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“No country for Small Films” (Part 1)

“The Rise & the fall of Indian Indies and the Boon & Bane of Digital Cinema”

(Please note that the indies I’m referring to here are the ones which are made at Rs 30 lakhs or below).

Nukkad EntertainmentIt’s kind of misnomer or call it an irony that ‘Indie’ and ‘India’ don’t go along. Sometimes people think that filmmakers from India are often referred as indie filmmakers. They are like an outcast and being an indie filmmaker in India is like being a gay, black, Arab living in Alabama State of USA. Distributors don’t pick your films, multiplexes don’t release your films, satellite channels don’t buy your films and the audience prefers to watch it in torrents than in theatres. Whenever an indie filmmaker meets a new person, then there are 95% chances that the person wouldn’t have heard of the filmmaker’s films. Then there is this awkward moment of explaining about the movie, cast, language, budget and the whole indie scenario of why it’s no “Ghajini”.

pvr directors rareFew months back an indie filmmaker friend of mine who had an eight city release of his indie film through a popular exhibitor, when asked about the response to his film, lamentingly he said, “I would have bought a Mercedes with that money, I poured all my life savings into the film and I made just seventy thousand rupees in DVD sales. That’s the price you pay for being original, uncompromising and trying to do something out of the box. His movie got really fantastic reviews from critics across the country. So what exactly is the fate of indie movies in India? Getting selected in couple of foreign film festivals, achieve critical acclaim, few newspaper articles, get some recognition as a filmmaker, manage one screen- one show a day per city for a week theatrical release and max selling the home video rights on paltry royalty basis. Should one be just happy with that or would it be too ambitious to even think of at least getting break even before getting back to shooting corporate & ad films or to your regularly job vowing to come back again. There are a very small percentage of the indie films which are actually made on social relevant issues that you can morally justify that the movie at least delivered a message to the society. But at the end of the day there will not be more than 3000 -4000 people on whole who would have seen your movie at the end of the day and majority of them in the festivals. No matter what budget or cast it is made of, how good or bad the movie is, every indie filmmaker would like his/her movie to each a larger audience and who wouldn’t want their film to make some dough.

Hyderabad_BluesNow how many Indian indie films in the contemporary time made in English or Hindi or Hinglish by an unknown director with completely new faces, shot on a shoe string budget, without any big production house backing, without big marketing budget,have gone on to create a national wide mass hysteria? Whatever happens it happens in the international market to a small percentage of films. I think the last such movie would be Hyderabad Blues (16 lakhs ) and to an extent Dollar Dreams (around 20 lakhs, got very good coverage through Star TV and Sony giving the entire album of Lucky Ali for free as OST). Other movies I can think of which are made at a slightly higher budget with few known faces and industry backing, created some kind of national news and made money are “Rockford”, “Loins of Punjab” (late Manish Acharya was brave enough to release it on his own), “Bheja Fry”, “The President is Coming” (backed by Rohan Sippy) and the last one which was shot in a guerilla style but backed by FoxStar was “Stanley ka Dabba”. Well RGV and Anurag Kashyap also make movies guerilla style but they are different, even if they make a movie on digi-cam there will be a huge buzz about it. Indie films made in regional languages like Bengali, Tamil, Marathi and Malayalam have done reasonably well compared to pan India movies. Some movies made at 30 -35 lakhs budget in Telugu and Tamil have raked in crores at the box office. They also get picked up by regional satellite channels, unfortunately indie movies made in English are not bought by the English movie channels in India (sound racist though). We can just dream of movies like “Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” which were shot on handy cams and went on to make 80 and 100 million dollars respectively.

We hear from the pundits in the industry claiming that this is the best time for independent cinema, but the international sales agents say otherwise. We have multiplexes, we have Canon 5Ds, we have the best editing suites on our laptops, we can literally make a movie with zero budget, we have social media to promote, crowd funding to produce, we don’t need film prints as we have digital projection system in theatres and release at no minimal cost, then what is it that is going wrong. Why there has been no HB in the 21st century?
Open a newspaper on Friday and see the number of movies releasing and how many of which have you heard about it before and how many of it you will you remember at the end of the year. The numbers are scary. There are around 12-15 movies releasing every week in Tier 1 cities and at a any given time there are around 35 movies running in the city. In those 35 movies where will a small indie film stand a chance to even get noticed, especially when they are notorious for being very dark, arty and serious? In a city like Bangalore, movies in six different languages (English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam) release in equal numbers and in equal scale. Sometimes movies which release in Tamil here also see the release of the dubbed Telugu version as well. There is so much of influx of movie that they are cluttered and absolutely no space for anyone to release a small indie film here. It is very difficult to release in Chennai because Tamil movies take away 80% of the space in a diktat style, maximum you will get weekend morning shows only. And in Hyderabad movie distribution runs literally like a mafia by Corleans and Capones like families. Theatres owners pee in their pants when you ask them for a show and PVR itself struggles to release their own Rare movies in their own properties in Hyderabad.

loins-of-punjab-presentsSo what is that HB and Loins enjoyed during the celluloid and single screen time that we in digital and multiplex era are not able to achieve? Digital revolution kind of became a bane to cinema. Ten to fifteen years back, i.e. pre multiplex and pre digital era, small movies used to release during the morning shows as the big movies used to release only from the matinee show onwards. Thanks to film prints even big movies used to release in very limited number of screens and two – three screens in close proximity used to share one single print. If a morning show movie became a hit in the first week, they used to extend it to the regular shows and when the big movies ran house full then people used to go to nearest theatre for a smaller film. Plus the ticket prices were so less that people didn’t mind to taking a chance with unknown films. Then there was no piracy, because it was expensive to pirate it on VHS tapes.

When multiplexes started, they called it an era for small movies. Movies for niche audience which couldn’t fill up a thousand seater single screen got an avenue to release it in a 200 seater multiplexes. It was still a better situation until digital cinema came in around 2005-06 with Hi Def digital cameras and Digital projection systems, coining a term D-Cinema which was expected to revolutionize indie cinema. I remember in 2005 when Sathyam Cinemas installed RDX Digital projector and screened films in a digital format, people started rejoicing calling it a digital evolution. The missing link was found; people could not only shoot a movie in a digital camera, edited it on a non-linear editing suite, but also project it through a hard disk. What they didn’t expect that the same technology would spell doom one day and the “D’ would become Death instead of Digital.

As new players came in like Qube, UFO, Scrabble, PXD, the film prints went extinct. All the theatres across the country became digital, that’s when the Fuck up started. As prints cost reduced big movies started to release in more number of screens and since multiplexes which run on profit sharing basis started to give more shows to mega budget movies and slowly the small films got sidelined. Small movies at one time got noticed only after a week or so through word of mouth but now they have a window period of just three days. If your movie gets a decent occupancy by Sunday your movie stays on or it’s out of the theatres. The concept of people going for smaller movies due to sell out of bigger movies was also gone as there were shows every ten minutes in multiplexes. The tickets prices are so high now that people have become very choosy, selective and do hell lot of research before going for a movie. As the budgets went on increasing, the marketing cost sky rocketed, sometimes even bigger than the production budget itself. The greed for 100 crore club transferred the pressure on to the theatres to rake the maximum collection in the first three days before the reviews are out or business is lost to piracy. Digital contributed immensely to piracy as well. Since the multiplexes are primarily built in malls, the running costs are much higher than the single screens. To compensate that, tickets are priced insanely high and the need to fill the auditoriums became imperative which they could attain only through big movies. It is believed that the majority of the revenue for the multiplexes comes from the canteen.

Digital revolution did a similar damage to the music industry. But luckily music industry adapted quickly and found a balance. People started using the platform to put up their songs & performances on Youtube and when the songs became a Youtube sensation, they went on to sign contracts with big record labels. Bands started to put up their entire album for free for downloads and when those became hit, they charged hefty sum for live gigs. Indian Ocean and Lucky Ali revolted against labels and put up their albums for free downloads. I don’t think similar formula can be emulated for feature films. Even though PVR Director’s rare is trying it’s best to promote indie films as their CSR, it is still a bigger challenge to bring the audience to the theatres. The last and only hope is on-demand/pay per view online streaming. Unlike in the US where the online market is very established & streamline, thanks to netflicks, itunes, amazon, hulu, direct tv etc, it’s still in the nascent stage in India. At least being an IT oriented country we should have hope to be there soon. The last avenue where one can release the movie worldwide without spending millions on publicity, without having to show it at an odd time, which will stay for more than a week, which has chances of becoming a rage and also make some money in the end. This could be the last missing dot connecting the full circle.

Note- “Check out this link of a recent article in TOI “Curious case of Indian Indies”

By: rabikisku
Posted: July 23, 2013, 5:13 pm


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