By Vinod Mirani
Mumbai, Aug 21 (IANS): Mumbai’s film industry is in the doldrums and guess who delivered it all to near destruction? Industry people. The very people who are there to do business make a living from it.
Live and let live has always been the motto followed in the profession, as in all other professions. People in the industry have always been more considerate of those who have suffered losses in a business and have not disowned them.
Everything in the film industry was hunky-dory. People made movies. They staked everything they had. Hit or flop, they survived to make another movie and people in the industry supported them. Funders, the hardest to deal with, also gave their support, because without them, a producer could never make another film.
If a producer lost money on a film, the star concerned considered it in his next film and his usual distributor did not give up on him. If an exhibitor suffered a loss on one film, the distributor made concessions on the next film.
So far, everything was going well and the film industry was thriving on its own. No support from outside bodies including central and state governments, no industry status and no institutional funding. Yet they were first on call when the nation needed them.
Things started to change when lead hunters entered the arena in order to give the industry a corporate working culture. What did they know about cinema? Nothing, nothing at all. They installed management graduates at the top. Did they know the cinema? They do not have. Consumer product marketing is not the same as film marketing and creativity is not part of any education.
Amitabh Bachchan was the first to learn this the hard way. He started Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL), later renamed AB Corp, to professionally produce films, promote new talent as well as organize other entertainment-related events. He didn’t have anyone experienced in the film industry at the helm.
This decision drove Bachchan almost to bankruptcy. Other large corporate houses followed. The house of Tata, Birla, Singhania and Biyani left as soon as they entered after their first experience.
Those that arrived later also included foreign-invested enterprises. We’ve had Sony, Fox Star, Columbia, Viacom, Warner, Walt Disney UTV and Reliance Big, for example. Some retreated; a few others deal with a few select filmmakers.
The problem with these corporate houses is that they know nothing about cinema and that their involvement was limited to mainly financing films, those that had big stars.
They cared about delivery and it could only be done by those who were close to the stars. So, a star’s secretary would be sanctioned, say, Rs 100 crore for going to do three movies! It was pretty much about who could hire a certain star to make a movie draw crowds the day it came out. They ignored the content. They supported projects, not content. There were many films supported by these companies and soon their projects started showing up on their results.
Somewhere along the line, the intentions started to appear. They were there to exploit. The gourmet side has resurfaced. They started eating the roots of the tree which was bearing fruit. Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, as the saying goes. You don’t earn money if you don’t let others earn too.
Many of these companies, even going out, had spoiled the stars so much that with each successful film, they kept adding a few crores more in multiples of ten to their price until their films became unviable. Take for example the example of Akshay Kumar. His last three films together could not cross the Rs 100 crore mark.
Now, his fourth release, “Raksha Bandhan”, will help him in the dubious achievement of finally breaking the Rs 100 crore mark. Is this good news for those who blindly support such actors?
OK, they don’t have a department to check content and sharpen it, but don’t they have a cost and accounts department? (About Akshay Kumar, a producer signed him for three movies with a one-time lump sum payment. Following the latest disaster, the producer rushed to offload one of the three movies to an OTT platform this week! )
Then we had multiplex culture. They have taken the movie experience from a mass entertainment medium to the elite level. Their admission prices were restrictive and exorbitant, which helped retain the very audiences that contributed to the kind of success the films have enjoyed over the years. The days of silver and golden jubilees were over.
Phrases such as ‘mass film’, ‘mass appeal’, ‘movie for the masses’, ‘loved by the masses’ were forgotten because the masses could no longer afford to watch movies. Not because the masses didn’t crave cinema, but because they were kept away from that one form of entertainment that was once available and affordable to them. The reason was an unreasonable price.
What happened to single-screen cinemas? Thanks to the short-sighted policies of various state governments, they had no chance of surviving in hell. Maybe policymakers thought multiplexes were going to be some kind of mint for state governments! They got all sorts of concessions on land acquisition and entertainment tax exemptions, though Single Screens never got any. What was the logic and where was the economic sense here?
Moreover, the multiplex being a novelty and a place of boasting, the preference of the public fell on the new way of watching films. Unfortunately it was never to return for some and no cinema to watch a movie for most. Single screens had no choice but to close. Some single-screen properties have been gobbled up by multiplex chains, while most others are now in ruins, in such a state that no one can imagine they were once pulsating hubs frequented by thousands. each day.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi traveled through areas of the Hindi belt and recorded in images the state of these unique screens. The book with revealing images should be out soon.
Marketing is a word that has been floating around in the film industry ever since the so-called corporate culture tried to take hold. What does this mean exactly? What does a marketing guy do? Is it he who decides how many screens to give to which film? The films were released in theaters the day they were made. So what’s up?
The novelty is that these marketing guys, even though they don’t know anything about the movie in question, decide whether it should have 3,000 or 4,000 screens, or much less than that number. On what basis? Well, the actors who star in the film and the director behind it.
Is selling a small box of popcorn at Rs 450 a stroke of marketing genius? (Corn, by the way, is considered the food of the poor.) You expect only the wealthy to come to your house to watch the movies, but that doesn’t stop you from collecting parking fees.
“The Kashmir Files” started with about 500 screens. It continued to successfully add screens to reach 3,500 in the first nine days.
Guess who is the greediest of them all? Players. For a lot of unearned money they sell. Which stars and even budding stars seriously think they’re worth what they ask for? A new actor who offers a decent performer at the box office, starts talking in multiples of crores.
Corporate finances worked well if a film was successful, so some actors decided to go into film production. Why let someone else make money if my movies work? All the stars, none excluded, turned to film production. Make a film for brother, sister, brother-in-law, but why let an outsider win. What if he made movies with you when you weren’t so successful?
Then, of course, there are the brand mentions. I don’t know how brands profit by paying stars millions of dollars to promote their
underwear, cooking oil and colas, but I saw a star endorsing a product in a very competitive market even though tickets to his movies don’t sell for Rs 100! Unlike cricket, a movie star never knows when to quit.
If last week, two big blockbusters, “Laal Singh Chaddha” and “Raksha Bandhan”, failed or rather appeared as absolute disasters at the box office, it is not because of any boycott or social media, or that they were bad. Even if a movie is bad, a movie with stars like Aamir and Akshay should at least open well! Both were met with a very, very poor response.
If ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ was India’s unnecessarily lengthened version of ‘Forrest Gump’, Akshay Kumar’s ‘Raksha Bandhan’ borrowed the plot from producer Shabnam Kapoor’s 1991 film Mithun Chakraborty, ‘Pyar Ka Devta’, where the hero promises his dying mother that he will not marry until he sees his three married sisters.
Don’t take your audience for granted, don’t blame OTT. Blame yourself. If the fate of ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and ‘Raksha Bandhan’ doesn’t open your eyes and mind, it really is a point of no return.