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Pandemic forces Bollywood to shift approach to films

The nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic has set Bollywood up for big change as filmmakers review costs, put high-risk, big-budget projects on the back burner and review scripts to ensure there’s enough appeal to bring audiences back to theatres.

With increased exposure to both international and regional language content on over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms, viewers are unlikely to accept mediocre fare, said filmmakers.

Actor Vicky Kaushal’s The Immortal Ashwathama, Karan Johar’s Takht and Tiger Shroff’s Rambo are among the films that have been pushed back, with producers recognising they either require more work or their budgets need to be re-evaluated, said people aware of the development. Besides, producers are also turning to make web series as viewership of streaming services rises.

“The uncertainty of the theatrical business will continue to vex both studios and producers as they look at greenlighting film projects for 2022 and 2023,” said independent producer Amar Butala.

The extended closure of cinemas in key markets like Maharashtra are making the Rs100 crore to Rs300 box office collections difficult, he said. Butala is the former COO of Salman Khan Films.

In his view, green-lighting big budget films will be a challenge on several counts. First, their shoots will be more complicated in times of social distancing. Two, there is no clarity on how long the cinemas will remain open. “Lastly, it’s not clear whether audiences will return to theatres and what the new box office reality be,” Butala explained, adding that producers will continue working with big stars though financial terms may be renegotiated impacting production budgets.

A spokesperson at Ronnie Screwvala Motion Pictures, that is producing The Immortal Ashwathama, said it’s an ambitious project. “In the last draft of the script, the ambition of the movie and the budget did not match. The VFX budget was far greater than anticipated and hence we have to go back to the drawing board,” the person said, adding that the team agreed to put the project back in development and work on it which may take another nine months.

In simple terms, the value of the same amount of money has become dearer, explained film producer, trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar.

For projects with high scale and budgets, a rethinking is happening as producers need all avenues, including theatres, to be available. They know these films will not give them enough returns on streaming services alone, said Johar.

That’s not all. Primary audience that goes to cinemas is the youth that has discovered the world’s best content across OTT platforms. “OTTs in general, have helped everyone realize that they can’t make formulaic films anymore or take viewers for granted. The industry can’t keep making the same biopics and patriotic themes because there is so much available at the click of a button at home,” said Nikhil Taneja, co-founder and CEO of Yuvaa Originals, a Mumbai-based youth media, research and impact organisation. Taneja has worked with several companies like MTV and Yash Raj Films in the past.

“As filmmakers, we are actually seeking the currency of time from audiences. OTTs have made this fact clearer. While you may not step out of a theatre hall, even if you find the film boring, on OTT you will opt out without any remorse. This sharp focus on ‘stickiness’ has made storytelling tougher but at the same time it’s also bringing about a quantum change across the writer and director community,” Shariq Patel, chief business officer, Zee Studios said.

Veteran photographer Atul Kasbekar whose company Ellipsis Entertainment has relooked at several scripts that they felt weren’t up to the mark, said it all stems from the number of options out there now. “For instance, the whole idea of an item number or a song with people dancing at the back that doesn’t take the narrative forward, is a crashing bore now,” he said. Going forward though, while star power will continue to drive box office collections, there will be great content-driven films with not very big actors that could find draw by the sheer power of the story being told, producer Abhishek Pathak added.

Also, there’s a bit of exhaustion in having money stuck in ready projects which may lose relevance with time, Taneja pointed out. “A lot of producers don’t know what to do with massive projects because people will be coming back to theatres after one-and-half years and one doesn’t know what is going to work for them,” he added.

Without really slowing down, producers are using this time to also see what they can take directly to OTT. “They’re working across a range of budgets so there are many films that can also extract returns from OTT,” Johar said. Live Mint

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