Thursday, February 4, 2016

Playing Safe Is As Good as Being Dead

Ever watched a small film and felt like you’d seen it before? I was just watching a trailer of a forthcoming film and it suddenly struck me that I’d seen it many times before. The formula was down pat to the last comeback. The Hero just the right type of chocolate and the Heroine just the right sort of damsel in distress.  A flowing dress fluttering in the wind, wrapping itself across the hero’s face while he had just the right sort of ecstatic expression. Promo song shot in slow motion in just the right sort of exotic location. The heaving bosoms and chiseled abs doing just the right sort of orgasmic gyrations.  It’s not like there was anything wrong with the trailer, more a case of nothing being right with it.  It was just plastic. Commercially it had ‘Investors will lose big’ written all over it.  The poor sods don’t know it yet and nobody has bothered to articulate the reasons to them. Right now they’re probably popping champagne at a party to celebrate the anticipated success of their classic.

So, why is it that on seeing a trailer of a film most viewers can make out exactly what the film is going to be like? Why do viewers decide to drop a load of money on one film and give the other a complete miss? It’s because most viewers, unconsciously of course, can smell the sameness on offer.  This sameness works in opposite ways for different budget or types of film.

For a large budget film, for example a Rohit Shetty or Salman/SRK film the sameness works as an advantage. The audience knows what to expect. There is comfort in knowing that the formula will be exactly as per template. It is like going to a well-known buffet meal at an average restaurant. The standards are set not too high, yet they seem high enough, and there is a bit for everyone.  Minor variations in story and execution make the experience predictable and therefore enjoyable.  The audience doesn’t want sushi suddenly replacing their chicken tikka. Predictable is nice and comforting.

Now when a mid to small budget movie tries to do the same thing it falls flat leaving many producers/distributors bewildered. After all didn’t they play safe by sticking to a template that works? They dismiss their leading actors as unlucky or worse untalented.  But look at it from the point of view of a viewer. Where is the attraction? Why would a viewer commit to paying money to watch a small film that looks like something that s/he’s seen before?  Using the buffet meal analogy imagine going to a roadside eatery for a buffet meal. The vegetables are less than fresh, the cheese cheap and the curries made with rancid oil. Add to that poor ambience and plating and…. you get the drift.

It is important for filmmakers to understand where they stand in the scheme of things. You don’t need to be Einstein to work out that you are not making a big budget extravaganza.  Even while I concede that there isn’t a formula to bring the audiences in one thing is certain; they’re not coming in to watch tired reruns.

Why then do filmmakers insist on playing safe? I must have been in a thousand meetings where producers have told me how to make the project ‘safe’.  As an investor in a small or medium budget film when you set out to make a ‘safe film’ you are essentially setting out to take the most unsafe punt you can possibly take.  The comfort of B list stars, 5 songs, a love story, 3 act structure, a dying mother’s love and a sappy happy ending are actually no comfort at all.  These devices may have worked once upon a time but now they are sadly out of date. 

Risky is the only safe bet available. 

No matter how much of an oxymoron the previous sentence sounds like it is a truth that producers would do well to understand. Stories that are unusual, stories that are uncomfortable, stories that push you to think, stories that break away from conventionally established norms are the only stories that can bring in audiences for a small film.  The promise has to grab viewers and shake them up.  But before that the filmmakers have to allow themselves to be shaken up. They have to buy into a story that scares them. They have to invest in a story that seems risky or wrong to them. Playing safe is not an option because there is no ‘safe’ anymore.