Notwithstanding my previous post on a film copyright ownership issue, I saw an outstanding independent movie on iTunes last night. I couldn’t help but wonder why India, my home country, doesn’t produce enough independent movies. I was always under the impression that the public demand for cheesy, run-of-the-mill, “feel good”, romantic, incredible potboilers complete with song-and-dance routines were responsible for walloping independent movies in India. While that is certainly true to an extent, this morning, I stumbled upon an antitrust suit that may explain how “mainstream” cinema producers may actually be stifling independent movies in India.
Ironically, the complaint was not filed by an independent movie producer, but by a big movie producer against another with the Competition Commission of India, a state body responsible for enforcing the Competition Act of 2002, which prevents activities that have an adverse effect on competition. In the suit, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant, a big movie banner, abused its dominant position in the Indian film industry by enforcing an agreement with single screen cinema owners. In this agreement, the defendant distributed a much hyped and anticipated summer film to single screen cinema owners on the condition that these owners would show another film from its production banner and only that film during Diwali, India’s holiday season that begins next week.
The importance of a holiday release cannot be understated, whether in India or in the United States. Moviegoers throng cinema halls with the expectation of catching something good, while producers line up movies by balancing the risk of competition with the reward of increased holiday viewership. In this case, the defendant company intends to eradicate its risk by shutting out its competitors’ films, and reaping the full reward of the holiday season viewership. This surely can’t be the first time a big movie production has used such unfair monopolistic tactics to stifle competition. Nor are these tactics confined to one big production company or the holiday season alone.
Sadly, the biggest losers in this game may not be these big fish producers, but independent movie producers who cop both ends of the stick all year. Independent movies are typically high quality, low key and low budget, regional language films that bank on a few single screen cinemas or multiplexes to showcase themselves and to advertise through word of mouth. Without screen availability, producers almost always have to bear a loss despite great movie offerings, and invariably lose the incentive to produce them at all. From an economic standpoint, that means lost jobs and lost revenues and taxes, and in a huge country like India, that amounts to a lot of money. But this also has huge social costs. Independent movies dissect cultural problems, people’s beliefs and attitudes, government bureaucracies, and a host of other social issues in a way that “mainstream” cinema simply cannot. These movies offer people a chance to rationalize their “feel good” entertainment with a healthy dose of practical reality and call to action. After all, isn’t the purpose of art to inspire people as well?
Despite my philosophical banter, unfortunately, India has a long way to go before it adopts a true meritocratic culture. The loopy laws of this developing country are still heavily biased in the favor of the rich and the powerful. Barriers to entry in all areas, including film making and distribution, remain extraordinarily high, because access to new opportunities is still confined to incumbents and politically well connected entities. I don’t expect this lawsuit to go anywhere. There will probably be an out-of-court settlement between the two warring producers, and a tacit agreement to share the holiday season spoils. That’s it. The poor independent movie producer will remain ignored and shunted forever, and viewers will be forced to consume the same garbage they have been ingesting all along. They will leave the cinema halls thinking they have viewed something very entertaining, simply because they haven’t been supplied anything even remotely subliminal.
That brings me to my questions. Should the arts and entertainment industry be subject to a more stringent and enforceable set of antitrust regulations in a country like India? Should quality and merit dictate distribution of arts and entertainment?