The film industry’s captains of doom (IANS Column: B-Town)
The film industry in Mumbai is in doldrums and guess who all have delivered it to its near doom? The industry’s own people. The very people who are here to do business, make a living out of it.
To live and let live has always been the adage followed in the trade, like in all other trades. Folks in the industry were always more considerate to those who incurred losses in some venture and did not disown them.
Everything in the film industry was hunky-dory. People made films. They staked everything they had. Hit or flop, they survived to make another film and the industry people stood by them. The financers, the toughest guys to deal with, also extended their support, for without them, a producer could never make another film.
If a producer lost money in one film, the star concerned considered him in his next film and his regular distributor did not forsake him. If an exhibitor incurred loss on one film, the distributor made concessions in the next film.
So far all was well and the film industry was thriving on its own. No support from any outside agencies, including the central and state governments, no industry status and no institutional finance. Yet, they were the first ones on call when the nation needed them.
Things started changing as the prospect hunters entered the arena so as to give the industry a corporate work culture. What did they know about filmmaking? Nothing, nothing at all. They installed management graduates on top. Did they know filmmaking? They did not. Marketing consumer products is not the same as marketing films and creativity is not a part of any education.
Amitabh Bachchan was the first to learn this the hard way. He launched the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL), later renamed AB Corp, to professionally produce films, promote new talent as well as to organise other events related to entertainment. He did not have any experienced film industry person at the helm.
The move led Bachchan almost to bankruptcy. Some more big-time corporate houses followed. The house of Tata, Birla, Singhania and Biyani left as soon as they entered after their initial experience.
The ones who came in later included some foreign-funded companies, too. We had Sony, Fox Star, Columbia, Viacom, Warner, Walt Disney UTV and Reliance Big, for instance. Some have folded up; a couple of others deal with a select few filmmakers.
The problem with these corporate houses is that they know nothing about filmmaking and their involvement was limited to mainly financing films, the ones which had big stars.
They cared for delivery and that could be done only by the ones who were close to the stars. So, a star’s secretary would be sanctioned, say, Rs 100 crore to go and make three movies! It was just about who could rope in a certain star so that a film would attract crowds from the day it opened. They did not consider content. They backed projects, not content. There were many films supported by such corporate houses and, soon, their projects started showing up on their bottom-line.
Somewhere along the line, the intentions started showing. They were here to exploit. The greedy side surfaced. They started eating into the roots of the tree that bore fruits. Killing the golden goose, as the saying goes. You don’t make money if you do not let others earn, too.
A lot of these companies, even while exiting, had spoiled the stars so much that with every successful film, they went on adding a few more crores in multiples of ten to their price tag till their films became unviable. Take for example the instance 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 with the dubious achievement of finally crossing the Rs 100-crore mark. Is that good news for those who back such actors blindly?
Okay, they don’t have a department to check content and whet it, but don’t they have a costs and accounts department? (While on the subject of Akshay Kumar, a producer signed him for three films with a one-time lump sum payment. Following the latest disaster, the producer hurriedly offloaded one of the three films to an OTT platform this week!)
Next, we got the multiplex culture. They took the cinema-going experience from a mass medium of entertainment to the elite level. Their admission rates were restrictive and exorbitant, which kept the very audience that contributed towards the kind of success films enjoyed over the years. The days of silver and golden jubilees were gone.
Phrases such as ‘mass film’, ‘mass appeal’, ‘film for the masses’, ‘loved by the masses’ were forgotten because the masses could not afford to watch films anymore. Not because the masses did not crave for cinema, but because they were kept out of this one form of entertainment that used to be available and affordable to them. The reason was unreasonable pricing.
What happened to single-screen cinemas? Thanks to the short-sighted policies of various state governments, they stood no chance in hell to survive. Maybe the policymakers thought that multiplexes were going to be some kind of mint for the state governments! They were granted all sorts of concessions on land acquisition and entertainment tax exemptions, though the single screens never got any. What was the logic and where was the economic sense here?
Besides, the multiplex being a novelty and a place to boast about, the audience preference moved to the new way of watching films. Sadly, it was a case of never returning for some and no cinema to watch a movie at for most. The single screens had no alternative but to close down. Some single-screen properties were gobbled up by the multiplex chains, while most others lie in ruins now, in such a state that nobody can imagine these were once throbbing hubs frequented by thousands each day.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi travelled across areas in the Hindi belt and recorded in pictures the state of these single screens. The book with tell-tale pictures should be out soon.
Marketing is a word bandied about in the film industry ever since the so-called corporate culture tried to force its way in. What exactly does it mean? What does a marketing guy do? Is he the one to decide how many screens to be granted to what film? Films have been released in cinemas from the day they were made. So, what is new?
The new thing is that these marketing guys, even while knowing nothing about the film in question, decide on whether it should get 3,000 or 4000 screens, or far fewer than that number. On what basis? Well, the actors starring in the film and the maker behind it.
Is selling a small carton of popcorn at Rs 450 a stroke of marketing genius? (Corn, by the way, is regarded as the poor man’s food.) You expect only the affluent to come to your property to watch cinema, but that does not deter you from levying parking charges.
‘The Kashmir Files’ started off with just about 500-odd screens. It went on adding screens with success to reach 3,500 within the first nine days.
Guess who is the greediest of them all? The actors. For a lot of undeserved money, they sell themselves. Which stars and even wannabe stars seriously think they are worth what they are demanding? A new actor who comes up with one decent box-office performer, starts talking in multiples of crores.
Corporate finances worked well if a film was successful, so some actors decided to turn to film production. Why let someone else make money if my films are working? All stars, none excluded, took to film production. Make a film for brother, sister, brother-in-law, but why let an outsider earn. So what if he made films with you when you were not such a hit?
Then, of course, there are brand endorsements. I don’t know how the brands profit by paying crores to stars for promoting their
underwear, cooking oil and colas, but I have seen a star endorsing a product in a very competitive market even though tickets for his films don’t sell for Rs 100! Unlike in cricket, a film star never knows when to call it quits.
If last week, two major star films, ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and ‘Raksha Bandhan’, have flopped or rather emerged as unmitigated disasters at the box office, it is not because of any boycott or social media, or that they were bad. Even if a film is bad, one with such stars as Aamir and Akshay should at least open well! Both were met with a very, very poor response.
If ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ was the Indian version of ‘Forrest Gump’, unnecessarily stretched, Akshay Kumar’s ‘Raksha Bandhan’ borrowed the plot from producer Shabnam Kapoor’s 1991 Mithun Chakraborty film, ‘Pyar Ka Devta’, where the hero promises his dying mother that he won’t enter into wedlock till he sees his three sisters married off.
Don’t take your audience for granted, don’t blame OTT. Blame yourself. If the fate of ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and ‘Raksha Bandhan’ don’t open your eyes and minds, it is really a point of no return.