Hindi cinema is no longer a business of hits and misses. Sunaina Kumar finds out what has suddenly turned the industry into a safe bet
THERE IS relish in retelling the stories of failure that are as melodramatic as the scripts in Hindi cinema. So heartbroken was Guru Dutt by the cold reception toKaagaz Ke Phool (the audience threw stones at the screen) that he stopped directing films. Raj Kapoor stopped acting and had to mortgage his studio after his Icarus-like fall with Mera Naam Joker. These stories hark back to a heroic time in Bollywood when filmmakers gave their best to films and bowed to the omnipotent audience.
Somewhere along the way, the industry acquired smarts. It figured that the audience is an important accessory to decide the fate of the film. But why rely on something as fickle? In recent times, the power of the audience has been reduced to half, in some cases nil. As new revenue streams open up, 50 percent of a film’s earnings come from the box office while the rest is covered through preselling and licensing rights. And if there is a Khan, the film makes money even before it is shot. Like Salman Khan’s Dabangg 2, which has reportedly sold satellite rights to Star Network for Rs 50 crore before shooting a single scene.
In a town in western Uttar Pradesh, an exhibitor is angry. He put down Rs 5 lakh as minimum guarantee (advances for likely revenues in individual territories) forRa.One. In the first week, he recovered Rs 1.5 lakh, the next week after the negative word of mouth, the recovery depleted to Rs 50,000, and by the third week it was down to nought. The exhibitor is still recovering from the loss of nearly Rs 3 lakh and has not stopped cursing Shah Rukh Khan.
Back in Mumbai, Khan and his team planned a success party and a sequel, with chest-thumping full-page ads in dailies. After all, Ra.One, made on a budget of Rs 150 crore, recovered its expenses before its release by selling distribution rights for Rs 77 crore, satellite rights for Rs 35 crore and music rights for Rs 15 crore. An additional Rs 10 crore came in from the telecast rights for the music launch, Rs 5 crore from gaming rights and Rs 50 crore from the unprecedented number of brand tie-ups. By the time SRK and his team were done, not one person in India needed to watch Ra.One to contribute to its success.
Khan’s last outing Don 2, made on a budget of over Rs 75 crore, was acquired for approximately Rs 80 crore by Reliance Entertainment, and earned Rs 37 crore on satellite rights, and Rs 10 crore on music rights. There is a similar buzz about the satellite rights for Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger. Aamir Khan’s Talaash, made on a budget of Rs 40 crore, has sold its satellite rights for the same amount, and was acquired for Rs 90 crore by Reliance. The figures are enough to make one dizzy. “Till 10 years ago, the Indian box office accounted for nearly 90 percent of a film’s collections. It is now down to 40-60 percent,” says Amrita Pandey, vice-president for international distribution and syndication for UTV Motion Pictures. Roughly, satellite rights make up nearly 30 percent of revenues, while 20 percent is taken up by overseas box office, music and Internet rights. In the past 10 years, 25 new revenue streams have opened. Music alone has several platforms like radio, cable and satellite, digital and ringtones. New markets are being opened. In Brazil, Poland and Czechoslovakia, Bollywood movies are being consumed. “Even if a movie does not do well in theatres, we have ways of pushing it, by making sure it’s available to consumers anytime, anywhere, on TV, Internet and video-on-demand,” says Pandey. If every category finds just 5 percent audience, it is enough for the film to keep paying for itself. UTV admits to making profits out of box office turkeys like Tees Maar Khan, We Are Family and I Hate Luv Storys.
Khan and his Ra.One team were partying in Mumbai even as an exhibitor in UP is recovering from a loss of Rs 3 lakh
Bollywood may never produce a monumental flop anymore. Akshay Kumar, despite a spate of bombs, claims to never have a bad day; he just has to look at his bank balance to feel better. Panned by critics and audience alike, his Desi Boyz recovered most of its costs through satellite and audio rights. Individual distributors may have suffered, but those at the helm of affairs made money.
TO MAKE sense of what has turned movie-making into a safe bet, one must go back to the early 2000s when corporatisation began to take root. As the suits came into an industry that was in the hands of suspect financiers and mafia, a much-needed streamlining of the process of distribution and marketing took place. There was a time when 400 prints was an ambitious number. Today, Ra.One released with nearly 4,000 prints and Agneepath with 2,700. Nearly one-third of the budget is spent on marketing with a costermonger’s approach to the process. Create the shrillest marketing campaign and get viewers into theatres on the first weekend. “Filmmaking has been greatly de-risked, no producer will lose his shirt over a film today,” says trade analyst Indu Mirani.
As movies become a safer business, we’re making more films (nearly 1,000 every year), but not necessarily better ones. The content is inextricably tied in with the economics. The films are regressing to being formulaic, as it all boils down to making an impact on the first weekend and recovering the investment. There are gimmicks galore: item numbers, fight sequences, and larger than life heroes (Bodyguard, Singham, Agneepath and the upcoming Rowdy Rathore, Ek Tha Tiger, Dabangg 2 and Dhoom 3).
A senior director shares a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the business of Bollywood. “A producer acts more as a trader these days. On an average, a film changes four hands, and sometimes that happens before it has been made. You keep the benefits to yourself and pass the risk to the next party. But there is something hollow about this boom. The audience is irrelevant. And, on the shop floor where movies are actually made, there’s been no benefit of corporatisation, no investment towards making better films.” The back end of operations, thronged by writers, technicians and everyone involved in the creative process, has been left out of Bollywood’s success party.
Most production houses hedge their investments between big, medium and small-budget films. Big budgets are reserved for big stars and action themes, middling budgets for fail-safe categories like comedies and slick romantic dramas, and low budgets trickle down to small, experimental films. Viacom 18 produces a biggie like Players (a rare unmitigated flop) and balances it with Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani. UTV produces a behemoth like Akshay Kumar’s Rowdy Rathore along with the Irfaan Khan-starrer Paan Singh Tomar. Yash Raj Films bets money on Aamir Khan-starrer Dhoom 3 and balances it with Habib Faisal’s directorial debut Ishaqzaade.
Film writer Nandini Ramnath says, “A significant change is that with some smart budgeting, a modestly budgeted film has a better chance than before. It’s easier to fill a 300-seater screen at a multiplex than a 900-seater single screen hall for an off-beat film. But multiplexes, due to the expenses incurred in maintaining them, are as interested in the biggies as the Hindies (Hindi indies), so they’re not going to bend backwards to accommodate small movies.”
Increasingly, though, to find a film that speaks to a homogenous audience is becoming impossible. Script writer Jaideep Sahni wrote in the journal Seminar, “There is a growing realisation among many writers and directors that Hindi films are becoming smaller than what they used to be in their scope and influence in our culture, as they try to find an awkward one-sided bond with the new tikki-burgered, partly globalised urban youth.” This youth gets to pick from mass comedies, NRI-flavoured romcoms and the odd experimental film. On the other hand, the audience of the hinterland or qasbas is being catered to by regressive formula films of the ’80s. The audience knows exactly what to expect from a Hindi movie. “Good timepass”.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.