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Primal Screen

The transition from ‘filmmaker’ to ‘storyteller’, and that’s more than just a change in semantics

Shekhar Kapur attends the BFI Film Festival Awards, at LSO St Luke's in East London.

I am soon going to be working with either Amazon or Netflix… Yes, I will be entering the digital space soon. And it is my obsession for storytelling that makes me okay with all platforms of exhibition for my stories. You know what? I tell my stories in 140 characters on Twitter or you can even check my Instagram account. All those photos I put up have a story written for them. The digital space is a limitless zone, which gives us some massive opportunities.

There are a few aspects to the digital world. One, India is not getting in to Amazon or Netflix; it’s actually Amazon and Netflix getting into India. There are very good reasons for them to do so. For Amazon, the Indian retail market is worth 1 trillion dollars a year. That’s how large it is!

The digital retail market you are seeing with rise of Snapdeal and Flipkart and even PayTM, is just the tip of the iceberg in India, which is almost as big as it is in the USA already. With 1.2 billion people, Amazon recognises this rise very well. For them, India is one of the major markets, considering it is driven by e-tailing for them. So I think their bet in India is going to be bigger than Netflix’s.

In India, we probably only have about 1,0000 screens for feature films in so many languages – Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and more. On the other hand, China is adding 15 screens every day. So we can go on making films but where are the screens? And that is a big problem in India.

What I am saying is, ‘Guys, wake up!’ Yes, all of us want our films out on the big screen but if that isn’t an option, then we have to look at other platforms like television. But the biggest screen in India now is becoming 800-900 million cell phones. Even if 10 per cent or 20 per cent of smart phones exist in our populous country, that itself is 16- 20 million people. This is the other aspect of the digital world. It makes the viewing platform limitless.

I would hate my movie to be watched on a small phone. I have always made films for the theatre yet that doesn’t deny the fact that 90 per cent of the audience is not going to the theatre to watch it.

They are still watching it illegally on their phones or they are watching it on television. The great digital revolution is the number of people that can see it other than on Amazon and Netflix. You can put this to test by asking your friends about the last movie they saw on the big screen and the last movie they saw in the digital space.

I know this creates concern for those purely making cinema for the big screen. So, here’s as an example… it’s like ordering food at home and going out to eat. The other day, I was with my daughter Kaveri, and she wasn’t well, so I called for home delivery. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like going out.

That’s exactly the same thing with film. You can watch a film at home but every now and again it’s a social thing. You want to go to a movie because it’s an outing. You still want to go on a date, you still want a family outing. So those social behaviours will be the reason for people going to the theatre. Although, honestly, we are not making it easy for our audiences to go to the theatre!

Ticket prices are really high, snacks’ prices are really high, and if you have a family or a kid, you will have to spend that kind of money. Getting there to cinemas in a city is becoming more and more difficult because of the traffic. So we are not making it easy. Our theatres are definitely better than they were 20 years ago. Remember, we use to have this thing called the chavanni class, that’s what I am talking about, you know. The lowest ticket price in India in a multiplex is `100, right? How many people can afford it?

Here’s an example. Some time ago, my peon kept insisting that I watch the Marathi film Sairat. He kept saying it was awesome and I should definitely watch it. When I asked him where he had watched it, he simply said he had seen it on his phone via Shareit. It is an app which downloads a film and that can be further shared with all your friends via your phone.

I understand the film did business of `100 crore. While that is phenomenal, not a lot of people saw it in the theatres. This can be massively concerning and leads to the big question – does piracy get affected by the digital space?

So what does a pirate do? A pirate is closer to the ground reality than the distributor, the cable operators and the producer. The pirate is showing us that if you could take your content to the consumer at the price they want it, at the place they want it, and at the time they want it, then they will watch it. We should learn something from this. Your content, which you make for the audience, should ideally reach them, at a price they can afford, and without being time-bound. Mann hai abhi dekh lo… ya phir 10 minutes baad! Platforms like Netfllix never show pirated stuff because at a minimal monthly cost, they are providing their viewers 100 times more content for consumption.

But I want to go back to where I started this column – storytelling. Content is most essential to any platform of exhibition – theatre, television or digital platforms. But that in itself has two parts – story and form. In India, form generally is ‘Haan ji, bahot badi picture lagti hai.’ When it comes to World Cinema, form means the way it is shot, the lighting, the editing; the form is as much storytelling as is telling a story itself. And, sadly, that’s the one thing we are lacking here in India… the understanding of the form. Wonder Woman ka content kya hai? It is the way the movie is shot, the form that makes the movie watchable.

Baahubali is one such example, where is it not just the storytelling but also the presentation and the form that has made the film the biggest-ever hit in India. With no nationally known actors and a story that is not really new, the director SS Rajamouli created a larger-than-life experience and the result is that even the Hindi dubbed version does more that `500 crore.

So if you want people to get into theatres, this is going to be really important. It is this form and presentation that still makes people want to watch Mr India, even after 30 years. The story, which is the other aspect of content, and this goes without saying, has to be strong, well-written, and different. Also new filmmakers should learn the art of marketing their films well. Speak about them, put them out there for people to know what you have made. Use the digital space like YouTube.

And, yes, when it comes to content, we have to adjust for the format we are releasing it in. But a good story has always won. It’s okay for me to say, you know, that this is the way to go for digital, it’s very simplistic to say that big movies won’t sell. But, then, when I watch Star Wars on a smart phone, it really looks impressive, and especially because the sound is becoming so much better. The sound seems to compensate for a smaller visual, you know, you put on your headphones and you get theatrical sound.

I generally never know what else to say to filmmakers. Guys, you’re an artiste. If you are not an artiste, if you don’t love the medium, and if you don’t have stories to tell, then you just wanted a job, you just wanted to be there. Nobody writes a book because they think, ‘Arre it’s a good job to do’. Nobody does theatre because it’s a good job to do. These are tough jobs and you are only going to succeed in the job if you actually love to do this. This is what your heart tells you to do.

Also, I think the number of filmmakers we have in India, we have more stories to tell. We are such a diverse country. We have a large number of young filmmakers coming up with greater and greater stories to tell, they just don’t get released. And if we develop a release pattern, we could actually release on phones or on computers.

Does anyone know what Netflix has done? Netflix has just made a deal for $ 170 million for two seasons, six episodes each, with David O Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Now David O Russell is a major filmmaker in Hollywood. He’d probably never want to make a feature film again. You know, I would do it… He just got $ 170m to do 12 hours. Why would he do it?

Look at what Netflix is doing in India. All the big directors are doing films for Netflix or Amazon Prime. They are giving you the money and they give you a percentage on top and you can go and make your film without worrying about a lot of things. No distributor is saying gaana daalo yeh daalo woh karo, you are making a movie the way you want to make it. And for those that can’t get into Netflix or Amazon, there will be other people with various digital platforms. JJ Abrams, who made Star Wars with his company, is getting into the digital space. What are we waiting for?

And while we still dwell on the how, when and what of the digital world, the digital world has already taken its next step – Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality. Currently, with the technology that we have, very soon we will be able to buy very cheap glasses, you know, the cardboard glasses are very practical.

Soon we are going to get things that we can download. So you can use your movie cardboard glasses and iPhones 8, 9 and 10 are going to have augmented reality software. Samsung has had AR for a while. With AR, you will be able to be a part of the story, which will get you closer to the characters and understanding of the content.

This is the future, which is right here on our doorsteps – 360-degree entertainment. In the beginning, you might have only particular areas where it has the AR feature. I have done that and it is absolutely stunning. You are standing on the ground and your mind is telling you that there is a 6,000-ft drop on the side and you know there isn’t one but you won’t walk forward because virtual reality is showing you that that’s where you are. So virtual reality can put you in the middle of a fight, middle of a plane crash, it can put you anywhere and your mind will tell you to watch it. In fact, I am visiting faculty at MIT and we are teaching how to tell long stories on Virtual Reality.

But while this is the future and I am all game for it, the competition is not between technologies. The competition is for your time! Earlier, YouTube was a fad. I remember, Kaveri used to watch YouTube all the time. Now she has switched to Netflix and I am sure this will change in future. It is basically our time that decides the platform of our choice for viewing entertainment. This is the thing that wins over theatres… Entertainment at your convenience. Whenever you have the time, you can view it.

That’s why binge watching is becoming popular because you can do it in the middle of the night. Because you know there is no particular time. I myself miss out on so many movies because I can’t make it to any of the show timings some time. Now I can see it on Netflix… ‘Achcha, aaram se khana wana khaliya, sab chale gaye I am free, now let me watch it!’

A very important thing to learn from platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime is the way they have built their specific categories. When it comes to India and Indian digital platforms, they will have to work very hard to sustain their platforms by being specific. When you know you can’t please everyone, then why try? Cater to a certain audience and get them hooked onto you platform by making content which has a story, form and is backed by good technology. Make it easy on the pocket and market it to this audience, so that they know where to click. The Internet is a limitless space, so don’t limit yourself but back it up with good content strategy.

Like I said, I will be working with some of these digital platforms soon because I am a storyteller and I can’t wait to tell more stories. The other day, someone addressed me as a ‘filmmaker’ and I replied saying, ‘I am a storyteller, Sir.’ My obsession has led me to believe that all platforms of storytelling work well when done correctly.

(Written by Shekhar Kapur, a storyteller)

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