A group of leading Indian filmmakers and producers discussed strategies for bringing local audiences back into cinemas following the huge rise in OTT consumption in India, at a panel at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.
“The platforms existed before the pandemic and people flirted with them, but when the pandemic happened they took OTT home and started consuming content across different languages and genres,” said Vivek Krishnani, CEO of IN10 Media Network and former Sony India head. “When cinemas opened again, people were shy to return, but the choice of content that drives them to cinemas can’t be same.”
Director-producer Ramesh Sippy, whose credits include iconic Indian films such as Sholay, said this was an issue even before the rise of streaming: “There was a time when you only had to announce a film and people would rush to the cinema without knowing exactly what they were going to see. Now audiences are more discerning.”
But while Krishnani said content in cinemas now needs to be a certain standard and scale, he also said story-telling is just as important – and pointed out that some smaller films are still succeeding at the box office, even though audiences know they can see them on streaming platforms.
Over the past few weeks, a Tamil-language film, Love Today, produced for just $700,000 (Rs55m) has grossed around $7m (Rs580m). The film is about a father who tells a young couple who want to get married to exchange phones for day, and if they still want to marry each other at the end of the day, they can go ahead.
Krishnani said it was a simple concept, but the story had insight into human emotions and contemporary realities, so resonated with the audience. Similarly, Drishyam 2, currently a rare Bollywood post-pandemic hit at the box office, is about protecting your family, which is an emotion everyone can relate to.
“For sure, new habits have formed, so for a certain scale of film you might wait and watch it on OTT. But as a producer, I don’t agree with that trend or preconceived notion. It’s just that the audience is less forgiving now, so to engage with them, you need to be way more skilful, you need to up your game.”
Bollywood actor Sharman Joshi (3 Idiots, Mission Mangal) agreed and added that the Indian film industry could up its game by focusing on writing and development. “We need content that is going to compete with the OTT platforms, and specifically with the international OTT content, because some of the content we’re seeing made by Indian producers, directors and writers has been quite average.”
He continued: “The real threat is from international shows where they’ve spent so much time on the scripts. As an actor, I feel we should should up our game in terms of the time given to the writers, monetary compensation given to the writers. They should get a percentage and profits for the lifetime of a film, because every writer only has a few great stories in them and that has to be valued and respected.”
The panelists also said that India could focus on creating recognisable IP – superhero movies and other franchises that come with in-built fanbases. Karuna Badwai, producer at Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chilies Entertainment, said this is starting to happen in India but cost of VFX is an issue: “It does give the whole creative process a lot of freedom to create, but it comes at a substantial price, and if you don’t pursue it at a certain quality, the backlash is also going to be humongous.”
She talked about Red Chillies’ 2018 release Zero, which used made heavy use of VFX to, among other things, transform Shah Rukh Khan into a much shorter man. “When it played worldwide, the VFX industry thought our budget was miniscule, but for us it was huge. Marvel films can afford that quality of VFX because the entire world is a market for them, unlike films here.”
The panelists also talked about the current perception that films from South India are thriving at the box office while Hindi-language cinema still hasn’t brought audiences back to cinemas. Krishnani observed that not all South Indian films are performing well.
“What we’re hearing about is the outliers like K.G.F., RRR, Ponniyan Selvan and Kantara. But one very important factor is that the South Indian audience is extremely passionate about cinema viewing.”
He explained that nearly half of India’s 9,000 cinemas are in the South, which is a far higher proportion that the relative population size, and that ticket pricing is capped in some states: “That also facilitates frequency of movie viewing. So when people are going to cinemas in large numbers, you’re obviously seeing that people are going because it’s affordable.”
But he also said that South Indian films succeed because of the attention they pay to story and script: “Story-telling from the South is rooted in a certain kind of culture, certain amount of Indian-ness, and the writers there have a depth of literature and their own culture. That’s something that enables them to come up with stories that engage the minds and imaginations of the masses.”
He used recent Kannada-language hit Kantara as a good example. The film, based on the cultural folklore of the state of Karnataka, is culturally specific but has connected to audiences across the country. Produced for around $2m (Rs160m), the film has grossed around $49m (Rs$4bn) worldwide.
“We need to enable writers, to create an opportunity for people to come in and write, especially guys from smaller towns who have this connect beyond a certain geographical limitation like Bombay,” said Krishnani. “You need to get stories from small towns, which resonate, because it’s all based on human insight. We all connect to films and stories that are based on human insight.”