In this Pickle interview, Katharina Suckale and Arfi Lamba of Bombay Berlin Film Productions recall how the situation when they floated their firm, elaborate how it has changed now and decode how would future be post pandemic.
We met last at Berlinale 2020. Twenty-four months have passed? We are in mid-pandemic environs now… How has been last two years for you?
Actually, the last two years have been very intense and exciting. Due to the pandemic, our business and company started following the work from home with the support of digital communication tools.We developed a series with Disney+ Hotstar and produced a short film too, that should premiere at a big festival soon.
Meanwhile, Bombay-Berlin had one of its films on one of the streaming sites…
Yes, our feature film “LOEV” is available on Netflix in 180 countries and we got a lot of feedback over social media. It is inspiring to get so much love and appreciation over Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We were happy to see the enthusiasm of the spectators and also how these social media tools have brought the audience closer to the makers.
Besides, our short film “The Idiot” got sold to Amazon UK and USA, Disney+ Hotstar and the prestigious and curated US short film platform, Argo.
What projects are you currently working on? What is the progress?
We continued the festival tour of our Marathi feature film “Trijya” (Radius) by Akshay Indikar, which tells the journey of a young man in his 20s who is as confused as one can be. We were honoured that the film won the National Award of Best Sound Design in 2021. With the opening of the movie halls, we plan a release in the cinemas and VOD platforms.
Besides, we bought the rights to an Indian biopic. The screenplay is in its writing process in cooperation with Olivia Stewart. At the same time, we have series concepts submitted to Indian platforms and German channels.
Going forward, what are the challenges you foresee as a producer?
Once the pandemic is over, it will be the question of whether arthouse cinema in all its variety will survive. The habits of spectators have further changed that they mainly come to the cinemas for blockbusters. As we all know the situation of film distributors in Germany and Europe became difficult due to the lockdowns the last two years. Will the variety of films and film art worldwide sustain?
The creative teams from writers, directors, cast, crew to post-production will have to acknowledge too that the spectators and their habits have changed over the past years. The demands on the quality of stories have risen. What stories will be successful in the vast diversity of content, tastes, platforms, and markets? It became even less predictable than 10-15 years ago.
Post pandemic, what has changed in the business (as a producer) and what will never come back?
In the last years, the business has shifted towards the production of series and short formats such as Tiktok, YouTube, etc… The release of feature films apart from big blockbusters became a challenge. In Germany, cinemas were closed during 7-8 months a year and opened with an occupancy of 35% due to Covid regulations, similar to India. This is neither easy for distributors, exhibitors, sales companies, investors, producers and filmmakers.
Due to the high concept series available on HBO, Amazon, Netflix, ZDF, ARD, Disney, etc., spectators became even more demanding than before. They got used to top quality on all levels. This requests high budgets and well-trained writers, directors, and crew members. Another bigger challenge will be the availability of crew. While every studio/producer is rushing to finish the pending shoot due to Covid, new series are being greenlit and crew is becoming a huge issue for shoots.
How has the various film markets — most of them online — worked for you?
It was interesting to attend Cannes, Chicago, Tallinn, Les Arcs, Rotterdam etc. digitally. You stayed connected to basic information on the transformation of the business and new technologies. The panels gave you the newest market tendencies and the latest films and series released. Even the enormity of bigger events was reduced to be somewhat like a Zoom call. Not being able to see people in person, to network and lock deals, was a huge bummer, only replaced by a small screen in your home office. It is a very one-sided communication.
What are the negatives of an online market? Why do you prefer the physical market?
During these digital markets and events, you experience also a lot of “Ghost Chatting”, where people appear and disappear, projects appear and disappear. There is less reliability and you do not have many networking possibilities to expand your business and artistic connections. All our business along the two years of Covid was based on the connections we had established over the last 10-15 years, build over our productions and onsite markets. Maybe, online markets were at a nascent stage and born out of necessity and that’s why they lacked the productivity of a physical market by a huge margin.
Are you optimistic that things will get better to have a physical market and full-fledged festival during Cannes in May?
We are very hopeful. Business continued during the pandemic, while films and series got shot, pushing to the film markets respectively the spectator. We are optimistic that business will start moving even better because people will find their life back, hopefully going out, meeting people, wanting to hear and exchange new stories. Though there will be some irreversible changes. Digital meetings and events are here to stay forever. But they will never be able to replace physical meetings.
You had created Bombay-Berlin Productions with a vision to bring filmmakers from both countries, make films that will bring two cultures together?
We are very happy that Europe and India as well as Germany and India continued to approach each other exchanging stories. We have discovered the possibility to get to know more about the other continent due to new media and globalization. The feedback of German channels on Indian content in 2003/2006 was still that “German spectators are not interested in India.” Nobody would say something like this in 2022. In today’s times, you can watch Indian films and series over Netflix and Amazon all over the world. LOEV is streamed in 180 countries. Who would have imagined these developments in 2011 when we founded Bombay Berlin Film Productions?
Where do we stand in the Indo-German audio-visual collaboration going forward?
There is a long-distance to be covered. Germany has a robust funding system, supported by Creative Europe and Eurimages, while India has one fund, NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India), that also promises to fund Regional Indian films only. Also, there is still a resistance to see the stories that can take place in these two countries with their own language and culture clashes. Language stays a big negotiating factor for the audiences in India, and for traditional German audiences.
People in Germany and India have been in different lockdowns under changing regulations. This influenced and changed human relationships. We have been talking to German channels who would be interested to work in India as well as Indian platforms to collaborate with Germany and Europe. We have to find the stories which interest the spectators on both continents.
At one point of time Shah Rukh Khan could bring Berlin traffic to a standstill… Can this happen now?
After the lockdown, we were happy to meet young people in their 20s who love watching Bollywood films with Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and other Indian stars. They sit together with their parents in front of the television, loving and crying with these stories. They want to dream again, feeling happiness and joy, because life became more difficult than 10-20 years ago.
Lockdowns and social media brought the fans closer to their stars in this time. And one thing is sure, fans always find out where their favorite star is. When Shah Rukh Khan would come to Berlin, some people would know and with the word of mouth spreading fast more people would find out, because with his films he still represents love and hope which people are even more looking for today.
How do we make India and Germany to collaborate? We don’t see co-productions similar to Don2 and The Lunch Box? Why?
Don2 and Lunchbox were exceptions to the rule and this is the magic of cinema. Germany produced on average 200-300 feature films per year, most of these films are neither known in Germany as well as outside the country. They don’t get a release, similar to some films in France and India. There have always been exceptions where the word of mouth spread.
To get more collaboration, we need to support the core of filmmaking, which means the writers, creators and producers. There are pan-European writers/directors and producers Labs. This doesn’t exist between Europe and India.
While the whole world is collaborating, producing films and series based out of different world regions, India is still a self-sufficient market, generating huge content and revenue for the domestic market. There is a big potential in international collaborations and that has to be exploited sooner than later. They should get already the financial support to develop content that would fit German/European spectators as well as Indian spectators.
Then for the production, films and series projects need support from institutions over tax credits and public funding in India to make it interesting for private investors to join the financing. Then also German and European funding institutions will be interested and vice versa.
Do you see scope for India and German collaboration in streaming space? Are there any OTT platforms beyond Netflix and Amazon in the German market?
Apart from Netflix and Amazon, there is Sky/Comcast releasing series also from HBO, TNT-Warner Media, Telecom/Magenta TV, and Disney+. ZDF and ARD have their own digital platforms. There are smaller platforms too but not as successful in terms of spectators and revenues. In general, the philosophy of streamers in Germany is to create “local content”, which means in each case something different. And you never know what they are planning now for the future?
Channels like ARD and ZDF are partly more open to coproductions. For example, ZDF, France Télévisions and RAI Italy are cooperating on international series. They need to do co-productions with several countries in order to raise the finances the streamers have available, opening to larger markets, too. We would need that support from India. Indian filmmakers and producers need to have a big co-production fund to make content and have it released in the international market.
Lastly, what are your prescriptions for Indian people to watch subtitled or dubbed German content in India…
Over the last 2-3 years, a lot of spectators in India, as well as Germany, started to appreciate original versions with subtitles, if it is a thriller, drama, sci-fi, or comedy genre.
Have a look on Netflix or Amazon you can watch interesting films and series from “Dark” to “Oh Boy”, “Good-by Lenin” or series like “Parfum”, “Bad Banks”, “Ku’damm 56” (ZDF co-productions) or “Charité”, “Weissensse” (ARD productions), “Dreamwomen” and many more. And by the way, don’t forget that the series “Queen Gambit” was mostly shot in Berlin-Brandenburg because of the local support.