- The forced break in theatrical exhibition over the past few months has set Bollywood up for big change
- While viewers in metro cities are not stepping out due to covid-related concerns, producers are also aware that their content may not necessarily appeal to the audiences in small towns
NEW DELHI : The summer of 2020 was going to be an exciting one for Reliance Entertainment. The Anil Ambani-owned film production and distribution house had two big-ticket Bollywood titles that were slated for release within weeks of each other. Even the trailer for Akshay Kumar’s cop drama Sooryavanshi had been unveiled ahead of its late-March release date. The other movie—sports drama ’83—was locked in for release in the first week of April.
Then, the world turned upside down. Nearly 18 months later, either film is yet to see the light of the day. In the meantime, Reliance Entertainment and Ellipsis Entertainment, founded by media veterans Tanuj Garg and Atul Kasbekar, have taken a bunch of its smaller-budget offerings directly to digital streaming platforms—Parineeti Chopra-starrer The Girl On The Train was acquired by Netflix as were the two Tamil films Jagame Thandhiram and Mandela.
Reliance group’s chief executive officer, Shibasish Sarkar who has had a stressful couple of months, is confident that the big-ticket releases—although delayed by two years—will retain their appeal. But iron-clad certainty is no longer a given in Bollywood circles. The taste, preferences, and viewing pattern of India’s movie audience have all changed massively. “By and large, producers and studios have learnt to be cautious in these two years… because, if you think about it, there really is no benchmark for what the box office or any other stream of revenue will be like in a post-pandemic world,” Sarkar said. While there have been a few south Indian and Punjabi films that have seen success after the second covid wave in the spring of 2021, no Hindi film has tested the waters so far, Sarkar added.
As a result of this fog of uncertainty, many Bollywood producers are still unsure about the wisdom of relying on star power and big budgets. They also don’t know if the themes and tropes that used to work before the pandemic will work anymore. After all, movie viewers have discovered a plethora of new content via over-the-top (OTT) platforms during the interminable months when cinema theatres were shut.
This forced break in theatrical exhibition has now set Bollywood up for a big change, with filmmakers reviewing costs, putting high-risk, big-budget projects on the back burner and reviewing scripts to ensure there’s enough appeal to bring audiences back to theatres.
Actor Vicky Kaushal’s The Immortal Ashwathama, film director Karan Johar’s Takht and actor Tiger Shroff’s Rambo are among the films that have been pushed back. Producers have recognized that these projects either require more work or their budgets need to be re-evaluated, said people aware of the development.
A spokesperson at Ronnie Screwvala Motion Pictures, which is producing The Immortal Ashwathama, said: “In the last draft of the script, the ambition of the movie and the budget did not match. The VFX budget was far greater than anticipated and, hence, we have to go back to the drawing board.”
Same money, more value
The uncertainty regarding the theatrical business will continue to vex both studios and producers as they look at green-lighting film projects for 2022 and 2023, said independent producer Amar Butala.
The extended closure of cinemas in key markets such as Maharashtra has been making it rather challenging for box office collections to be within the range of ₹100-300 crore—a fairly common event before the pandemic—and this is likely to remain unchanged for at least a while.
“Shooting these (big-budget) films at this time of social distancing is complicated and with no clarity on when and how long cinemas will stay open, and if audiences will come back, it’s difficult to benchmark what the new box office reality will be,” said Butala, a former chief operating officer of Salman Khan Films.
“Producers will continue to make films with the big stars. That will not change…though (the) terms might be better negotiated, which would directly impact the production budgets,” Butala said, adding that when cinemas finally make a comeback, producers will have to reconsider their marketing budgets, as the rate of interest on them will be another grey area.
There’s also a bit of exhaustion in having money stuck in projects that are ready and may lose relevance with time, pointed out Nikhil Taneja, co-founder and chief executive officer of Yuvaa Originals, a Mumbai-based youth media, research and impact organization. Taneja has worked with several companies such as MTV and Yash Raj Films in the past.
“A lot of producers don’t know what to do with massive projects because people will be coming back to theatres after one-and-half years and one doesn’t know what is going to work,” he added.
In simple terms, the value of money has become dearer. “For projects with high scale and budgets, a rethinking is happening, as producers need all avenues, including theatres, to be available in order to recoup the investment. They know these films will not give them enough returns on streaming services alone,” explained film producer and trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar. OTT platforms also work with limited budgets and can only spend up to a certain amount to acquire or market films, which for a Bollywood tent-pole such as Sooryavanshi is not enough.
“For now, producers are looking at subjects that are light, massy and have wide appeal—like comedy or action,” Reliance’s Sarkar said. “The thought (behind this) is that viewers may not want to step out for heavy subjects. So, those plots are being parked right now.”
The big difference is that earlier, theatrical movie viewing was only a commitment of time and money, but now, it’s also a question of safety, said Vikram Malhotra, founder and chief executive officer of Abundantia Entertainment Pvt. Ltd that has backed films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Shakuntala Devi.
Ellipsis Entertainment‘s Kasbekar said that the churn that is underway within Bollywood stems from the fact that there are a number of options available now. “For instance, the whole idea of an item number or a song with people dancing at the back that doesn’t take the narrative forward is a crashing bore now,” he said.
Time to reinvent
Producers such as Sarkar and Malhotra believe that the age-old charm of big stars and lavish songs may not lose resonance anytime soon, given that these are all things that people have missed for the past two years. But for the Hindi film industry, which already makes very little content each year that has universal mass appeal, the challenge is humongous.
“Bollywood hasn’t invested in creating IPs (intellectual property rights) or franchises, a transition that Hollywood had made years ago,” Bihar-based independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan said. He feels a majority of Hindi film productions are only aimed at top metros such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Pune and Jaipur. Incidentally, these are the very same cities where up-market audiences are more paranoid about catching an infection in theatres—a big reason why no Hindi films have been lined up for theatrical release in the next few weeks.
While the viewers in metro cities are not stepping out, producers are also aware that their content will not necessarily catch the fancy of small-town audiences. In fact, apart from the exception of Tiger Shroff, whose death-defying stunts and dance moves lure small-town audiences, there are no mass-market stars anymore, Chauhan pointed out. “If the industry doesn’t course correct, it will have no films to draw viewers,” he added.
At the same time, the primary audience that goes to cinemas is the youth and they have discovered the world’s best content via OTT platforms.
“OTTs, in general, have helped everyone realize that they can’t make formulaic films anymore or take viewers for granted. The industry can’t keep making the same biopics and patriotic themes because there is so much available at the click of a button at home,” Yuvaa’s Taneja said.
The biggest change that the pandemic has wrought on to India’s entertainment business is that it has exposed audiences to different types of storytelling from all over the country and the world, said Sameer Nair, chief executive officer, Applause Entertainment, which has backed shows such as Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. “These stories have also introduced audiences to hitherto lesser-acknowledged actors, directors, writers and technicians. Both of these factors have combined to force filmmakers and content creators to raise the bar with regard to writing, performances and production quality. This is not to say that our love affair with star power is over, but just that everyone will have to work harder to tell better stories now,” Nair said.
Premium drama series storytelling, which is quite distinct from classic ‘start-middle-end’ movies and long-running daily soap operas, allows creators to explore subjects in more depth and present layered, nuanced narratives. While it cannot take away from the visual experience of the big screen, it does put pressure on so-called mainstream cinema to evolve, Nair pointed out.
“A lot of pre-pandemic notions about content consumption have been disproven. OTT viewership over the last couple of years has successfully challenged the classical belief system(s). A very serious focus on story and storytelling formats is entering every filmmaking discussion and that probably is for the better,” said Shariq Patel, chief business officer, Zee Studios.
“As filmmakers, we are actually seeking the currency of time from audiences. OTTs have made this fact clearer. While you may not step out of a theatre hall even if you find the film boring, on OTT, you will opt out without any remorse. This sharp focus on ‘stickiness’ has made storytelling tougher but at the same time, it’s also bringing about a quantum change within the writer and director community,” Patel added.
The unmissable element
Without really slowing down, producers are using this pause, induced by factors beyond their control, to also see what they can take directly to OTT platforms.
“They’re working across a range of budgets. So, there are many films that can also extract returns from OTT (platforms),” producer and exhibition expert Girish Johar said.
Several firms, industry experts say, have realized that they can’t just remain film production firms and have strengthened their focus on web shows and films. Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment, for instance, has Netflix originals such as Meenakshi Sundareshwar and Finding Anamika lined up while Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment, which has feature films planned with big stars, has just announced a content partnership with Netflix. Abundantia has bought the rights of books such as Flawed: The Rise and Fall of India’s Diamond Mogul Nirav Modi and Keepers of the Kalachakra, which are likely to be adapted into web streaming shows.
The thing about the theatrical experience is that it should feel unmissable and the story and innovation should be forward-thinking in terms of setting goals and aspirations for consumers, said Balkrishna Hari Singh, founder and chief executive officer, Frenzi, a single-window search and recommendation app for streaming content.
“The packaging of content should be such that it shifts the paradigm in some way,” Singh said, referring to cult titles that have managed to do this in the past. For instance, after film director Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), everyone dreamt of weddings and close-knit families. With Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), suddenly it was all about the charm of college life and friendship. With war epic Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) more recently, the spectacle and grandeur were hard to miss.
“The idea is to go where no body goes,” said Taneja of Yuvaa, while referring to the work of actors such as Ayushmann Khurranna or Malayalam actor Fahadh Faasil, who always comes up with smart themes and unseen topics that don’t necessarily require scale or big budgets.
Producer Abhishek Pathak also pointed out that going forward, while star power will continue to drive box office collections, there will also be a slew of great content-driven films that are not necessarily backed by big celebrities. The real draw would be the sheer power of the story that is being told.
“(This is b)ecause everything else is available at the click of a button,” Taneja added.
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