic erasure to be sure, but one that digital distributors like Vkaao manage to adapt to with the depth of their rosters, offering near-instant access to cinematic artifacts nationwide, rather than having to shop a single print from city to city and pay for its upkeep.
If I wanted to, I could schedule a screening of King Kong (1933) for as early as a week from today, as long as anywhere between seven and 78 other people wanted in on the experience. If I were particularly impatient, I could skip the confirmation limbo period and buy out the seven-seat minimum myself, since tickets are only 100 rupees each — less than $1.40 — though that wouldn’t, in all likelihood, be necessary. These screenings sell rather quickly, owing to the hunger for classic films that are otherwise unavailable in India through any means but piracy.
The DVD market in India has all but disappeared thanks to the digital revolution, but outside of illegal torrenting, even online audiences are at the mercy of the red tape of international streaming rights. Theatrical-on-demand is proving to be an alternative for classics in the interim.
While little-known American companies like Tugg in Austin and Gathr in Los Angeles provide similar services for under-seen indies and aging studio movies, they’ve yet to break into the mainstream like their Indian counterparts. How did the likes of Vkaao manage make that leap?
For one thing, the support of PVR Pictures (PVR’s distribution wing) certainly helps with exclusive weekend releases of films like Miss Sloane. Though according to Ahuja, it’s also about understanding the ones and zeroes.
“It all depends on the kind of analytics we use,” he says. “We have enough data points to realize what kind of content can work. We have enough to realize what the potential is for them to work, so we talk all these data points into consideration and figure out the potential for the content. And on the basis of that, we reach out to the distributors or the content right owners indicating the potential cost outlet for us to bring the content into the market through an on-demand model.”
The word “content” can be wince-inducing to traditional artists; some consider it reductive, turning art primarily into a commercial product, but it’s an approach that makes sense even for movie lovers like Ahuja — a fan of war films, his favorite in the Vkaao library is Fury — who know full well that commercial art lives and dies by its economic viability.
“Having said that,” he continues, “sometimes it’s not the numbers that make sense. Sometimes it’s the passion of the filmmakers or the owners to bring their content into India. Because you never know — once it has had a significant or even decent release overseas, it may open a lot of other opportunities for indie cinema within the Indian market.”
Siddhant Adlakha is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York and online.