Anurag Kashyap recently tasted "mainstream" success with Gangs Of Wasseypur. His producer for the Wasseypur films, Vikram Malhotra (COO Viacom 18 Motion Pictures), still considers himself an outsider in the film business, challenging content and marketing norms that have existed over decades. Viacom 18 is in the middle of a great run, with Oh My God and Aiyyaa following Gangs Of Wasseypur. Together, Anurag and Vikram get talking with Shailesh Kapoor (CEO - Ormax Media), whose company has pioneered film research & analytics work in India over the last three years. The three bring different perspectives to the fore in a freewheeling chat on the state of our cinema today, its audiences, the content and the marketing.
Let's start with a fundamental change in the business over the last few years. Back in the '80s, hit films would have run for 25 or 50 weeks, even 100 weeks. Today, even for the best films, 40-50 per cent business comes from the first week. Does this change have an impact on your decisions as a studio head?
In the past, films that would appeal to a set of viewers, say the urban youth, were few and far in between. Today, you have such films releasing almost every weekend. As a result, the ability to engage with fresher content in a relatively short time frame has gone up. I don't think we should look at it as a worrying aspect that our films have shorter shelf lives in theatres, as long as the footfalls are going up and consistency of consumption is being maintained.
But for somebody like you, Anurag, who does not make films with a starcast that ensures a 12-15 crore box office on the first day, does this dependence on the first weekend put you under pressure?
Anurag Kashyap: Recently, Gangs Of Wasseypur 2 (GOW2) was in the theatres when Ek Tha Tiger released. Despite GOW2 doing well, it was pushed out of theatres, because every distributor and exhibitor wanted to maximize the first weekend of Ek Tha Tiger. Now, all the big films coming up will want the same kind of space as Ek Tha Tiger. Even exhibitors will support these films, because of the footfalls they think they can get in the very first week. As a result, all the other films will get marginalized to that one screen that's 20 per cent of the screen strength. Slowly, we are taking the choice away from the viewer. Someone is deciding that no one wants to watch these films. But that's not true!
So multiplexes become more like single screens for a big banner release.
Anurag: Yes, so if we don't have more screens or more specialized screens, it will almost be like forcing people to watch only one kind of films. And other kind of cinema viewing will happen through other media such as the iPad or the laptop. And somewhere, the quality is going to suffer, because everybody will start making films thinking the business is going to be the first weekend. It is already happening this year. And that is my deep fear.
Interesting, because one of the metrics we track is the actual exit poll-based Word of Mouth (WOM) of the films. And the best WOM films of this year so far are the two Wasseypur films, Kahaani, Vicky Donor and now Barfi. But except Barfi, none of the others crossed the 100 crore mark.
Vikram: But still, there is a greater ROI to be made in the unconventional market today, than in the conventional market. Today, a Kahaani has done Rs. 60 crore plus. That is mainstream business to my mind. Films like Tanu Weds Manu, Vicky Donor and Ishaqzaade may not carry conventional appeal, but they give good returns on investment. Kahaani's second weekend was as large as its first weekend. For GOW1, the first Monday-Thursday was 70 per cent of the weekend. So WOM does play a role. But yes, there is tendency to frontload the business and the floodgates will open up when an Ek Tha Tiger happens.
But even if we talk about the really big films, in a country of 120 crore people, where almost 75-80 crore are watching satellite television, even for a film like 3 Idiots, the theatre audience was only 2.5-3 crore people. Is it lack of availability of theatres, or piracy, or even other factors? But I feel that the studios are not investing enough to expand the reach.
Anurag: I really don't blame piracy for it. When I was growing up near Faizabad, I always wanted to watch certain films, but they were not available. I would see the posters in the newspaper. But where do you go to watch it? If it was an Amitabh Bachchan film, my dad would take us to Lucknow for it. For other films, we would hire a VCR and watch them on a bootlegged tape. I remember seeing Mr. India on a bootlegged tape. The tape did not have the climax, because it was a long film!
In small towns, people watch pirated films because either it is not available to them in theatres, or they can't afford those kind of prices. We need to make cinema accessible. You don't need a shopping mall or a fancy multiplex. You can take the ground floor of a building and make six screens, like the Apollo chain of theatres. They have six 70-seaters in a basement, and they run to packed houses. It is sustainable if the costs are kept low.
But who has the onus to do this? We all seem satisfied with 100 crore.
Anurag: I agree. If one film does 100 crore, the next film should do more than that. The so-called mainstream, are not pushing the envelope to make it to Rs. 300-400 crore. All they need to do is to work harder on the content. But nobody is willing to do it because the mathematics is worked out. The marketing, the pitching, the weekend, the number of screens, it's all calculated.
Vikram: Today, advertising campaigns are disappearing on Sunday. Listing ads are disappearing the second weekend onwards. Box office is front-loaded because you are not prompting the audience beyond the first seven days anyway. I've been asked by people in the industry on why we are advertising our films in the second and third week. And my point is that there seems to be a significant audience that has not seen the film, which has been proven true in cases like Kahaani or GOW. So, the onus to grow the box office is on the industry. I don't think the audience is turning around and saying that we don't want to watch a film.
Another development in the last 4-5 years is that the audience profile has become younger, definitely in the metros. From family viewing, it is more about friends going together to the theatres.
Vikram: Yes, and it's an extremely positive development, because the youth are open to newer content. Money has less critical importance in their life, with a lot of discretionary spend that happens in that age group, because they are not tied down by responsibility. This is also the audience that's sensing the experience of going back to the theatres, instead of consuming content on television or in pirated forms. Our assessment shows that the 18-23-year segment makes up the majority in most movies.
Anurag: If you look at IMDb (Internet Movie Database), 70 per cent of the voters are in the 18-30 age group.
In our assessment too, 80-85 per cent of regular theatre viewers would belong to the 15-30-year age group. But while we talk of the fact that they are open to newer and unconventional subjects, there also seems to be a section of the same youth that is accepting escapist, dumbed down or lowbrow cinema quite easily. There are films that tend to do well only on the strength of their starcast, music or action.
Anurag: Back in the 80s, we were exposed to only one kind of cinema and that was lowbrow. Today, the biggest patronage of such cinema is from single screens, or in multiplexes where people are actually watching and having fun. They are looking at it as a fun film, and not taking it seriously.
Vikram: Also, the value that they are seeking out of their time and money has changed. In the '80s, your expectation of a movie-viewing experience was that it would change your life, because you watched one film in 3-4 months.
So it became an event.
Vikram: It was an event, and if the film didn't deliver, you felt like chopping the actor or director's head off. But today, you are back at the same property in the second week. So, when you step into a film from which you don't have too many fancy, creative expectations, the only expectation is to have a good time. You visit the food court, do some window-shopping and you are happy.
But again, it's not just the film industry. It's happening elsewhere too. Earlier, a pair of Levi's was considered a thing to treasure. Today, the explosion of brands has reduced the treasured place such an article has in your life.
A lot of unconventional films are being made, often on small budgets. But are all films really good in terms of content?.
Vikram: I have first-hand experience in this. For every Tanu Weds Manu, Kahaani, Shaitaan, GOW or Pyaar Ka Punchnama, I've personally received at least a dozen pitches each for similar subjects. After ten minutes of synopsis, the person on the other side says, look and feel mein yeh bilkul Gangs of Wasseypur jaisi hai. With platforms to push talent also comes mediocrity. Unfortunately, a lot of that mediocrity is hiding behind the garb of "different" cinema today.
Anurag: I recently said I'm not an NGO, because I get 12-15 calls a day, by people who have made some film somewhere, and want me to watch it and endorse it. I have spent a lot of time understanding which types of films have consumption, which films have potential across international festivals. When I see a film like that, I'd go all out. But not otherwise.
Vikram: And because we are seen as a studio that backs such work, we are flooded with unconventional work. It's becoming difficult by the day to say no. Every time a script comes to us, there is an expectation that, "Didn't you market Kahaani? Didn't you pick up Pyaar Ka Punchnama?"
Vikram, there has been a change in film marketing. Social media is becoming more important by the day. In a recent study we conducted, it clearly came out that people would rather trust the opinion of their friends, than trust film critics. Film marketing has a strong WOM element to it. As that happens more, do you think conventional media like print ads or hoardings or normal promos will have only so much role to play, and you will have to rely on WOM, and therefore, the metric will change on how you market a film?
Vikram: I completely and deeply agree with you. My marketing team has been given the challenge to discover what I call Marketing 3.0, with a simple objective that you can't be using conventional marketing tools when the audience is sitting on unconventional platforms. Facebook, Twitter and WOM are all important, but they are tools that can't be influenced. They have a momentum of their own.
They are the outcome of other tools.
Vikram: Yes, so I don't think it's the death of the audio-visual promo, print ad or the hoarding. The challenge is, how will you convey what your film is, in a more cost-effective manner. We are yet not engaging with people on one-on-one basis. I think one area that will drastically change is what we call PR. All these articles that we publish, get published or are published on their own, amount to meaningless self-propagation. It is not influencing the audience.
I believe marketing spends on films are going to come down drastically in the next few years. This is a stated challenge to my team. In an environment where the industry is spending more on marketing, where everyone is making statements like we want to break the clutter, I'm saying we've been there and done that. Now is the time to device a new engagement. It could be online, it could even be conventional television. It could well be that a maker like Anurag Kashyap goes on camera for 30 seconds saying I've made a film like this, go and watch it. Or instead of buying media for 5 crore, I'll get Sachin Tendulkar to endorse my film, where he says 'I saw Aiyyaa and I think it's a fantastic film and you should go and watch it'. If people can buy Pepsi, Coke or MRF on his endorsement, won't they watch a film on his endorsement? Far easier to believe than believing that a big celebrity drives, say, a Hyundai.