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Bollywood version 2.0

Published on : May 22, 2011
Bollywood version 2.0

Avijit Ghosh, TNN | May 22, 2011, 06.36am IST

Bollywood is in a state of churn like never before. It is not just that mothers have stopped singing bhajans to cure cancer; that sisters no longer tie rakhis on their brothers' wrists to secure protection from baddie Shakti Kapoor; that young men have started flaunting their x-rated fantasies singing, Mera jism, jism, mera badan, badan, main hoon taaza, taaza, mutton mutton ("Love Ka The End"), in a way Helen never did in the 1960s. 

And it's not that new poetic inventiveness means using Bose D K (" Delhi Belly") as a sly phonetic surrogate for an age-old expletive commonly used in the cow belt. 

From production to publicity, from content to distribution, every aspect of the Hindi film business is in transition. New revenue models are being created with alacrity and dumped with abandon. There's a missionary-like zeal to locate a new omphalos of box-office. Producers are looking for ancillary revenue streams — the 2011 KPMG-Ficci report on the state of the Indian media and entertainment industry predicts that new revenue streams such as licensing, merchandising and pay per view, etc. will double film collections by 2015. 

Distributors are hunting for virgin markets. Shah Rukh Khan's "My Name Is Khan" found $42 million worth of an audience in 64 countries. And that includes a fantabulous $2.5 million from South Korea. With more than 90% films ending in the red every year, scriptwriters too are always trying to second-guess the impossible-to-please minds of the audience. The few films that have worked this year —"Yamla Pagla Deewana", "No One Killed Jessica", "Tanu Weds Manu", "F.A.L.T.U" and "Ragini MMS" — are so unlike each other that nobody has a clue what the audience really wants. Which is why, to use a cliché, change is the only constant in the Hindi film industry today.

Here's what's changing and why: 

Betting on Newbies 

In mid-1960s, a bunch of Bollywood biggies came under the banner of United Producers, organized a talent contest and selected a pockmarked young actor with a prominent backside. The prescient move gave Hindi films its first superstar —Rajesh Khanna. Today, 45 years later, production houses are once again seriously scrounging across the country for new talent. 

Yash Raj Films has set up an alternate studio, Y Films, which "promises to deliver kickass films of the youth, by the youth, for the youth". Producer Ekta Kapoor's sleeper hit "Ragini MMS" (a horror-sex flick involving a young couple and a malignant ghost) and Viacom18's frothy "Pyaar Ka Punchnama" were crafted in similar mode with similar eyeball targets. SRK's Red Chillies Entertainment's forthcoming "Always Kabhie Kabhie" and Karan Johar's next directorial venture, "Student of the Year", are woven around newcomers. Johar's film has three newcomers: Varun Dhawan (director David Dhawan's son), Alia Bhatt (director Mahesh Bhatt's daughter) and Sidharth Malhotra. 

More than 70% of India is aged under 35 and 350 million people in the 15-35 age-group make youth the single-largest movie-going group, says Ashish Patil, CEO, Y Films. "Yet unlike Hollywood, we don't have a focused genre of youth films. It is a consumer gap. Our films will try to fill this need," he says. Y Films has three projects to begin with. These include "Luv Ka The End" (which had a speedy The End at the box-office); "Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge" (a romcom against the backdrop of social networking) and "Virus Diwan" (the story of a young hacker). All have farm-fresh young lead actors and young directors with child-actor-like names such as Bumpy. 

The rush for greenhorns is forced partly by a severe shortage of big stars. Most A-list heroes have floated their own production houses and are out of bounds for others. "Many are making money from endorsements and stage shows. They want to enjoy the luxury of avoiding films they don't feel like doing or feel will affect their brand equity in the long run," says writer-lyricist Jaideep Sahni. This explains the 21-month gap between Shah Rukh Khan's last film "My Name is Khan" (Jan 2010) and his next one, "Ra.One" (Oct 2011). Two other top stars, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan, are equally scarce on celluloid. That's why, as Rajesh Jain, head of media and entertainment,KPMG puts it, "Top production houses are looking to create an alternate viable economic model by mentoring first-time directors, actors and technical staff and providing them a platform for their debut." 

The catch is that most of these projects perceive the young Indian as part of a monolithic community with a monochromatic taste for cinema lite. The accuracy of such assessments will be borne out in the coming months.


Small is Beautiful


Back in the 1980s, the audience clapped uproariously when a film's censor certificate showed the length of a film as 20 reels or more. "Sholay" was 23 reels. "Mother India", "Mughal-e-Azam", "Pakeezah" were extra long. "Mera Naam Joker" was 4 hours and 15 minutes long. Often, when a film became a superhit, the producers added another reel as a special attraction. Size still matters and but now conversely, producers believe that small is beautiful. A list of recent releases establishes the point. " Stanley Ka Dabba" is 96 minutes long. "Ragini MMS" is six minutes shorter. "Chalo Dilli" and "I Am" are two hours long. The subtle horror flick "404" is 118 minutes. 

Bollywood trade expert Taran Adarsh says that with access to world movies and Hollywood, many young people now feel that song and dance are unnecessary diversions in a film. "They want a film to be focused on a single topic and shorter in length," he says. Raj Nidimoru, co-director of "Shor in the City" links Hindi movies' shrinking size to the gradual globalization of taste. "Most movies abroad are roughly two hours or less. This has happened because earlier films were like thalis incorporating a bit of everything. Now they are a la carte, focusing on a specific topic," he says.

Pramod Arora, group president, PVR, feels that due to technology and information overload, GenNow has a shorter attention span. But he offers sound business logic too. "Being able to show a movie six times a day is much better than showing it three or four times. This way everybody wins," he says. 

Adman and social commentator Santosh Desai points out that multiplex movie-watching has become part of the overall weekend experience where shopping, eating out and a film has to be combined. 

"Shorter movies help that happen," he says. Interestingly, "Yamla Pagla Deewana", this year's biggest grosser so far, is 154 minutes long. Does that mean size doesn't matter if the movie is interesting? Perhaps, but the trend is undeniably towards shorter films.


Splurge on Publicity


This is a time of unlimited entertainment options —150-plus TV channels, gaming, malls and free web tourism. So, finding ways to the audience's wallet is as difficult as making "Bigg Boss" loudmouth Dolly Bindra talk softly. Like million-dollar babies, today's films have to be packaged and delivered with extreme care. Industry sources say publicity costs have gone up at least three times in the last five years. Even Hollywood movies are aggressively marketed in India. In 2005, publicity costs were just 10 to 15% of a film's overall budget. 

"Now it is about 40% of a decent mainstream movie's budget," says Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO, UTV. Director Raj Nidimoru says about 50% of the spending on his "Shor in the City" went into advertising. Ashish Patil of Y Films says that social networking sites and other online avenues as well as mobile phone marketing are increasingly getting attention and a larger share of the publicity budget. "Normally only 2% of the publicity budget is allotted to such avenues. For 'Love Ka The End', we spent about 16%, roughly eight times more," he says. 

Adman Santosh Desai says the importance of publicity has grown because unlike the past, when most movies ran for a minimum four to six weeks, a film now only has a 72-hour window to swim or sink. 

"It must get audience attention in the first three days of release. The producer must front-load everything he has," he says. This is why publicity platforms such as the digital media are being maximized and the reclusive star is history. Today, the hero hops from one TV studio to another like a political party spokesperson, then laughs and dances on inane chat shows and sends out mindless tweets.


The Cable Guy 

In an industry where the majority of films lose money, producers welcome any fresh avenue of income. Selling cable and satellite rights at a decent price are the new gravy train for producers. According to the 2011 KPMG-FICCI report, the cable and satellite rights of movies experienced a healthy 33% growth due to growing demand from broadcasters. In 2009, cable and satellite rights amounted to about 7% of the overall revenue; by 2010, it had climbed to 10%. By 2015, it is likely to be 13%. Industry sources say "Rajneeti" was sold for Rs 25 crore; "Three Idiots" went for more than Rs 30 crore. A couple of movies such as "Raavan" and "Kites" were sold to broadcasters before release. But when they flopped, broadcasters started to renegotiate the deals. Some films have bucked the trend. The latest buzz is Shah Rukh Khan's forthcoming "Ra.One", which has been snapped up for a record Rs 40 crore. 

The demand is born out of cutthroat competition for TV rights between the new general entertainment channels (GEC) and movie channels. The intense competitiveness has shortened the window between a movie's theatrical release and its premier on satellite TV, prompting huge TRPs, and consequently, offering huge opportunity to advertisers. Last August, "Three Idiots" got a staggering average TRP of 6.0 in the four-hour Sunday afternoon slot. More than 29 million viewers across Hindi-speaking markets saw it. 

"GEC channels have realized that a successful Bollywood hit boosts both ad revenues as well as TRPs. It's a ready-made, hassle-free formula. All you require is aggressive bidding. Showing top movies in prime time means a huge spike for channel ratings. "This is what is required to be No 1," says UTV's Siddharth Roy Kapur.


Comedy Central 

Comedy was not a major part of traditional Bombay cinema. Family drama, feelgood musicals, mythologicals and action yarns - often each intersecting the other were big. "Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi", the Johar-Mehmood series and Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterji's cultured comedies were the exception, not the rule. Now, stress-busting comedy is Bollywood's premier beat. A study conducted across 33 cities by Retail Analytics Group, Big Cinema, shows that comedies are overwhelmingly favoured by every age group. No other genre — action, social, horror — comes even remotely close. From naughty ("No Entry") to madcap ("Malamaal Weekly"), from subtle ("Bheja Fry") to intellectual ("Phas Gaye Obama") — sub-genres within the genre have emerged in the last five years. Two of 2010's biggest hits — "Golmaal 3" and "Housefull" — were fun flicks. 

Industry watchers connect the rise of comedies to rising stress levels. Comedies are two-hour laughter therapy. "They make the audience emerge from a theatre feeling fully entertained," says trade specialist Taran Adarsh. PVR cimena's Pramod Arora says the rise of comedy reflects the dramatic changes in the entire movie-going experience: "Once it was a major event planned days in the advance. Now people turn up casually in shorts. It shows they just want to relax". 

But KPMG's Rajesh Jain says comedy is also "a reflection of the strides made by the Indian economy". In the 1960s and earlier, middle-class life was more about unrealized dreams. "Today, it's different," he says. 

Santosh Desai offers an interesting spin on the debate, attributing comedy's rise to subterranean male anxiety about women's place in the world. "Many of these movies are about infantile men on a romp. They emphasize on male bonding as if to make woman irrelevant," he says.


Heard of Mughal-e-Azam II? 

Or, for that matter, Sholay III? In Bombay cinema, pedigreed movies seldom had sequels. C-grade ventures were different. There was the Tarzan series, the Spy series and so on. Now, just like Hollywood, sequels are the norm for successful big-budget Bollywood flicks. Just look at the 2011-12 line-up: "Race 2", "Dhoom 3", "Wanted 2", "Partner 2", "Don 2", "Dabangg 2", "Housefull 2", "Krissh 2" and "Bheja Fry 2". 

Industry sources say that building franchises is part of a corporate de-risking process. The KPMG-Ficci report says that successful Hollywood movie brands have done almost 30% better on a sequel-to-sequel basis. With the success of the "Golmaal" and "Dhoom" series, Bollywood seems to be replicating the Hollywood model. There are many interesting theories about why sequels seem to work. Desai says that in the age of information overload, familiar signposts are reassuring and "sequels offer the comfort of the predictable. You have an idea what you are going to see". 

Market researchers say the industry now realizes that successful movies are brands, and like every brand, must be merchandized and milked. Director Raj Nidimoru has a more matter-of-fact take: "When you don't have better choice, you opt for the familiar. But I guess the thinking audience would like to see more fresh cinema than sequel."


A Window Called IPL 

Bollywood was scared when the Indian Premier League arrived four years ago. The industry felt that cricket's latest variety entertainment avatar, with cheerleaders in hotpants, would keep the audience away from theatres for six weeks at a stretch. When multiplex capacity utilization dipped during the earlier IPLs, the event was dubbed "a black window" in which few big distributors dared to release films. Some exhibitors, in fact, preferred to project the IPL games rather than a movie. 

But this season, Bollywood, especially the small filmmaker, has learnt to harness IPL and convert it into a window of opportunity. As UTV's Roy Kapur puts it, "The IPL is giving small films a clear positive window to release their movie at a time when few big filmmakers release their movie." In the six weeks from April 8, about 21 films have been/will be released. That's an average of three films per week til the IPL season ends on May 28. In fact, the past few weeks have been witness to a bunch of quality low-budget films such as "Shor in the City", "I Am", "Stanley Ka Dabba" and "404". None of these might have got the same attention ahd they been released alongside a big-budget flick. 

This weekend three flicks have been released —"404", "Pyar Ka Punchnaama" and Rituparno Ghosh's "Kashmakash", a fresh take on Rabindranath Tagore's "Nauka Doobi". Walt Disney Pictures also released "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" last Friday. "That's a real change in Hollywood's attitude towards IPL," says PVR's Arora.

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