In June 1938, Loew’s, Inc. opened a new movie palace in Bombay to secure exhibition of its MGM films. Seventy years later, the same Metro Theatre is now the flagship of a global BIG Cinemas chain with theaters in India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and the United States.
While not all of BIG Cinemas’ 107 screens in the US exhibit Indian films exclusively, many of these theaters hope to become important community, and not just entertainment, centers. Phil Zacheretti, who manages the US circuit, notes that while other theaters may book films like My Name is Khan (2010), those venues “are not going to serve samosas. Our theaters,” he adds, “become the gathering place where families can meet in the lobby before and after the movies.” The BIG Cinemas in Niles, Illinois retains patrons with its “Ebony Lounge” and a restaurant and bar open until 2:00AM.[i] The chain’s concession stands also serve mango lassis, papdi chaats, samosas, chai, Indian fruit breads, and more. When Aadhavan (2009) opened at the BIG Cinemas Towne 3 in San Jose, California, patrons were given laddu (an Indian dessert) by the film’s distributor and wished a “Happy Diwali” in Tamil.[ii] With its mix of Indian films and atmosphere, BIG Cinemas already account for up to 35% of Hindi film and over 70% of Tamil and Telegu grosses in the US.[iii]
BIG may be part of a new wave of foreign exhibition circuits in the United States. CGV Cinemas, a South Korean chain, recently opened its first cinema in Los Angeles and “aim[s] to one day become an industry leader in the United States as in Korea” with a “community-oriented atmosphere” and a mixture of Korean and subtitled American films.[iv] Toho operated a few theaters in the US beginning in the 1960s, but this wave of foreign exhibitors is far more capitalized. BIG (and CGV), though, should be mindful of the many Spanish-language and Chinatown theaters that once dotted the United States and have since vanished. Is their rise and fall a possible outcome for BIG Cinemas? Only time will tell.
For now, the success of BIG Cinemas is a symbol of changing demographics and of the global popularity of Indian cinema. Foreign exhibitors like BIG and CGV are finding new opportunities in the US market by catering to diasporic audiences hungry for films, food, and community. As evidenced by the clip to the left (a screening of Endhiran (2010) in San Jose), this is not an average night out at an American megaplex or an unimportant industrial and cultural phenomenon.
This is BIG.
[i] "AdLab's "Big Cinemas" Opens BIG in Chicago, IL" BIG Cinemas Press Release, May 19, 2009. http://www.behindwoods.com/tamil-movie-news-1/may-09-04/big-cinemas-19-05-09.html; Andreas Fuchs, “Popcorn & Poppadum: Phoenix and India's Adlabs Align Forces for America,” Film Journal International, July 18, 2008. http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/esearch/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003829242; Richard Verrier, “Bollywood Movies a Bright Spot for U.S. Cinema Industry,” Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ct-bollywood26-2009oct26,0,3160762.story
[ii] Verrier, “Bollywood Movies a Bright Spot for U.S. Cinema Industry."; BIG Cinemas Opens In California, India Journal, December 31, 2009. http://www.indiajournal.com/pages/event.php?id=9464
[iii] “BIG Cinemas: About Us,” BIG Cinemas Website. http://us.bigcinemas.com/contact_aboutus.asp
[iv] “CGV Cinemas: Company: FAQ,” CGV Cinemas Website. http://www.cgvcinemas.com/company/faq.asp
The Global and the Local
This is a really fascinating case study, Ross. With ticket sales on the decline, hearing about examples where cinemas become gathering spots for specific community groups is even more important to consider when we think about the future of these theaters. Do you happen to know how diverse the audiences in these theaters is (i.e. do spectators outside of these communities also attend?)
BIG and The Pubic Sphere
Ross, I will be getting over to Niles as soon as possible to see one of these first person. In your post, I get the sense that your also speaking to the ways in which counter publics are organizing in the new century. Does the success of these chains say that 'mere attention' to use Warner's terms is insuffecent to constitute a cinematic public?
Daniel, Regarding the BIG in
Regarding the BIG in Niles, I'm curious to see if the concession offerings are still as diverse as advertised. The Ebony Lounge -- which is the same name as the lounge in the flagship Metro BIG Cinemas in Mumbai -- should be interesting. The Niles theater is one of the hybrid venues showing a mix of Hollywood and Bollywood so it may reflect the "publics" that are attracted by both sets of films.
As for whether "mere attention" is "insufficient to constitute a cinematic public," I'm also interested in the notion of a temporal public. Publics and counterpublics may be constituted through social spaces, gatherings, and other activities, but since theaters and audiences come and go it seems that their permanence is at issue.
The notion of a "public" is certainly in flux but so is the social and industrial conditions that create them. One nagging question remains: Is BIG creating a "cinematic public," building on one that already existed, or simply monetizing a market? Or is it all three?
Daniel, Thanks for the
Thanks for the terrific questions.
I don't think these dynamics were "obscured" for American media conglomerates. Independent companies have dabbled in distributing Indian movies such as Lagaan (Sony Pictures Classics, 2001), but primarily for independent (art house) theaters. The innovation here is that a chain is creating a consistent space for a specific national cinema rather than an art house theater trying to bring Indian films into its normal mix of programming. BIG is creating a brand identity for the diaspora.
Foreign investment may be required to create a counter public, but Phoenix Theatres was already operating some Bollywood houses before their partnership with Reliance. The union made a larger, more significant chain.
There are more and more partnerships between Indian companies like Reliance and American companies such as DreamWorks and CBS. That is a separate but equally fascinating development.
One of the reasons why studying exhibition can be fascinating is the way in which a company like BIG Cinemas can expose the viability of a market and of a community (or public). Regal, AMC, and Carmike might start showing more Indian films, but, like Zacheretti notes, they're probably not going to start serving samosas or creating a distinctive atmosphere that is one of the central reasons why the BIG and CGV concepts may work very well.
BIG's Morning Video
For those interested in BIG marketing and promotional activities, here is an interesting video (http://www.facebook.com/#!/video/video.php?v=530461804190) released today and photos of recent in-theater events (http://us.bigcinemas.com/buzz.asp).
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