Monday, February 28, 2011

De-risking a risky business= Bigger risk

One of the biggest changes in the past decade or so for the film business has been the advent of corporate funding. In addition to rapidly mushrooming multiplexes, this was hailed as the savior of our business. Finally money that didn’t come with ‘strings attached’ was being made available. And indeed it did work like a godsend for a few years. ‘Multiplex’ films were attracting funding and audiences were finally getting a choice. Filmmakers with alternate dreams were able to dream. And just when things were looking rosy, the dreams started to sour. Today multiplexes no longer encourage these small ‘Multiplex’ films. Instead some corporate distribution and exhibition chains are even charging a minimum guarantee from filmmakers to exhibit their films. Consequently activity in this category has almost come to a standstill.

Sadly, the churning that led to the advent of the ‘Multiplex’ film and then to its fall also had another, maybe unintended, casualty; the indie producer and his distribution partner, who produced and distributed Bollywood masala, albeit on a smaller scale, got marginalized. These producers, much maligned for their dubious dealings and shady funding sources, were an essential part of Bollywood’s development brigade. They made small commercial films with tomorrow’s stars. Behind the screen talent almost always got their break with their films. These producers started getting marginalized as soon as the distribution business corporatized and started consolidating different avenues under one roof.

Today’s situation is that very few small to medium budget films are being launched. Quite a few finished and semi finished films are sitting on the shelves, their producers unable to muster either a buyer or money for distribution. Many reasons have been attributed to the current situation. Piracy, lack of quality in the ‘Multiplex’ offerings, exorbitant ticket prices, the general economic slowdown, et al have been cited, and are perhaps in their own way responsible.

But one of the biggest reasons, to my mind, would be the attitude of the ‘Corporates’ towards risk. Managed by upwardly mobile executives recruited from diverse business – some sold soap while others were bankers in their earlier avatars – they have brought a new term into the business with them: ‘De-Risking’. These executives who live from quarter to quarter don’t like taking chances. ‘De-risking’ sounds wonderful and probably works very well in the businesses they come from. Every script, every project is funneled through a model that seeks to reduce the risk element for the corporate investor. Hence they prefer bankrolling ‘safe’ projects. And to be fair to them, small to medium budget films represent a risk. As do large unwieldy multi-starrers. De-risking for the most part, is about working with stars who can guarantee an audience. And when it comes to stars, more is always better, so of course multi-starrers are a favorite.

Nobody seems to have done an analysis on success/failure ratios of small and mid budget films versus big budget films. But I am willing to bet that more money goes down the crapper on big budget films than it does on the smaller, smarter films. So, what then is this brand of de-risking all about? Clearly those who de-risked their business with films like Guzarish, Raavan, Kites, Veer, Blue, Action Replay, Teen Patti etc. ended up looking foolish. Some maybe even lost their jobs. How’s that for de-risking?

The other argument often heard is that it takes the same effort to make and promote a small film as it does in the case of a big film. This is utter nonsense. How can anyone compare the rigors of a 100 day shoot followed by a 6-9 month post production followed by a 3 month long promotion with a 35 day shoot, 3 month post and a 4 week long promotion? I’m not even counting the umpteen hours/days spent hanging around for a star to show up for that costume trial or that dance rehearsal. Not to mention the time it takes to get all the dates organized. What about the bruising the ego takes at the hands of ‘stars’ and their entourages? It would be easier to understand a more honest comment, which would run like this: ‘we prefer rubbing shoulders with big stars because some of the glamour rubs off on us’. Or ‘they party a lot more and the booze is better’.

In a business with so many intangibles, the first principle for any executive should be to take a leap of faith. Belief in a script is important, possibly more important than anything else. There is also a unique, much ignored, learning from the film business that unfortunately the ‘corporates’ can’t borrow from other businesses, which is that last week’s success is over and done with and if you follow that model you are going to end up with a turkey. Every new film has to be a ‘new’ film. Cosmetic changes don’t do it. The past record of the filmmaker or the star doesn’t do it either. Simple de-risked formulas don’t work because the audience doesn’t care too much about business strategies. Audiences only care about seeing cinema that takes them where no one has taken them before.

Now for a truth, told in corporate speak, that might make the people who matter take notice: The presence of stars or directors with a great track record don’t necessarily provide an insurance against failure. They do however, provide a bloated package that might be difficult to recoup at the box-office. Thus de-risking might be risky. The only insurance available comes in three forms; they are script, script and script. But then everyone knows this and nobody has the time to read anyway.

No comments: