Covid has brought lot of distress to the film industry, but if you look at it as an optimist, it has brought in a new set of opportunities for independent filmmakers By O P Srivastava
In Chinese, the word ‘Crisis’ is made of two strokes- one represents ‘Danger’ and the other represents ‘Opportunity’.
Covid has brought lot of distress to the film industry, but, if you look at it as an optimist, it has brought in a new set of opportunities also.
It has ushered in an era of OTT platform based streaming, which is not only cutting across a number of layers between the filmmakers and the ultimate audience, but also making independent filmmaking a viable business proposition in India. Till now in order to make a film In India, one was required to collect ‘a bagful’ of money and then raise another bagful to promote the film and then beg borrow or steal another one to release the film. And even after going through this long ordeal, a filmmaker could not be sure of ‘what cash flows’ were going to come back to his or her kitty. It is a well-known fact that whereas the big production houses and star-producers manage to multiply their investments in their films multi fold, the small producers, in ninety nine per cent of cases, end up losing their capital also. But, post March 2020, things started changing-thanks to Covid.
The prolonged lockdown has induced not only a change in our lifestyle but it has also dented a shift in the consumption behavior including the digital consumption.
The long struggling OTT platforms have suddenly taken off !
In the first quarter of 2020, Netflix added a staggering 15.8 million paid subscribers as the locked-down audience turned to OTT platforms in the absence of PVRs of the world. According to reports, Netflix’ global total has reached 189 million with audience binging on shows like Love and Blind and Money Heist and Indian web series like Delhi Crime, Jamtara, Made in Heaven, Mirzapur, Special OPS etc. Amazon Prime, Hot Star and ZEE5 have reportedly seen 65 per cent increase in their consumption pattern during March- June 2020 quarter.
One of the most impacted sectors due to the lockdown has been the entertainment industry. Not only the production activity has come to a grinding halt, the theatrical distribution companies like PVR have also suffered a serious blow (Share price down form Rs. 1815 on December 2, 2019 to Rs 1037 on July 17, 2020). So much so that an Amitabh Bachhan starrer like Gulabo Sitabo found it viable to release on a digital platform. To my mind, this trend is also a manifestation of a fundamental change happening in the ‘financial model of filmmaking’ in India. First of all, it indicates an increasing share of revenue from digital release of a film and a decreasing share of cash flows coming from the theatrical releases. The resultant combination of these two major cash flows increases the ‘certainty quotient’ in the total revenue stream of a film thereby enhancing the predictability and the stability of monetization in the filmmaking business. A more predictable or measurable revenue stream of a film is a good sign from an investor’s point of view. It helps the investors or a financier or a banker to look at investment in ‘filmmaking’ much more favorably. Besides, logically the stuff made for OTT platforms may not be as extravagant or as expensive as the high budget films made for the big screen. The success of the recently streamed popular films/episodic web series content like Patallok, Panchayat, Chintu Ka Birthday etc on OTT platforms largely driven by non-stars/ first timers is also an indication that for a film to be commercially successful on an OTT platform, it need not depend on the hugely expensive stars or sets thus bringing down the cost of the film and thereby increasing the Return on Investment ( ROI) on a film project. The success of Netflix Original or Amazon Original is, in a way, indicative of a new business model shaping up in the film industry. Add to this, the fact that in the post-Covid scenario, due to the enhanced pressure on timelines and productivity, ‘digitization’ in the filmmaking is bound to increase. We are looking at a ‘picture’, which may be more viable financially speaking.
Yoodlee model of filmmaking
Three years back, when Yoodlee films started making small budget films based on the stories of a new crop of writers, there were many, who would have scoffed at their misadventure in the market dominated by the big budget star-studded films. But three years down the line, the tide has taken a U-turn with the explosion of viewership on the OTT streaming platforms, where even big blockbusters are getting forced to seek a release instead of waiting for cinema halls to open. Yoodlee films, with 13 small budget successful films like Chaman Bahar, Axone, Ajji etc. has not only proven that successful films can be made without big stars, big sets, high tech VFX, big promotions and of course big budgets, they have also opened doors for a new wave of filmmaking in India. What are the basics of this new model? Here it goes.
Films are made with a focus on the audience in digital space only (essentially meaning that the films need not have the elements, which are required to pull the front benchers in cinema halls like the item songs etc. as an add- on in the film.)
Films are produced in a small budget (rumored to be between 1-2 Cr) under strictly monitored execution process. An independent auditor, who is given a pre-approved budget with day-by-day break up of the expenses, continuously audits all expenses during the entire schedule.
The choice of films is driven by the script and script only, having fresh perspective. All scriptwriters are reportedly paid on profit sharing basis.
All films are produced on a tight time schedule, within nine months- no time overrun and no cost overruns.
All films are shot on real locations-no artificial sets.
The film crews unless they are extremely senior artists, take train to locations and expect no five star hospitality or vanity vans.
Most of the investment is put into production.
All films are less than 120 minutes.
The direct sale to OTT platform eliminates the huge promotion and distribution cost enhancing the financial viability of the project.
They just produce films, own the IP of the content and are creating a pool of quality films – a perfect business model for a Venture Capitalist to step in.
Yoodlee, the way to go!!
O P Srivastava, a banker turned filmmaker, started his filmography in 2015 by producing a fiction film, ‘Missed Call’, which won 4 International Awards including selection as the opening film at IFFI 2006, Best International Film at Israel 2008 and represented India at Cinema du Monde, Cannes in 2007. His first feature documentary, Life in Metaphors, won the National Award for Best Biopic in 2015.
A quintet of independent Indian films, all feature debuts, will be pitching for global breakthroughs in Marche du Film’s ‘Goes to Cannes’ section Saibal Chatterjee
Five films-in-post, all debut features, constitute the ‘NFDC Film Bazaar Goes to Cannes’ selection for the Marche du Film, which will this year be a wholly digital platform.
The Indian quintet will join 15 other films – five apiece from Hong Kong- Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), Poland’s New Horizons International Film Festival and the Thessaloniki Film Festival – in vying for the attention of sales agents, distributors and festival curators at the premier event scheduled from June 22 to 26.
Two of these titles – Ajitpal Singh’s Hindi-language Fire in the Mountains and Natesh Hegde’s Kannada film Pedro – were NFDC Film Bazaar 2019 Work-in-Progress (WIP) Lab winners.
Prasun Chatterjee’s Bengali film Dostojee (Two Friends) was part of Film Bazaar Recommends last year, while Ashish Pant’s Uljhan (The Knot) and Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies, two Hindi films set in Lucknow, were in the WIP Lab lineup.
DOSTOJEE (TWO FRIENDS)
Dostojee, an independent Bengali film, has taken seven years out of the life of young writer-director Prasun Chatterjee. All the effort and time have borne fruit: the film is now on the Cannes bandwagon.
It is set in the early 1990s in a rural Bengal outpost, as far away as one could have got from the reverberations of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent Mumbai serial blasts.
Through the prism of an “innocent friendship” between two village boys, Palash and Safikul, Dostojee examines how two cataclysmic events that took place three months apart impacted the two boys and their village.
Chatterjee, who has designed the film’s sound without banking on music, wrote the script in 2013. “I have been travelling in the area for the last 12 years. I even lived there for two-anda-half years to understand the struggles of the exceedingly poor people there,” he says.
Besides a few theatre actors, the cast of Dostojee has 150-plus villagers, all non-actors. The two main roles are played by boys from the border village, Ashik Sheikh and Arif Sheikh. One is the son of a migrant worker; the other’s father works as an earth-digger for a local brick kiln. To help them ease themselves into the unfamiliar job of acting, Chatterjee would sit down with the two schoolboys every day and assist them with their homework.
Ashik and Arif weren’t the only ones who learnt on the job during the Dostojee shoot. Director of photography Tuhin Biswas did, too. Biswas is an award-winning photographer (and primary school teacher in Ranaghat, Nadia district) who was hired to click working stills. He took over as the cinematographer. His work is earning accolades on the evidence of the trailer alone.
“We shot the film in different seasons. A rain-making machine cannot produce showers to replicate natural rain,” says Chatterjee. “Also, in the period that Dostojee is set, there was no electricity in this village (which is located in the last subdivision on this side of the India-Bangladesh border between Murshidabad and Rajshahi). Everything had to be filmed in light from natural sources and from candles and lanterns.”
Chatterjee says he will be pitching Dostojeeto both festival heads and sales agents.
FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS
The Hindi-language Fire in the Mountains, directed by Ajitpal Singh, is set in an Uttarakhand village where tradition still hinders the path of modernity.
A woman saves money with the intention of making life easier for her disabled son. Her husband, on the other hand, has his eyes set on her savings. He has a shamanic ritual in mind as a means to curing the child.
Fire in the Mountains is produced by Ajay Rai of JAR Pictures, who came on board after seeing Singh’s 2018 short film Rammat Gammat. Veteran French cinematographer Dominique Colin (who has worked with Gaspar Noe and Cedric Klapisch)is the film’s director of photography
A personal tragedy triggered Singh’s first narrative feature. The filmmaker lost a cousin because her husband believed she was possessed and therefore refused to take her to a hospital. “I was angry and dealing with the shock when the idea struck me,” says the writer-director. “My cousin was a progressive woman married to a conservative, old school guy.”
It is a similar clash between tradition and modernity that Fire in the Mountains explores. “In Uttarakhand, I found out about shamanic practices like ‘jaagar’ in which gods and spirits are summoned to cure ailments. It was the perfect setting for this kind of film.” Debutante Vinamrata Rai (she has been in short films before) plays the female lead opposite the NSD trained Chandan Bisht. Fire in the Mountains also has Sonal Jha in a secondary role.
About the Film Bazaar Goes to Cannes programme, Singh says: “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have had a clear picture, but now I am going along and trying to figure out what is really happening in the market.”
The Marche du Film participation, he hopes, will help him know what the industry’s strategy is going to be in the current situation. “I just want to know where we stand and how we should plan ahead,” says Singh.
Pedro is directed by Natesh Hegde, a filmmaker based out of a small village near Dharwad in Karnataka. The project won the WIP Lab’s DI Support Award at the 2019 NFDC Film Bazaar.
The film is about a middle-aged electrician (played by Hegde’s father) living with his mother and his brother’s family in a remote village. The man commits an act that upsets the villagers and elicits an unexpected reaction from them.
“My father is an electrician. The film is based on some incidents in his life,” says Hegde. “There is a great deal of fiction in the film although the characters are real. They are from my village, and some are even relatives. In Pedro, I want to navigate between documentary and fiction.”
Hegde hopes, first and foremost, to tap the Goes to Cannes section to land a good festival premiere. “I will, of course, also be looking for distributors,” he adds. Hegde, a self-taught filmmaker, regards the late G. Aravindan as his principal creative lodestar. “I have been aspiring to be a filmmaker for 6-7 years now,” he says. “The director who inspires me the most is Aravindan. “In his films, the line between the real and the imagined is blurred.”
Hegde cites Aravindan’s Thampu, a film about circus performers shot in documentary style, as a case in point. “It is hard to fathom how he managed to shoot the close-ups of those people. His films were disarmingly simple but they had important things to say,” says the young filmmaker.
Set in early 1960s Lucknow, Shankar’s Fairies is based on “the childhood memories” of director Irfana Majumdar’s historian-mother. The film is about a nine-year-old child of a senior police officer and her bonding with a family retainer, Shankar.
Majumdaris a Varanasi-based theatre director, teacher and solo performer.“ In terms of aesthetics, visuals and the film’s spatial feel, I’ve relied on the instincts that my theatre training has given me,” she says.
The cast of the film has a mix of trained performers and non-actors, with whom she did a lot of work for several months before the shoot. “The main actor lived in the house and worked as a servant in preparation for the role,” says Majumdar.
The short synopsis of Shankar’s Fairies on the Marche du Film site reads: “A little girl belonging to a privileged family and a village man who is the family servant share a relationship based on imagination and stories. Underlying their innocent bonds are divided worlds: city and village, master and servant, adult and child.”
In Shankar’s Fairies, Majumdar has used her mother’s recollections to craft a non-linear, fictionalized film in which most of the incidents in the film take place in houses similar to the Lucknow Cantonment bungalows that officers of the Uttar Police Force lived in. “The setting is very real,” she says.
Her expectations from the Marche du Film? “This is our first feature film and we’ve made it completely independently. We are looking for anyone who might partner with us to help us get the film seen and get it out to the world,” Majumdar says.
ULJHAN (THE KNOT)
The second Lucknow film in the NFDC Film Bazaar selection, Ashish Pant’s Uljhan (The Knot) homes in on a middle-class couple whose car is involved in an accident one night. The conflicting reactions of the two to the incident drives a wedge between them and turns the spotlight on their values and beliefs.
Produced by Kartikeya Singh (Anhey Gorhey Da Daan, ChauthiKoot, Soni), Uljhan is Pant’s first feature. He is a writing and directing alumnus from Columbia University who worked in theatre, assisting a lot of directors. He now teaches film in New York.
The Knot (Hindi, Urdu, Awadhi) has its genesis in a real-life car mishap that happened when Pant was seven years old. He says: “Within a few minutes the car was surrounded by people banging on the windows. They assumed that we had made a mistake. I was terrified. That image stayed with me.”
“Lucknow,” Pant says, “has always been portrayed on the screen in the historical context. But my film is totally contemporary.”The central character in Uljhan is a small businessman. Says Pant: “It is very much about the class structure but the difference is that we have restricted the perspective to the middle-class couple.”
“The third character,” he explains, “comes from outside this class, but any judgement that the audience will make will emerge from the perspective of the middle class. My intention is to get the viewer to think what they would have done had they been in a similar situation.”
Vikas Kumar (Hamid), Saloni Batra (Soni) and Nehpal Gautam play the three main roles in Uljhan. “The film is pretty much complete, so we are looking for festival slots,” says Pant. “But we will also explore sales and distribution opportunities.”
Many good works in India do not get theatres because the system belongs to hardcore commercial houses. However, digital platforms have empowered filmmakers to explore new ways, believes HariViswanath
As an independent Indian filmmaker, sometimes I feel very insecure because a large number of people and a section of media believe that, in a diversified cultural mosaic like India, the audience welcome only the so-called commercial main stream films.
However, I believe that the independent films are also commercial products which are consumed by the consumers (film-goers) from the outlets (theatres). But if a commodity does not even make it to the outlets, how can you be so sure that the consumers only demand the so-called commercial big house products? I wish there was a healthy competition between these two kinds of films, so that the audience had the choiceto select their movies according to their tastes.
As far as my venture Radiopetti is concerned, I would say it’s not a complete success. I was very happy to get a world premiere in Busan and win the Best Audience Award, that too for my debut film. Apart from that, the film won four more awards at various film festivals and nine official selections. It was made available on Netflix (first Tamil film on Netflix before its theatrical release), itunes and Google Play. But all said and done, since the film didn’t get the theatrical release in its home ground, I still feel incomplete.
Being a jury at IFFI (International Film Festival of India)2017,was a very good experience. I enjoyed the cinema as an art without the barrier of language, as we got films in Indian Panorama from all the states of India. I could experience the rich culture of India and got to know how small and beautiful things are told by other fellow film directors.
My new short film is based on a concept I developed while I was working as a team leader in an IT company. In an office, so many people work for hours together and while they are there, they laugh, cry, experience humiliation, insult or get praised. Sometimes they feel that there is no one who is watching them going through all these emotions. But I thought that there is one witness – a computer monitor– that watches everything. But since it is an inanimate being, it cannot react. This thought gave me an idea, what if the monitor could talk! Based on this idea, I have made this short film in Hindi, Monitor, which is a story being told from the point of view of a computer monitor. India is the most prolific movie producer nation in the world. As part of this film production market, every independent film maker is like an isolated island. As an independent film maker, my first work was Radiopetti. It received applause at international film festivals, but shockingly I could not get a theatrical release of my film in India because of several reasons. However, after participating as a jury of Indian Panorama at IFFI last year, I found I am not the only film maker who has suffered this release issue. Many good, thought provoking artistic works could not be released in Indian theatres because the releasing system belongs to the hard core commercial houses. They make the hits and flops. So, an independent film maker, in almost every part of India, suffers in almost the same way as I did.
Our Constitution gives us the right of freedom of expression.Yes, it’s there. Although a strict certification board is there. But, if the final creation cannot reach to the audience and this becomes a phenomenon, it makes a creator unhappy and frustrated. But having said that, I also believe that good Indian cinema of the future belongs to independent film makers.
India is a huge country with a vast diversity in talent and the emerging digital world has made filmmaking easier. Now anyone can shoot using their mobile or any digital camera. In this digital era making a film could be easier, but making good quality films is quite difficult. Besides that, showing your film on the right platform to the audience is another important aspect that one needs to learn and understand.
The best thing about the emerging digital era is that filmmakers need not have to think about the traditional way of theatrical release alone. Now we have so many digital platforms (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc) to showcase our films to our audience around the world.
(The writer is the maker of 2015 Tamil film Radiopetti which won widespread accolades at multiple international film festivals across the globe)