Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is Hindi Cinema Dying?

In college I used to bunk classes two or three times a week to go see films. The idea was not to see films because I was a cinema buff or because brilliant films were playing all the time. It was simply a convenient way to be cool, both physically and metaphorically. At Rs. 3.45 I could cut the boring economics class and spend the hot summer afternoon in the cool air conditioned comfort on padded seats watching some of the worst cinema ever made (I’m talking about the mid 80’s here). I wasn’t lucky (cool?) enough to have a girlfriend then but those who did enjoyed the outings even more. When was the last time you wandered into a movie hall to kill time or to get out of the summer sun or to spend quality time with your girlfriend or to dodge that lecture on Malthusian theory? Movie going has now evolved from a casual pastime to a serious well planned entertainment activity. Recent advent of Multiplexes has changed the pricing model in such a way that it almost requires a 5 year plan type approach to cinema viewing.

How, you might ask, does this lead me to conclude that Hindi Cinema is dying? In fact there are pointers to the contrary. There is enough and more evidence that ‘well made’ films are not only finding audiences, they are even going on to make unheard of money. ‘Three Idiots’ has been a phenomenon of a kind and its success would suggest the question is a little crazy. But, sadly there is a but, that is only an illusion if you are looking at the picture from the small film’s perspective.

‘Well Made’- is the key. Unfortunately that is not the complete truth.

‘Well Made’ big films will not just do well they will continue breaking records as we have seen in the recent past. As a general principal people have a need to go out of their homes to be entertained and the cinema hall experience will remain at the forefront fulfilling this need. As incomes grow so too will the number of people frequenting cinema halls and ‘Well Made’ big films will be rewarded richly. The cheer though will not be spread universally. ‘Well made’ small films, unfortunately, will not survive long enough to benefit from these added footfalls.

All Films are watched. A truth that doesn’t bring any joy to most filmmakers.

Regardless of genre or quality all films released in India are watched by all audiences. I know this a generalization but it is true to a very large extent. Appetite for films is definitely undiminished and newer methods of finding content are always being explored by audiences. Sadly, not all of that translates into revenues for the producers. Smaller films are suffering what I call the curse of pre-selection. In itself this is not unique. World over audiences make these choices. They choose to see some films in the movie hall, some in the confines of their homes through various channels like Pay-per-view or video rentals and some they choose to not see at all. But in the Indian market pre-selection manifests itself in the following way: Much before a film is released the audience has already made up their mind about whether or not they will be going to the cinema halls to watch it. The other films are watched on pirated platforms. In fact smaller films with a promise of being ‘Well Made’ are equally desirable as the big films. Rampant piracy, through the neighborhood CD walla or Internet, ensures the audience will watch and even appreciate the films but it will not translate into a sale of any kind that benefits the producers.

The Cinema Pricing Model is Killing.

On the face of it an expensive ticket means the films makers recover their investment quicker. In fact a lot of happiness in the industry during 2006-2007 was attributed to higher ticket prices and the absence of entertainment tax, most multiplexes were exempt from it, and more transparent accounting systems. In 2010 the game has changed in such a way that small films are struggling to find any takers. At 200 bucks a ticket the cinema experience is naturally tilted towards the big film. Most small films do not inspire that kind of spending. For that kind of money, the average cinema goers is not rich, the audience wants to be blown away by a larger than life event.

Word of mouth doesn’t work as well in India.

Unlike the western world, where small movies grow when they receive good word of mouth reviews (Slum Dog is an example of a film that started with a limited release and then grew with each passing week), in India a good film that has not been preselected for viewing in cinemas has already been viewed in a pirated form before the first week is over. So, a good word of mouth review works more to the pirates benefit than to the filmmakers.

Cinema is not like the music industry.

The music industry has been suffering the piracy curse and has still, however hobbled and tattered and torn, survived. Unfortunately films are not going to be able to survive the way the music industry has. Unlike music, which has a pretty introverted creative process, a film’s creative process needs hundreds of people’s, not to mention expensive equipment, contributions before it gets to a place where it is viewable. The other big difference is that music is an interactive experience. Live music, whether in a bar or at a concert, engages the audience in a way recorded music can’t. Films don’t have that aspect of interactivity to bail them out either.

First the small film will go down and then the whole industry.

Given that small films are doomed to be watched for their content on TV or computer screens they are as endangered a species as the Tiger.
And, as nobody seems to be sponsoring a save the ‘well made small film’ campaign yet and there are no reasons to believe that the copyright act and the agencies that enforce it are going to come up with effective ways of enforcement, they are in eminent danger of falling of the edge.
Demise of the small film in the short run may not be of major concern for the people outside the film fraternity, I am tempted to think that some of the players within the film world might applaud and may even lend a hand in pushing it off the edge, but it is possibly the end of the entire Hindi film business. The ‘well made’ small film serves as the talent supply chain. Most talent leaving aside the actors and producers, a lot of whom are parachuted directly into the big film, has to work its way up from the small film into the big film bracket. If this supply to the talent pool dries up it may well lead to the complete business shutting down.

There isn’t a lot that can be done, is there?

Two things must happen immediately if we are to stem the tide. Firstly; pricing models of multiplexes have to change. There is no way the small film will get audiences if movie hall tickets are priced similar to the big film. Recent agreements of revenue sharing between producers/distributors and exhibitors did touch on this subject but no headway has been made to address the situation. Unless the average ticket price for a small film isn’t reduced to about Rs. 50-70 its survival is going to be difficult. An immediate example is available in the success of regional language films. In the recent past they have been turning a profit due to their affordable pricing both in production as well as in exhibition. Secondly, and this one is very very oft repeated; piracy has to be curbed. Especially piracy in the form of internet downloads. Unless these two things happen really soon Hindi Cinema as we know it will find it difficult to survive.


rekha bajpe said...

Well written, Vikram!
i agree, but i dont see either happening... downward revisions are never accepted and curbing piracy hasnt worked so far...

Vikram Singh said...

Downward revisions are the only way out. I guess piracy will never be curbed.
My worry is that Hollywood will invade India. And like every other country Indian films too will need government funding to exist. Basically we will then have a Hollywoodised culture of films.

Jean-Marc said...

French film market, performing quite well, demonstrates that total Hollywoodisation is low probable. Market demands diversity. Isn't the same in India?
I share your conclusions Vikram and do believe both are deeply interleaved. Pursuing the never ending fight against piracy while offering affordable great theater experience should help...

Vikram Singh said...

Jean-Marc, I agree that total Hollywoodisation is not possible. Hindi cinema thus far has been thriving and making money for its investors. Soon, if things don't change, it will need help from the government. European cinema, despite being wonderful and brilliant, ends up being supported by the government a lot. I hope corrective action will be taken by the Hindi film industry before it is too late.

Jean-Marc said...

You are totally right Vikram. European movie industry is supported a lot. It is not just public money without return but eased financial plan for promising projects. ( I guess such model should be applicable to Indi industry too.

Vikram Singh said...

So far we have little or no government funding or even tax breaks. And it is best kept that way. The trouble with government funding is that too many people with 'connections' start milking the system leading to further erosion of quality.

Vikram Singh said...

Jean-Marc, I did not read your link before my last comment. Tax breaks of the kind mentioned in the articles are not being offered in India. In fact no serious effort has been made to get the government to extend such support. A lot of proposed Indian co-production ventures are nixed in the bud because there is no tangible benefit on offer from the Indian side. In fact India doesn’t have a single working co-production treaty with any country to my knowledge. We did have some kind of treaty about news production with the French Government but neither the Information & Broadcasting ministry in Delhi nor the French Embassy could provide me with any details about it.