Could differential pricing encourage audience to sample independent cinema?
The debate of making the viewing choice between a star-led film versus a non-star-led film is both age-old and wearisome. In other words, it’s the debate between ‘mainstream’ films versus indie movies. While the numbers still favour star-led films, there are a few examples where indies have been very successful.
Not least among these films was the recent Lipstick Under My Burkha in Hindi, Angamally Diaries in Malayalam, Tithi and Lucia in Kannada and, of course, The Lunchbox in Hindi, all of which didn’t just strike gold at the box office and won critical acclaim, but also saw quantitative returns on investments. But can this be viewed as a benchmark? Can this anomaly be turned into a regular feature?
The crucial question is: is there a sustainable model that allows for indies in the country to enjoy a successful theatrical release, one that goes beyond a freak-chance of striking gold?
From mobilising resources from the state to supporting filmmaking and its distribution to alternative distribution mechanisms, there has been much talk about options for the distribution of India’s indies.
One possible viable option is differential pricing for non-star and independent content. This would have to be a system of differential pricing that is not governed by government directives but a mutual decision between the indie films’ stakeholders and exhibitors.
For instance, in May this year, the Karnataka state government capped all movie tickets at a maximum of ` 200, while on the other hand the Multiplex Association of India (MAI) urged the Karnataka government to withdraw this directive. While on one hand, the capping curtails revenues, it may also not be seen as an investor-friendly move.
A noted name in both independent and commercial films, actor-producer Sanjay Suri weighs in on the issue. Suri says, “The reality is that exhibitors won’t do that because this is not viable for them… but maybe the truth is also the fact that the pricing of a film has alienated audiences from coming to cinemas. If, earlier, 100 went to watch a film, now only 20 people can afford it; footfalls have reduced.”
Commenting on what may be a sustainable model, Suri says that a pricing differentiation for independent films, may not be enough. He, like another veteran in the independent space, producer Guneet Monga, suggests that specific show times be created for independent films and select auditoriums be identified to showcase specific films. “See the theatre model, Prithvi, Rangsharda, St Andrews go full. Maybe we could do something similar,” adds Suri.
The reality is that multiplexes across the country already employ a sense of location and time pricing. However, perhaps the next variant may need to be a product-form pricing strategy, where independent films are treated as a separate product under the same cinema umbrella.
Companies like PVR and 1018Mb have launched theatre-on-demand and variants of this, and this is perhaps a model worth exploring for independent cinema. PVR has also been the only exhibitor who, on a large scale, has explored alternative content and interesting distribution mechanisms for independent content, whether with PVR Live, the Director’s Rare initiative and more recently with PVR Vkaao.
Karan Ahuja, who leads the PVR Vkaao initiative as the Business Head, says that with this initiative alone, over 200-odd shows across metro and non-metro cities have been concluded, with the initiative doing very well. Asked if the model has thrown up areas where indie content has worked, he says the same is primarily in the metro centres of Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai etc.
Ahuja further says that while it may be difficult for a lot of indies to sustain for a week, this model allows the audiences keen on content-led films across India to consume this content.
This information leads us to another relevant question, that is, whether independent content primarily is niche content and metro-centric. Therefore, should the pricing model be limited to these specific cities and, more specifically, to only certain exhibition centres? But, then, does that ensure a sustainable model?
Suri opines that the takers for a film made by him versus someone else will be different, and the audience for both types of films will be different, with maybe a little spillover. One cannot treat them all alike and therefore definitely one cannot have not similar pricing.
Suri points out a couple of years ago, a few filmmakers and industry professionals had rallied support with a petition called ‘Save Indie Cinema’, which after a lot of traction translated into very little. This petition, to the I&B Ministry and Doordarshan, was jointly filed by the likes of Oscar Award-winning and National Award-winning sound engineer Resul Pookutty; National Award winner and Oscar Nominees Ashvin Kumar and Ashutosh Gowariker; National Award-winning filmmakers Aamir Bashir,Anant Mahadevan, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Aparna Sen, Ashim Ahluwalia, Bedabrata Pain, Buddhadev Das Gupta, Girish Kasaravalli, Goutam Ghosh, Gurvinder Singh, Jahnu Barua, Janaki Viswanathan, Mahesh Bhatt, Nila Madav Panda, Onir,Rahul Dholakia, Rakesh Sharma, Shyam Benegal, Sanjay Suri, Shonali Bose, Sooni Taraporevala, Sudhir Mishra and Kiran Rao, among numerous others. Part of the petition also called for the allocation of funds to create cinemas for indie cinema, and much like what France employed, make it mandatory for every multiplex to reserve all shows in one screen irrespective of collections, for indie cinema.
Differentiated ticketing for independent cinema surely seems like a viable option on the face of it. But maybe it is just on the face of it, until some serious agenda, muscle and conviction is put behind it to support content-driven cinema in the country.
“We can all talk about wanting to do something pathbreaking for independent cinema and content-driven films. But the reality is that there is a long way to go. There is no one answer to making this a sustainable industry. It has to be a collective effort and one where everyone in the value chain is able to see returns. Just revising ticket prices is not the solution and is not even a stop-gap arrangement,” opines producer Vivek Kajaria.
Noted producer-director Kiran Rao agrees and further throws up an interesting point, stating that while differential pricing may be a great idea to sample content in theatres, the question is, where is the consumption of this content being made? And is the sustainability of independent cinema beyond the realm of the traditional theatrical model?
Monga agrees and showcased this with the release of her feature Haraamkhor by Shlok Sharma, where through the theatrical release of her film, she recouped the promotional cost incurred while releasing the film theatrically and then subsequently made profits on the film through the exploitation of the other rights on the film.
Another option that may be worthwhile exploring is the Picture Time model of touring cinemas, with a custom built movie theatre on board a truck. A systematic release strategy with this might just be another answer, with the pricing of movie tickets as a viable variable.
While the model is yet being figured out, here’s to taking the first step, regardless of the roadmap.
– Sanjay Ram