Bollywood’s new formula: Will it change the game altogether?

The rules are being rewritten in the Indian film industry as a demanding audience gives it a run for its money.

Bollywood’s new formula: Will it change the game altogether?
Then, in December last year, Pushpa: The Rise happened. As Allu Arjun belted his now-famous ‘flower nahi, fire hai mai’ dialogue, audiences’ whistles and claps brought the ‘ghost’ theatres back to life. When the southern superstar synchronised steps with Samantha Prabhu in Oo antava, movie-goers cheered and sang along.

When the theatres reopened after a long pandemic pause, the Indian film industry was desperately waiting for a blockbuster to break the charts and set new records once again. Hopes were high, even though everyone knew it would be impossible to match the stature of a Sholay, or even a Baahubali.

Then, in December last year, Pushpa: The Rise happened. As Allu Arjun belted his now-famous ‘flower nahi, fire hai mai’ dialogue, audiences’ whistles and claps brought the ‘ghost’ theatres back to life. When the southern superstar synchronised steps with Samantha Prabhu in Oo antava, movie-goers cheered and sang along. When he performed his hook step in Srivalli, fans flooded Instagram with Reels of their own versions. The joy of watching a film on the big screen was back.

With a pan-India appeal, Pushpa: The Rise was a perfect recipe for a blockbuster. A strong storyline, larger-than-life performances, a settling and apt pairing of a superstar (Allu Arjun) with an actress (Rashmika Mandanna) who had been making waves in Bollywood, action, romance and good music only completed the winning package.

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For the first time in two years, theatres were packed all over the country. Pushpa: The Rise did a total business of Rs 475.5 crore and also made Allu Arjun a national superstar. While he reportedly charged Rs 30-40 crore for the first instalment of Pushpa, Allu Arjun has almost tripled his fee to Rs 125 crore for the second part of the movie that has now been announced.

Larger-than-life films
Following Pushpa, at least half a dozen films were released in theatres that went on to shatter box-office records. RRR, KGF, The Kashmir Files, Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, The Kashmir Files and, more recently, Brahmastra, remain the top gainers so far this year.

In fact, for the makers of Brahmastra and multiplex owners, Diwali came a month early. Filmmaker Ayan Mukerji opened the door to an ‘astraverse’ that reversed the misfortunes of the film industry. The film’s magnitude and visual effects (VFX) proved to be a successful astra on the big screen as it collected Rs 75 crore globally on day 1 of its release.

Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer at INOX Leisure, says that the highly anticipated Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva has created a new benchmark at industry level by being the second highest opening weekend film that was released during a non-holiday. “At INOX, Brahmastra did a business of Rs 28 crore on the first weekend and the occupancy was at 63-64%,” he says.

What’s noteworthy is the fact that of the half-a-dozen Indian films that have worked on the big screen this year, at least five were larger-than-life, with the exception being The Kashmir Files (as it had a national, sentimental appeal). Theatre owners agree that after two years of watching cinema at home, people want to spend money in theatres only if films offer them something grand combined with quality cinema and storytelling.

Filmmaker Ayan Mukerji, too, echoed the sentiment as he recently said that the audience wants a big screen-worthy experience in theatres and that ‘juggernaut multi-starrers’ can offer. He cited examples of The Lord of the Rings and Marvel films that never fail on the big screen.

Going forward, Jyala of INOX says that they have high expectations from upcoming big films like Vikram Vedha, Ram Setu, Thank God, Pippa, Adipurush and Pathaan, and from international titles like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Black Adam and Avatar: The Way of Water. Since most of them are big-budget films with a larger-than-life appeal, and with A-listers, the latter half of the year could prove to be a golden period for theatres and filmmakers.

Behavioural change
Even though there have been some record-shattering successes this year, the post- pandemic cinema business has seen more downs than ups. A string of box office failures has both the actors and the filmmakers wary of what works and what doesn’t now. The audience’s sensibilities have undergone a massive shift in what they want to consume.

Darlings and Good Luck Jerry, for instance, were received well on Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar, respectively. After its positive reviews, several upcoming films like Govinda Naam Mera, Bloody Daddy and Mission Majnu have reportedly taken the safe OTT route for their releases. In 2020 and 2021, films like Mimi or The White Tiger, which were not big in scale and did not necessarily require a big screen release, easily found their way through OTTs. As inflation grows, for the audience, it becomes more convenient to watch slice-of-life content on OTTs and visit theatres only for a theatrical experience. The fact has been realised well in the last two years.

Action thrillers, which were earlier a safe recipe for success, like Rashtra Kavach Om, Attack: Part 1 and Runway 34 or a period drama like Shamshera, too, no longer work on the silver screen if not worth the space.

Fear of losing hundreds of crores looms large and this was evident as superstar Shah Rukh Khan recently turned down Don 3 as he was unsure of its fate and audience’s liking towards it.

Films no longer thrive on the mere presence of a superstar but demand a good script as the audience has been exposed to good global content on OTTs during the pandemic along with the comfort of watching at home and cost effectiveness.

With the introduction of newer actors like Rajkummar Rao, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bhumi Pednekar or Ayushmann Khurrana, who otherwise do not fit the bill of a typical Bollywood hero/heroine, the super-stardom era has declined too. To draw one to spend money in a theatre, one needs more than just a superstar and a big film—may be a strong and compelling story. “The audience watched films from home for two years and was exposed to a lot of regional and international content which has made their choices diverse and improved,” says Jyala of INOX, adding how Dulquer Salman’s Sita Ramam is doing good business in theatres all over India despite being a regional and small-budget film. “The film is doing well without any advertising because it has good content,” adds Jyala.

This, along with the ‘boycott culture’ and word-of-mouth publicity, has been leading to massive failings at the box office. Vijay Devarakonda’s big pan-India debut had high expectations. Coupled with Ananya Panday, the latest southern import travelled throughout the country attracting thousands of fans wherever they went to promote their film, Liger. However, when it was released, empty halls stunned the makers and the actor as the film that was made at a budget of Rs 100 crore failed to recover costs and 90% of the shows were cancelled even down south.

Films with A-listers like Liger, Jersey, Laal Singh Chaddha, Heropanti 2, Dhaakad, Samrat Prithviraj, Raksha Bandhan—all proved to be flops, adding to the great depression in Bollywood.

Similarly, when Ranveer Singh’s 83 and Jayeshbhai Jordaar released, audience’s reluctance to go to a theatre led to unfulfilled expectations and both the films were eventually sold to OTTs.

According to a research report ‘Reminiscing the days of Friday blockbuster Bollywood releases: Are we witnessing a behavioural shift in viewers’ psyche of a new India?’ by SBI Research team led by group chief economic adviser Soumya Kanti Ghosh, there are 450 million subscribers of OTTs in India, and it is expected to grow to 500 million by 2023—the OTT shift signals towards the behavioural change of the audience.

According to the report, the OTT market is set to do what multiplexes did to the VCR/VCP/VCD segment in the early 2000s. It is also set to become a Rs 12,000-crore industry by 2023, up from Rs 2,590 crore in 2018, logging in a compound annual growth of 36%.

But that does not mean theatres will become redundant any soon. Experts agree that watching a larger-than-life film on OTT would take away the charm of it. Author Amish Tripathi, whose books Suheldev and Shiva Trilogy are seeing screen adaptations, explains why. “Web series give one the luxury of time. You can build characters. In a movie, what will you build in two hours? There isn’t much time. But there are some stories, which are perfectly made for a movie itself, because that’s the structure of the story. You don’t need to spend too much time developing a character, you just need to blow people away for those two hours. Like, an RRR or a KGF. They’re not web series material. They are movies. A web series can never shock you in awe like watching KGF on the big screen awes you. The TV screen doesn’t have that impact.”

When asked if he doubts the outcome of his books on screen, he says, “One of the benefits of my books is that it is a story that has already succeeded. They have an audience profile, six million readers and there’s a story that has worked. There’s no reason it shouldn’t succeed.”

Gautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Limited, seconds Tripathi, “It is a well-established fact that larger-than-life films with good production values always do well at the theatres as the big screen is designed to offer the mega experience.”

Jyala of INOX, too, refutes that the future of cinema is as black and white as big films working in theatres and small, slice of life films working on OTTs. “Audience always want to see larger-than-life films on the big screen, they have a different charm in theatres. But even big films won’t work if the content is not good, as we have seen in recent times. Laal Singh Chaddha didn’t work despite being a big-budget film,” he adds.

The economics
Inflation has made people wary of their spending. On an average, a yearly subscription of an OTT costs far cheaper than the money spent on the entire family on a single theatre visit along with the over-priced basket of popcorn and snacks. Some of the top OTT players are also reducing their subscription costs to attract viewers. A standard Netflix subscription costs Rs 499 per month and Rs 649 for the premium plan while for Disney+ Hotstar, it is Rs 899 for a yearly plan in the super category and Rs 1,499 for a premium yearly plan. Amazon Prime Video can be accessed at Rs 179 a month or Rs 1,499 for the entire year. On the other hand, a single theatre visit for a family of four could cost Rs 2,000-Rs 2,500, with ticket prices being around Rs 180 on an average and food and travelling expenses included. Cinema halls have also reduced their ticket costs to lure viewers. Yet, the economics of watching a film at home with multiple viewers is easy to work out.

Film budget vs actor fees
While the size of content matters, the quality speaks to it too. The urgent need of the hour for Indian cinema is to look at how money matters work in the industry. The Telugu film industry recently hinted towards a correction phase. Some of Indian cinema’s biggest and most popular films like Baahubali, RRR, Arjun Reddy took form in the Telugu industry. They became national hits and earned huge amounts of profits. But when the star demands a huge sum as fee, especially after the success of the first instalment, the profit margins narrow down and add to the woes of the filmmakers. Prabhas, who became a pan-India star after Baahubali, reportedly charges Rs 100 crore per film. His film Radhe Shyam reportedly cost Rs 300 crore to its producers but earned below Rs 150 crore.

Similarly, Akshay Kumar, who has delivered a number of flops this year, reportedly charged Rs 120 crore for Cuttputlli, which was made at a budget of Rs 150 crore. While for a blockbuster earning hundreds of crores, the huge amount of fee is not a problem like in the case of Allu Arjun who reportedly charged Rs 30-40 crore for Pushpa and is reportedly charging a staggering Rs 125 crore for the second instalment, but it becomes a problem when the film fails to recover the costs. Thus, arises a need for correction in the star’s remuneration.

Taran Adarsh feels that like in the Telugu film industry, that is going through a correction phase, Bollywood too needs a correction to curtail the huge fees charged by actors. “Going forward, there definitely is going to be a correction of remuneration of stars and directors. The star remuneration needs to be curtailed,” he says.

Yet, Amish Tripathi, who has recently stepped into film production, is positive about the film business’ future. “If you get it right in today’s India, there’s enough of a market for big-budget movies as long as the budget shows in the movie itself, rather than spending too much on the actors. In something like a movie as massive as Baahubali, RRR, KGF, everything is grand. You couldn’t have imagined budgets like these 10-15 years ago but now the Indian movie market is big enough to justify these budgets. If we can get that creative thing right, we have budgets to crack it well,” he says as he suggests spending more on the film than the actor.

Better experience
Be it the work-from-home model or the cinema at home experience, one had become too comfortable in the confines of homes during the lockdowns. As the world resumes its pace, drawing audiences to theatres that would require far more expenditure than an OTT, would also need better experiences and services from theatres that are worth the effort.

In order to rebound business and look at newer avenues, theatres are already contemplating alternative sources of revenue from screening live matches to gaming, international concerts and anime movies. One of the most interesting matches recently—India vs Pakistan—saw theatres like INOX, PVR, Miraj Cinemas and Cinepolis India streaming live. “There is an audience for alternate content in theatres beyond movies as well consisting of live screening of cricket matches, gaming events, live screening of international concerts. Lately, we have seen there is a new community that has developed for anime movies. As exhibitors, we provide a holistic and personalised experience to audiences for their movie viewing that comes as a complete package comprising ambience, comfort, sound, projection, food which cannot be replicated at home,” says Gautam Dutta of PVR.

It was this effort to rebound theatre business that led the Multiplex Association of India and cinemas across India to announce an admission price of Rs 75 to mark National Cinema Day on September 23. It was held at over 4,000 participating screens including PVR, INOX, Cinépolis, Carnival, Miraj, Citypride, Asian, Mukta A2, Movietime, Wave, M2K and Delite.

National appeal
Regional penetration into Bollywood had started long before the pandemic. Be it through Ghajini’s remake that brought actor Asin into mainstream cinema or the Baahubali series that raised actor Prabhas to the stature of a global actor. Bollywood had been undergoing an amalgamation of sorts from different regional cinemas—the Punjabi industry had been gaining dominance in music and as Diljit Dosanjh, Harrdy Sandhu became national names while almost every Hindi film introduced a Punjabi song. The 2016 film Sairat became the talk of the nation, and its popularity compelled a Hindi remake.

Filmmaker Karan Johar recently stated how there is no longer Bollywood or Tollywood but a big Indian film industry. This statement stands true as regional boundaries have blurred and actors like Vijay Deverakonda, Rashmika Mandanna, Samantha Prabhu and Allu Arjun now have a pan-India fan base.

Gautam Dutta of PVR adds that India has a market for every kind of movie and that is how certain films become hits even with no promotions. “The storytelling in movies plays an important role and needs to be strong enough to hold on their attention for the entire duration. That is the reason why sleeper hit movies, though not widely promoted and which are not expected to be box office successes, receive due recognition from audiences,” he adds.

Film critic and trade analyst Taran Adarsh adds that unfortunately, Bollywood was not producing the kind of quality content that was the need of the hour post pandemic and the access to the best of domestic and international cinema led to drawing parallels. If the content was not up to the mark, it was rejected. “This is a wakeup call for all stars that we need to smell the coffee and make something that is mass-friendly pan-India and not just for a handful of metros or else there will be shockers when films release.” He adds, “Dubbed films Karthikeya 2 and The Kashmir Files did well. This means that the audience is ready to shell out money and that they won’t compromise on quality. They want entertainment.”

With this, Hindi films are also seeing a better penetration into regional markets. “While expectedly the Hindi version of the film is leading the way contributing to 87% of the overall tickets sold on BookMyShow, the Telugu version of the film has been attracting a significant audience scale as well,” shares Ashish Saksena, COO – cinemas, BookMyShow.

Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth, film director and daughter of superstar Rajinikanth, notes the blurring of boundaries, “It’s a very healthy transition that’s happening in Indian cinema. On the whole, it’s becoming Indian cinema and not Tollywood or Bollywood. I’m hoping that it wouldn’t be just artists from the south or north, there will also be technicians, etc. It would be lovely to see that evolution happen.”

Meta-future of cinema
Metaverse is still at a very nascent stage in India and a strong foundation will take years to build but the change is anyway coming. This year, IIFA became the first international Indian award show that was held in metaverse, with Bollyverse as their official metaverse partner. So, what lies ahead? Jackky Bhagnani, actor, producer and managing director of Pooja Entertainment, that has brought land in metaverse and will be partnering with Bollywood virtual metaverse space Bollyverse to make films in metaverse, says, “Right now, we are at a very early stage to comment on it. Each company eventually will have either their own metaverse or they will be resting on one of the big metaverses and they will have a small piece of land so it really depends on how it goes.”

Reports are also rife that in future, drive-in theatres could be replaced by metaverse theatres.

With newer firms in the space on the rise and newer industries debuting in the metaverse, the market is set to experience an exponential growth. A July report by Grand View Research, Inc estimates that the global metaverse market is slated to amass $678.8 billion by 2030 and that the market is likely to register a CAGR of 39.4% during the forecast period due to the surging demand from various industries like education, media and entertainment, defence and aerospace.

How this translates into the cinema space is yet to be witnessed. As for theatres, competition will either increase with the presence of both OTT and metaverse or theatres will adapt into the metaverse space.

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