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Bengal Bioscope: A Big Picture Outlook for Sustainable Growth

Glimpses into a report by CII and IMRB on the Bengali film industry, based on a market survey and an in-depth interaction with industry stakeholders

The chequered history of Bengali cinema in a span of more than 100 years has many notable triumphs like the emergence of new theatres as a major player in the context of pan-Indian cinema in the 1930s; the arrival of Uttam Kumar and his pairing with Suchitra Sen ruling the hearts of Bengalis for over two decades; Ray’s Pather Panchali winning ‘Best Human Document’ at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, launching Indian cinema to the world map; and the emergence of Rituparno Ghosh in the last decade of the 20th century. It however had its moments of crisis, the worst of those being the death of Uttam Kumar after which the industry virtually came to a grinding halt.

In recent times, Rituparno Ghosh’s untimely departure in 2013 has left an indelible void in the industry. Although Bengali cinema today releases around 100-odd films every year, almost three times higher than comparable figures in 2005, recent trends in box office collections have not been very encouraging.

The total investment in the Bengali film industry is estimated at Rs 150-180 crore. A very large portion of this investment is made by Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF), which has been at the forefront of contemporary Bengali cinema for more than a decade.

The buoyancy in the investment, however, is not matched by the absolute and the growth in earnings in recent years. The industry is valued at Rs 120-150 crore in terms of expected revenue in 2014 and has shown negligible growth over the last year. According to industry estimates, not more than 10 per cent films released in a year break even and around a handful of films, typically five to six, generate enough surpluses to be called ‘hits’.

The key findings of the survey are:

  • Majority (54 per cent) of Bengali film viewers in Kolkata have not been inside a theatre in the last one year to watch a Bengali film despite proliferation of multiplexes.
  • In the districts, around two-thirds have visited cinema halls to catch a Bengali film but the frequency of visits is quite low, not even three films a year.
  • Around 30 per cent of Bengali cinema viewers do not contemplate watching a Bengali film in a cinema hall in the near future and an additional 10 per cent has stopped watching Bengali films on the big screen in the last year.
  • This is further corroborated by IMRB’s primary survey of 35 single screen theatres across Kolkata and West Bengal, revealing 30 per cent occupancy on weekends and 20 per cent on weekdays.
  • Around three-fourths of the Bengali film-viewing audience has expressed a desire to wait for feedback from friends and relatives before turning up to watch a film in a theatre.
  • The tastes and preference of viewers in Kolkata and the rest of Bengal are quite different, which is echoed by only a handful of releases successfully straddling both geographies
  • Multiplex viewers in Kolkata are younger, more mobile/ Internet articulate and they look for a fuller experience.
  • The more plush experience of film-viewing in a multiplex possibly has a positive rub-off as a Bengali film watched in a multiplex receives a higher viewer rating compared to one seen in traditional cinema halls.
  • Original, engaging content, a larger pool of good actors/ directors and better in-hall experience can drive Bengalis back to cinema halls.
  • Mobile phones are fast becoming the preferred medium of entertainment, especially in smaller towns; six of 10 people in the rest of Bengal (outside Kolkata) watch films on their mobiles.

In the light of these findings and expert opinions basis these insights, few important suggestions regarding content, best practices and requests for few Government led initiatives came to the fore. With the principal aim of getting Bengali film viewers back to the theatres in masses and make them watch more often, the different stakeholders within the industry believe that the following recommendations, each captured under a broad theme below can provide the much needed fillip to the industry, taking it to a more sustainable growth trajectory.

The primary focus should be on content

In these trying times for the Bengali Film Industry, there is general consensus that in the backdrop of a glorious past, Bengali Cinema content has ebbed over the years; gradually losing its popular resonance and contemporary relevance. The average movie goer rues this erosion, as do content creators and filmmakers, acknowledging the need for concerted efforts to create, nurture and present compelling content.

It is quite difficult to churn out original content in large quantities yet it has a critical role to play in the road to revival. It has to manage the risks by making lean budget films but needs to be encouraged to continue experimenting with new themes, novel treatment; adding variety and excitement to the content bouquet of Bengali Cinema.

Transform singlescreens to miniplexes

Despite over 400 registered single screens with digital projection facility; the estimated number of active halls is not more than 200 and continues to dwindle at a steady pace. Considering the population of the state, around 3 crore urban residents, this leads to quite poor screen density even in Indian standard. The situation worsens further due to very poor hall conditions At present, it is quite difficult to sustain single screen halls with over 700 seats running a maximum of four shows in a day with average 20 per cent occupancy.

Since the mode of primary revenue generation is through box office collection, a complete makeover of the single screen theatre is required. This would need organised investment in turning the 700-1000 capacity single screen theatres to two screen miniplexes with seating capacity of around 200-300 in key tier I towns and around 100 seating capacity single screen theatres in tier II/ tier III towns.

In this respect few important Government led supports and initiatives, like offering tax sops or other infrastructural subsidies to exhibitors interested in transforming the debilitating single screens in the districts to two screen miniplexes can become extremely vital in redirecting flow of private finance to the state and the industry.

Need for reassessment and renegotiations

The proliferation of digital projection has reduced the shelf life of films drastically from few months to an average of two weeks. This has a severe impact on Bengali cinema due to a large number of releases (seven to nine films in a month) round the year in a handful of active halls. As a result there is a constant pressure on a film to do well from its first day of release as otherwise it will be moved from the prime time show despite booking the slot in advance since there will be other films in queue. This auger well with the big producers cum distributors as they can negotiate better deals with the exhibitors compared to small independent producers.

The situation is no better in multiplexes where the latest Bollywood fares fill up all the prime time shows and Bengali films are pushed to the fringes. The struggle to get a better show time for Bengali films in multiplexes resonates quite well with many other regional film industries. Marathi films faced similar problems till the state government made it compulsory for multiplexes to screen Marathi films in prime time shows. The government has formulated policies even to the extent that permission for any new multiplex will be granted only if there is a dedicated screen showing Marathi films round the year.

The Bengali film producers and distributors want these policies to be replicated with an additional caveat of fair and transparent implementation of not letting one or two big producer/ distributors to monopolise these fixed prime time slots or screens in multiplexes.

The other big grievance of producers is the high cost of digital cinema interface (DCI) creation from the major digital cinema technology providers. They feel the current fixed cost (around

Rs 75,000) for digital cinema package (DCP) creation and the recurring cost of each digital print (around Rs 14,000) are much higher compared to the prevailing rates negotiated by other regional film industries.

The independent producers of Bengali film feel that these charges should be brought down immediately to market norms and instead of slapping a flat fee for each digital print, they should be allowed to pay on a weekly basis.

Another big impediment in not being able to realise full potential of a Bengali film release is the poor industry practice of releasing two highly anticipated big budget films on the same date. Considering the nature of the market it is difficult if not impossible to ensure healthy box office collections if two big films jostle for the same theatre and multiplex screens. Considering the low frequency of film viewing habit it is advisable to keep as much gap as possible between two big budget films to maximise collection for each, following the best practices of Bollywood industry.

Rely On Digital Platform

According to IAMAI report, there are 149 million active internet users in India in 2013.The advent of internet has changed the way information on films is delivered to users in India. In the recent years, convergence and cross platform marketing activities are increasingly becoming the norm in India. This poses a big opportunity for Bengali films as social media provides a more cost effective means to promote films prior to release compared to traditional promotions.

The demand to watch films instantly has also increased drastically with the proliferation of internet. A digital distribution platform can capitalise on this and enable one to watch a film immediately. Some online digital distribution companies globally, let audiences watch a trailer on any internet platform, and provide instant option of pay per view or purchase the physical copy. This way a film is sold simply and effectively to those who want to see it without having to persuade a hall to book it, a retailer to put it on their shelves or a broadcaster to license and schedule it. The content maker also has the independence to set the price. In countries like India, where the potential audience is huge, even a minimal ticket price can glean huge returns and in turn reduce piracy to a large extent.

Partner With Broadcasters

Television is still the most powerful medium of reaching out to a wider audience. Movies that work on TV cater to a much larger audience. On the other hand there is a constant fear of losing viewers due the growing tendency among younger generation to turn their back on television. In order to retain them, many broadcasters are now looking at producing films in regional languages. These broadcasters want more independent producers to come forward in joining hands with them in making a slew of small budget films to experiment with new genres, new scripts and rising stars.

Reach Out To Bengali Diaspora

Overseas box office collection of the Indian film industry stands at 10 billion INR in 2013 and is expected to grow robustly. Even for the regional film industries, while Tamil films have for long enjoyed a much bigger and geographically wider market abroad, the overseas market for Telugu films has grown significantly in recent years.

The overseas market for Bengali films in contrast has not been that encouraging barring few notable exceptions in recent times like Chander Pahar. A concerted attempt is required to reach out to the greater ethno-linguistic group across different parts of the world other than US. Aggregated data on internet search for Bengali films reveal maximum queries generated from Bangladesh, Middle East, UK followed by US. At over 200,000 London alone has the largest concentration of Bengali speakers.

The producers/ distributors can start by targeting the Bengalis residing in other Indian cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune and Gurgaon through selective release of content driven Bengali films only on weekends in well-known multiplexes.

Promote Bengal For Film Tourism

Attract producers from Hollywood, Bollywood and other regional cinema by offering incentives, tax sops in case a film is shot in West Bengal, showcases its exotic locales, cultural heritages or uses available studio spaces. This would provide a much needed boost to the tourism industry and generate employment opportunities.

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