Indians associate Bollywood, or the Hindi film industry, with glamour, big money, stardom, entertainment and beautiful people. It is seen as a wonderful place to be, perhaps because of the happy feelings we get when we watch Bollywood films. Therefore it becomes unthinkable to imagine this – Bollywood is in the middle of a major crisis.
Yes, we had a Baahubali 2 this year. It made people come to the theatres like never before. Yes, Dangal did extraordinarily well. Yes, Hindi Medium and Lipstick Under My Burkha found an audience despite low budgets. However, these few examples don’t give you the complete picture. Most trade analysts are stunned at how low collections have been for many big budget, well reviewed films.
New generation rom-coms like Ok Jaanu, Meri Pyaari Bindu and Noor struggled to reach a box office total of Rs 50 crore for the three films put together, something a single rom-com would easily achieve on its own a few years ago. Even Salman Khan starrer Tubelight struggled, with a Rs 125 crore box office take compared to over Rs 300 crore collections for his previous few films.
So, film collections on the whole are dropping. A few good films, when liked, get tremendous positive word of mouth with terrific velocity thanks to social media. This leads to a great success like Baahubali 2. Thirdly, if a film is not liked as much, or liked but not considered ‘must watch’, people are not interested to watch it.
Fourthly, only two kinds of films still seem to work – high spectacle or high concept. High spectacle films offer a visual experience that only a big screen can offer, say The Avengers movie or Baahubali. A high concept film offers a fresh take on a relevant subject, making a section of people want to watch it. Everything else is passé. People just don’t ‘need’ to watch movies anymore.
Finally, if you ask an average Indian why they watch movies, they will say it is for ‘time pass’. Well, this ‘time pass’ is already happening on the mobile phone now, for free or at a fraction of the cost of the movie ticket. YouTube recently reported it has 150 crore monthly viewers, with each viewer spending an hour a day on the site on an average. Facebook users, at 200 crore, watch tonnes of videos all day long. There are many other digital content apps making rapid inroads in India. Then, why go to the theatres to watch movies?
Making things worse is rampant piracy and no real will from the authorities to eliminate it. This is mainly due to our government’s borderline hostile attitude towards Bollywood, mistakenly seen as an industry of rich, entitled people (due to a tiny number of visible stars). We also have regulations that tax Bollywood films more than any other form of content – films attract a higher GST rate than other content.
The poor infrastructure in cities that makes getting to a theatre a harrowing, pot-hole filled experience where one is stuck in traffic jams, also hinders ticket sales. It’s simpler to just stream content directly on your phone or TV.
Of course, some of the blame lies with Bollywood as well. There’s been little cost evolution with advancing technology. Films are still shot expensively, using giant cameras and light setups. Stars, even those who are not attracting audiences, charge way more than they bring in. Many younger actors have entourages on set that cost several lakhs per day.
As a result, a shoot day in Mumbai could easily cost Rs 20 lakh. A film with an average budget may need 80 such days! Compare this to a stand up comic video you liked on Facebook, which was probably shot for a few lakhs at the most. Today, even inexpensive cellphones offer 4K resolution recording capability.
News channels have dumped big camera setups for mobile phone journalism. Also, plenty of acting talent in the digital world is ready to work without the umbrella-holding, ego-boosting entourage. How does Bollywood ever expect to compete? Costs need to go down all across by at least 50%.
The film industry can no longer rely on entry barriers in content distribution. Earlier, only films had the marketing budgets and the screens to show their content, with television being the only competition to a certain extent. Today, distribution barriers are all but gone. Now, anyone with a cellphone is both a content creator as well as a content distributor while of course continuing to be a content consumer.
In this ‘new’ normal Bollywood needs to wake up, revise content and reduce both costs and egos at the same time. With better taxation structures and a firm hand on piracy, government needs to support an industry that directly and indirectly hires millions. One hopes Bollywood will evolve and we will create better and cheaper content to keep our film industry alive for the next several generations. Hopefully, picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!