Three years ago, while working on the centerpiece of our 4th anniversary issue, we visited the offices of the leading film studios and production houses in the country to interact with the teams there. The objective was to get an insight into their respective philosophies, modus operandi and future plans.
These were not just any production outfits. Our criteria for shortlisting them was that they had to be of a certain size and stature and be currently active i.e. have a steady stream of recently released or under-production films and not just have dabbled in one-off releases.
Yet, despite these qualifiers, we ended up visiting and featuring as many as 16 banners. And, mind you, that number would have been higher had it not been for reasons like key personnel in some eligible production houses travelling on film shoots or being in a period of mandated media silence due to fund-raising norms.
Cut to: The Present.
With work on our 7th anniversary issue underway, we are glad that we have a different theme this year. Because if we were to repeat the same exercise today, we would be hard-pressed to find even half that number of production houses that are genuinely active and relevant!
Lately, all the news and gossip that emanates from the trade evokes only doom and gloom – of pioneers of the studio movement in India suspending local production, of production houses struggling to fund green-lit projects, of multiple parties having to join hands to be able to complete productions, of banners practically downing shutters without formally announcing it, and of recently sought-after projects suddenly finding that there is no one chasing them any more.
If that was not enough, the satellite rights market, while thankfully not comatose like the once substantial home entertainment (DVDs and VCDs) sector, is nowhere close to the heights it was at a few years ago. Moreover, only a few big-ticket films are able to muster decent prices from broadcasters, leaving only meager pickings, if any, for small and medium–budget films.
Obviously, this period of transition that we are going through is going to be neither easy nor painless. With fewer buyers and reduced war-chests available in the market, getting projects green-lit will get a whole lot tougher. And the few lucky ones that do manage to secure funding will typically have to sign up to tougher terms and substantially reduced budgets than they would have accepted not too long ago.
By itself, this price correction is not necessarily a bad thing and indeed, even essential for some cost heads. However, budget cuts in our industry often translate into squeezing the already underpaid and compromising on filmmaking basics rather than taking on the real malaise like bloated star staff fees, ineffective marketing campaigns and the like.
It is naturally easy to feel depressed in such a scenario but that really doesn’t help change things. So, as hard as it may be to remain positive in such times, let us try and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.
For one, our industry has survived a century of odds and upheavals and it has done so on the strength of one thing, and one thing, alone – the Indian public’s love for cinema. That is the very bedrock of our existence though, like many basic truths, it’s often something we forget or take for granted.
While this may not have been a champagne year for the Hindi film trade so far, the fact that Hollywood’s The Jungle Bookor the Marathi language Sairat clocked record-breaking numbers during the same period tells us that there is no let-up in the general propensity to go to the neighbourhood theatre.
Moreover, even in the case of the rising Hollywood performance at the Indian box office, we should remember that the highest grossers are those that release dubbed versions in Hindi and other regional languages and lately, further Indianise the content by having domestic stars lend their voices and endorse films etc.
The point is: Indian people love the movies and are happiest experiencing them in local languages. The ball is in the court of creative entrepreneurs to tap into the huge latent demand.
Another emerging positive is the likely rise in digital revenues for filmmakers. With a slew of foreign and local players setting up digital platforms, access networks, apps and more, the resultant bidding war for digital rights should bolster films’ bottom lines.
However, while maximising this opportunity, let us be aware of the possibility that eventually this market will stabilise as players fall by the wayside, unable to afford the cash burn. So, by all means, make hay while the sun shines, but do not repeat the mistake we made during the satellite rights boom, of thinking that the party would last forever.
Perhaps the biggest silver lining of this dark cloud is the possibility – nay, the necessity – that many producers will now be forced to address and cater to the real audience, the film loving public, rather than being project assemblers and peddlers of IPR.
For quite some time now, the sole agenda of many filmmakers has been to have their films acquired by studios and therefore everything – right from subject selection to casting – has been undertaken while second-guessing what might appeal to a certain buyer. In the process, many have forgotten that getting a studio to back you is a means to an end and not the end goal itself.
Ultimately, it is the paying public that makes or breaks a film – and a film industry – by voting with their wallets at the box office. It is time for us to woo them directly again… by putting our (own) money where our mouth is.