Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Open Magazine feature: The Bollywood strike

This story had to be turned around quickly. In three days contacts had to be formed, and context had to be found. Sometimes the pressure works, although the story might not reflect it. Every assignment comes with distinct challenges, and I measure my own growth with what I've been able to do that's new (for me). Eventually, I think, everything I've learned will come together to create a good story. In this story I came by a transporter of film reels and, although our conversation was short, I think it gave a story about money light context.

Nupur Asthana directs a television mini-series these days. This wasn’t what she envisioned herself doing a year ago. For most would-be directors, the holy grail is to direct a film, which is what Asthana was on the verge of being signed up for by a large corporate house. “They then started saying things like ‘oh, we must meet’. That meant the film was on hold. It was a small movie, the kind producers slot as a multiplex film.” She attributes this to the drying up of finance. “I’m okay,” she says, “It’s not like I could stand at a signal and shout ‘Hey! I’ve got Shah Rukh Khan’ and producers would hand me everything. I take everything with a pinch of salt. Besides, it’s happening to everyone.”

Since last year, say people involved at every level with India’s film industry, the lavish budgets and huge numbers have disappeared, replaced by a more conservative thinking. This has had a direct impact on the business of production, distribution, and exhibition. Producers have stopped producing. Distributors have stopped distributing. And exhibitors have decided to cut back costs by shutting down screens or renting them to theater groups. If all this wasn’t bad enough, there is also the ongoing strike to contend with. For nine weeks multiplexes and producers have struggled to reach a solution over revenue-sharing. Producers say the share isn’t enough; multiplexes argue that films are too inconsistent. And so, since the beginning of this impasse there have been few new movies released in multiple-screen theaters.

As a result, work has dried up for the thousands of technicians and support staff who perform the tasks required to ensure the business runs smoothly. The proprietor of A Grade Samosas, who provides samosas and fizzy drinks to over 30 cinemas in Mumbai and Thane, has seen business drop by over 50%. He has seen this only once before, many years ago, during a similar strike.

But the proprietor is fortunate, for he still has business. A carter of film reels, a man named Prabhakar, sits in his office all day with three other employees for there is no work he can do. Prabhakar’s father was a eon with Warner Brothers. His brother is a peon with Paramount. He only transports reels from here to there. The strike has hit him so hard, he estimates he can go on for two months before he runs out of cash. “I have eight people to support. I have three boys to pay salaries to. Where am I going to make money from?” Prabhakar charges anywhere from Rs50-300 to transport reels across the country. Everyday, from his office at CST, he sent out 5-10 reels. He packs them into a trunk, seals it with a ten Rupee lock, and sends it on its way. The strike has denied him two months’ earnings, approximately Rs10,000 in total. “What can I tell you,” he says bitterly, asked when he thinks the strike will end. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“I’d rather not call it a strike,” says Pramod Arora, group president of PVR Ltd. “These are partners working together to find a solution both can be happy with.” It’s unlikely that any solution would benefit men such as Prabhakar.

“You can’t really cut off your nose to spite your face,” says Aditya Shastri, whose company, People Pictures, decided they could wait no longer for a resolution to the dispute, and released their first movie, 99, in multiplexes. “If things weren’t bad enough, this strike has affected carters, processing labs, stock suppliers, cinemas, billboard guys, railway station advertisers, and even the guys who print DVD covers. Datta Samant did the same thing with mill workers.”

Shastri’s company researched audiences for a year and a half before starting production, which took an additional year. He says his movie could not be held back any further. “We were on the precipice. We couldn’t take another breath.” Twice he delayed his movie’s release date, only to find that the standoff had been extended further. “We had serious financial pressures, and I owed it to my company and the people who had worked on this movie to do the right thing.”

He described the current climate as “difficult” for business. “A year ago, Studio 18, Eros, and Ashtavinayak were buying movies for distribution. Today they just aren’t. Nobody bought us. We had to go out and sell our movie. Of course it required a different set of skills.”

Between the Friday it released and the Sunday that followed, attendance for 99 quadrupled. Upscale cinemas saw 23-25%. The movie played at 495 screens across India. “I’m ecstatic now,” Shastri says. “But I know I’m sticking my neck out. I’m sure the implications of what I’ve done [vis-à-vis the producers association] will sink in soon enough.”

Kamal Gianchandani, head of distribution at Big Films, says that distributors have tried to adjust to the change in revenue streams. “Advertising revenue dependent formats have certainly been affected,” he says, “Which means selling a film for television doesn’t earn as much as it used to.” This is exacerbated by the rising cost of funding because entertainment is perceived to be risky.

A more low-key transformation is also taking place. Since funds are harder to come by, men such as Gianchandani are under more scrutiny for their decisions. This is vital, because while data is studied to approve film selection, it often comes down to gut feeling. “Because it deals with creativity. Unfortunately, that’s how it is. This makes it difficult to justify your decisions.”

The strike, the tightening of credit, the choosiness of exhibitors and distributors: What does all this mean to a business where no one knows what truly works? Going by the evidence, there’s more reliance on data (Which, as everyone knows, has its limits). Sidhartha Jain, who last year quit Adlabs to begin Irock, a production company, with Manmohan Shetty, is developing “India’s first horror comedy. “It’s a zombie comedy. We’re also doing India’s first space adventure and the first vampire feature. We don’t have huge amounts in development,” he says. “Earlier, we had plans to produce five films. Now we’ll do just two, and we’ll start with the big budget films later.”

Shetty says he’s being more conservative in his approach. “Since the overall recoveries and revenue potential for films have been affected, many large distributors and outright buyers have become inactive. Consequently many producers are left with no option but to release the films themselves and take the entire risk.” His advice is to keep things simple: “In times of trouble, the best approach is to stick to basics. I hope the industry does well to focus on good scripts, strong pre-production, and right-sizing of budgets.” He doesn’t see anyone benefiting from the recession, though. “… Everyone in the value chain suffers in one way or the other, except maybe lawyers who are busy redrafting agreements.”

Shastri says the strike is the more immediate problem. “You have no idea what six more weeks of not playing movies will do. People are going to just stop going.”

Another producer, however, is cynical about why the strike took place. “Who would want to release a movie during the IPL anyway? You watch. Magically, around the time of the IPL final, an agreement will be reached and everyone will be happy. Temporarily. Because there are only 52 weeks in a year. And the producers have missed out on nine due to themselves. So movie releases will be compressed, and the only beneficiaries will be multiplexes. I shudder to think of what’s going to happen.”

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