The line between content-driven cinema and the mainstream is thinning, aided by changing preferences of the audience and the emergence of disruptive technologies for the dissemination of video content
Star or debutante, big screen or computer screen, big budget or small scale, films backed by compelling story lines are increasingly drawing audience’s attention. With every passing day and with every new release, the phrase 'content is king’ is trending.
Differentiated, strong, message-based quality content is becoming the indispensable factor behind the success of a movie over the last few years. This is highlighting the fact that audiences have become more discerning in content consumption. Marquee names (actors/directors) continue to drive opening week collections, however, the long-term success of films at the box office has come to be defined by the quality of its content.
From Dangal to Stree, the success of these movies has re-emphasized the importance of content-driven films. Box office success of most of the movies released in last few years show that quality content will always find audience, so much that they're giving star-packed line-ups or festive holiday openings a run for their money. Movie-goers too are distancing themselves from run-of-the-mill film offerings and the proof of this is the weak performance of ventures like Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jab Harry met Sejal or Salman Khan’s Race 3, among others.
“The situation has seen a sea change in the last few years. There are enough examples of your typical big- budget films failing and smaller independent content-driven cinema garnering critical acclaim and driving box office numbers. Not that there is anything wrong with the masala big bucks Bollywood blockbuster – there is a defined target for that, and we are not dismissing it at all. I find that audiences are also evolving due to better exposure and education. This means we can make more finely nuanced films that will serve the story more than escapism,” said Siddharth Anand Kumar, VP Films & Television Saregama and Yoodlee Films.
There is no denying that the industry is seeing a transition. But what are the factors that are leading towards this change.
Talking to Moneycontrol, Rahul Puri, MD at Mukta A2 Cinemas, listed out few factors that are leading to this change, “The change in mindset of people, a lot more exposure in all parts of the country through technology, the demand of the audience for something more, something different from what has been done & seen for decades and a younger generation with a totally different outlook on entertainment.”
Another factor that is boosting this change is the way films are being distributed, said Neeraj Roy, MD and CEO, Hungama Digital.
Cinema is largely distributed via theatres. However, the advent of video platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime has changed the release strategy especially for small budget films. This new revenue stream for small budget movies enables the creative community to develop content exclusively for such platforms.
Due to lack of screens, budget constraints and content overload, small but content driven films go unnoticed. However, these films are increasing their footprint in digital space. Such movies are being less reliant on theatrical revenues with digital contributing around 70-8- percent of overall collections.
“The advent and entry of the OTT platforms has opened up a whole new vista for filmmakers to showcase their content – without compromise, without the pressures of a theatrical release. Essentially, your content is then viewable worldwide. Further, you can target a film specifically to a niche audience, which leads to variety in the kind of stories you can tell. A filmmaker wants maximum reach for his/her work – the digital medium is giving just that.”
Netflix had required its first exclusive global licence for an Indian film—’Brahman Naman’ for a reported seven-digit figure. It also bought films such as Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay and Suleimaani Keeda, which reflect a different sensibility than mainstream Bollywood films.
Gangs of Wasseypur was streamed on Netflix as an eight-episode series subtitled in English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Chinese indicating he potential of Indian films seeking an audience beyond the diaspora on the OTT platforms.
“It (digital medium) has more an impact for films with great content. The digital medium creates a kind of virality. It takes into popular conversation and culture,” said Roy.
Changing landscape for independent filmmakers
When it comes to filmmaking in India, there is no dearth of content. But to actually bring it to the big screen it is not always viable. Ask independent filmmakers their stories of filmmaking and the many challenges that they face will come to fore.
But the landscape for independent filmmakers is changing. And one contributor towards this change is Yoodlee Films. A production company which has made over 12 films in 2018 in Hindi, English, Marathi and other regional languages. Out of which three have been released (two Netflix Originals — Ajji and Brij Mohan Amar Rahe and one theatrical release — Kuch Bheege Alfaaz).
“We see Yoodlee as a writer’s studio. We aim to empower film writers with a transparent and hassle system to get their stories to audiences with minimum compromises along the way. We have set up an organized process whereby anybody – absolutely anybody – who has a script can approach us for making it into a film,” said Kumar.
Siddharth Anand Kumar, VP, Films and TV at Saregama and Yoodlee Films
Anybody who has an important story to tell can approach Yoodlee Script team. The filmmakers get a reply from them in four weeks with a decision. If they decide not to make the film, they list out reasons for it.
They have a Statement Of Purpose (SOP) that defines every step of the collaborative process, details the payment tranches offered to the key talent and spells out the profit sharing philosophy of the studio.
The SOP is a lucid and important document that serves as the first step for the dedicated script team to assess the writer’s work. The script is read and evaluated by individuals from an internal script team, marked on certain specific parameters and then given a weighted score. There is also a panel of consulting writers headed by Anjum Rajabali who helps them in workshopping the final scripts.
“We are looking essentially for a realistic story that engages. We look at stories driven by strong themes and a fearless ‘no compromise’ approach to filmmaking. We take on themes and deal with stories that others may baulk at, allowing a whole generation of new filmmakers to find their own authentic voice,” said Kumar.
And this where it is important to acknowledge the fact that independent filmmaking is coming on its own, finding its niche, and is slowly and steadily gaining a dedicated audience amid Indian cine-goers. These filmmakers are also overcoming hurdles like funding and promotions.
Independent filmmakers receive recognition at film festivals, but when it comes to theatrical releases very few films see the light of day. It is the big budget movies backed by studios that take away majority of the screen share. But there are crowdfunding platforms that are helping indie filmmakers to not only fund their projects but also distribute them. Makers are tapping crowdfunding platforms like Wishberry, Crowdera, Impact Guru that is helping the indie film circuit.
As for promotions, small films are getting their way around that too. According to Roy, “social media is one of the most efficient medium for promotions as it helps to start a conversation.”
Adding to this Puri said, “Film promotions are hugely driven by budgets, stars and content. With a spur in smart phones, chat apps and social media, it has become much easier to reach out to not just a larger section of the country but also to specific & segments of audiences. Small & independent film makers need to get their content right. The right dose of intrigue in a film can draw audiences to the cinema.”
Increasing potential of regional film industry
Over the past few years, regional movies have performed well at the box office, due to impressive content and the relative untapped nature of the regional markets. Regional movies have also achieved robust profitability due to greater control over production costs, with the average cost of producing a Marathi or Punjabi films at Rs 4 crore versus Rs 20 crore for a small commercial Hindi film, but carry the similar revenue earning potential compared to Hindi movie.
“There has been a rise in regional cinema and many of these films have done well. Some of them have gone on to join the mile high Rs 100 crore film club while others have inspired producers to remake these in other languages. These films are well received by audiences due to their relatable content in the particular region. Personally, I feel good content from regional cinema should be encouraged more along with a rise in cinema screens. An increase of screens in smaller towns will definitely lease life not just to regional cinema but also give rise to employment, and promote ancillary businesses in these places,” said Puri.
How marrying good content with reasonable budget can help encourage more content driven films
What came as a surprise this year were films like Raazi, Stree, Hichki, among others that struck gold at the box office with limited investment. Small-budget films are beginning to create a place for themselves in industry. These films are mainly content and performance driven rather than led by ‘star’ actors who drive big-budget films. They have tight marketing budgets and depend heavily on word of mouth publicity for their success. This has helped good scripts to generate sufficient funding for their future projects.
Puri believes the same. “That (limited budget) is the key to sustenance of films and the industry through the year. Big budget mass films come by only 3-4 times a year. We have seen some very good films in the past few years which were just about the right mix of good content and budget like Bareilly ki Barfi, Toilet EK Prem Katha and many others which have performed very well at the cinemas. The industry needs to support and produce more such films.”
Success of such films is a signal that commerce and art can survive together. Concurring with this, Kumar says, “If you have budgeted your film appropriately and are clear about the section of the audience most likely to watch the film, you can always find a way to marry no-compromise film making with a profitable business plan.”
Describing the distribution and marketing strategy, Kumar says, “To release any film in theatres, one needs to ensure proper distribution strategy and an acute marketing plan that talks to the right TG. In terms of distribution, very often a smaller film will get side-lined by a bigger release, in terms of showcasing in theatres. From the marketing point of view, it's about judicious spends: with limited budgets, one can't go out universally promoting the film to all and sundry. The key lies in defining your TG for each film and devising a marketing plan accordingly. Every film needs a different release and distribution strategy, depending on its theme and who it's speaking to, steadfastly refusing to follow any fixed template. So, the challenge lies in getting the right mix of media promotion and spends out.”What more content driven films are doing? They are making way for fresh faces in the industry. While the industry is star-driven with a few leading actors dominating each market, more content-driven films are recognizing new talents among both directors and actors.