As per the track record of 2022, not many big budget films (like Samrat Prithviraj, Shamshera, Laal Singh Chaddha) tasted success at the ticket windows, whereas many smart budget films (like Badhaai Do, The Kashmir Files, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2) did impressive business. In South cinema too, there were some surprise hits in the form of Kantara, Karthikeya 2, Sita Ramam that were not mounted on a huge scale, but were real crowd pullers. On the other hand, big budget films like KGF, RRR, Ponniyin Selvan too did impressive business. Of course, they had their share of disappointments too.
In today’s #BigStory, we seek perspectives from trade analysts, exhibitors and filmmakers on what could be the ultimate success formula for Bollywood. Whether big budget films need to revisit their expense sheets, or is it smart budgeting alone that will sail the ship through and revive Hindi cinema. Read on.
Big budget/small budget
Changing times and changing taste of the audience demand an evolution in the thought process behind filmmaking too. Looking at the fate of most of the recent big budget films, it may not be wrong to conclude that star power is a thing of the past. The audience is more interested to watch quality content, and not all kinds of films will attract footfalls into the cinemas. As a consequence, smart budgeting seems to be the most significant step in the filmmaking process.
Filmmaker Sanjay Gupta believes big budget or small budget does not matter all the time. “The budgets do not matter if there are no stars,” he says. “We’ve seen these South films like Kantara, Karthikeya working despite no big stars. Whatever money is spent, is spent on the film. Secondly, they are doing well because they have wonderful scripts, that is the main thing. It’s not the budgets, but the scripts that are working.”
Film exhibitor and distributor Akshaye Rathi says whether the budget is big or small, smart budget is the key. “And that is not defined by the kind of actors in the film. It is defined by the intrinsic value of the story. Now you can take a very niche story and make a superstar feature in it, but that won’t add value. And you can also take a very massy story and cast a very niche actor in it; even that won’t work. So it has to be the right combination that justifies a smart budget. I think that’s the way forward,” he says. “Movies like RRR or KGF, even at their mega budgets, are smartly budgeted. But a film featuring, let’s say Rajkummar Rao, which is a niche tale, even at its budget possibly was steep. So it’s the story that defines the budget more than anything else.”
As per Sanjay Gupta it’s not the scale of the movies like Ponniyin Selvan, RRR, Karthikeya or Kantara that made a difference. “Many big scale films in South have also bombed. An equally large number of small budget films have also bombed. It is not the budget or the scale that is working at the box office, it is the script, the honesty and the sincerity of the filmmaker that is working or failing depending on the effort put in making the film,” he says.
Trade analyst Komal Nahta agrees the star power has diminished. “Definitely content used to work earlier also, but there was so much sheen of the stars that sometimes even average content was accepted. And because of star value, the films became above average and became a hit. Now after the pandemic, the taste of the audience has changed, the awareness about the content has increased and the same stars do not hold up the charm that they had earlier. Therefore, the entire focus is now on content. Until the content is not good, the film is not going to work. Smaller stars chalenge, lekin lesser content nahi chalega. Average content with great stars is not the formula, but smaller stars with great content is definitely a winning formula,” he says.
Curtailing production costs
Time and again it is said that films don’t fail, but it is the budgets that fail. “And this holds true because we have seen many films doing good business, but since the landing cost was high, those films got a flop tag,” says trade analyst Atul Mohan. “A 200 crore film doing business of 100 crore can’t be called a hit because it didn’t recover the investors’ money. Smart budget is the only way out now. Invest only that amount which the film has potential to return.”
Sanjay Gupta analyses the recent failures of big budget Hindi films and believes it is the scripts that have failed. “Let’s be objective and fair. Were these good films or good scripts? Did they offer something new for the audience, or for the actors to do. Did the scripts present the actors in a new way that would be enticing? No,” he says. “So if something is failing at the box office, it is not the stars, it is not the budget, it is not the scale, it is the scripts that are failing. That is where we need to really pull our socks up, get our act together and stop taking the audience for granted. They are today exposed to everything. During the pandemic we sat at home and watched great content on OTT that has enlightened the average Indian. They know a good story, good content when they see it. They will not accept bullshit.”
Komal Nahta believes it is only honest filmmaking that will click with the audience. “I can only say South filmmakers are making honest films. Stories told from the heart and integrity stand more chances than dishonest stories or compromised stories or those that have undergone changes 20 times. Bollywood is not making honest stories. Sure, the Khans and Kumars do get the attention, but the underlying assumption of the distributors and exhibitors is that the content must have been taken care of by the writers and producers. But in the case of small stars/small films, the expectation is not there. But in the case of big stars, naam bade darshan chhote,” he critiques.
Tanuj Garg shares that his production company has so far been in the business of smartly budgeted, high-concept, mid-size and upper mid-size films, which have worked both creatively and financially. “We don’t think it’s about big or small budgets as much as it is about smart budgets. Rationalising actor and entourage costs, along with curtailing crew sizes, is among the many crucial steps for efficient working that require institution,” he says.
Should actors slash their fees?
Akshay Kumar’s statement about actors’ fees stirred up a hornet’s nest with many coming forward to question his own ask from the producers, especially after the recent buzz about his walkout from Hera Pheri 3.
“The thing with Akshay is that his choice of subject is totally wrong. And secondly, charity begins at home. If he is saying stars should slash their fees, he should be an example and first declare that he is slashing his own fee,” says Komal Nahta. “ Marvel ki baat kar rahe hain, but Marvel jaisa content bhi chahiye. Khali budget se nahi hoga. The Hollywood and South filmmakers work very hard on the subjects. They don’t give more importance to the stars. Bollywood mein stars ko bahot importance hai. No harm in that, but don’t treat your script as dirt that anybody and everybody can come and change. There is no harm in giving more importance to stars but not at the cost of script. No script is inferior to the star. Script is the biggest star. Jab tak wo nahi hoga achchi filmein nahi banengi. They have to reinvent the business. It has to be a multi pronged approach – big budget banao, lekin content acha ho. Content acha ho, lekin star fee kum ho, so that burden on the film is not too much.”
Sanjay Gupta feels hefty star fees are justified only if they can convert it into footfalls. “As far as Bollywood is concerned, stars were taking big sums and we producers were paying them because somewhere they were justified. They gave us good openings, sales on digital and satellite, on music… Today what Hrithik Roshan sells on music is very different from what anybody else does. So yes, it justifies the money that he asks for. So is the case with Akshay Kumar and everybody else. It is the post pandemic scenario that has changed. The audience does not believe in the star system anymore. They don’t go to a theatre to see a star, they go if they are convinced it is a good film. Even today, if a star wants to charge an astronomical fee, it is justified if he translates that into footfalls in cinema. So if the star’s fee can be deferred in relation to performance of a film, then there is no problem in paying them big monies. But if you are paying a huge amount and then the star cannot bring people to the theatres, then it is not justified,” he says.
Akshaye Rathi echoes the sentiment as he says, “Actors’ fees is a very critical element because in most of our Hindi films, whether we like it or not, it becomes one of the biggest overheads on the production budgets. While I completely understand that the superstars bring a certain degree of visibility and excitement around a film, the kind of budget that we’ve been seeing of late really doesn’t justify the kind of fee they charge upfront. So I am all for these superstars taking a very significant stake in the back end, but by front loading the project with a massive fee, they are only killing their own market. Because then the producer has to compromise on the making and the scale and the spectacular value of the film as a larger chunk of the budget is allocated to the talent fee. So a rational bare minimum upfront fee for the stars is completely understandable, because they give their time and effort to the films, but beyond that I think the larger chunk of the fee that the actors get need to be a part of the back end and the profit shares that come out of the movie’s monetisation.”
Atul Mohan believes correction has to ‘begin from the top, i.e. actors, and go all the way till the unnecessary marketing spends’. “We can make films like Marvel – Sooryavanshi and War are recent examples of films that worked big time, but to make these kinds of films you need big money,” he says. “Gone are the days when a single producer used to make multi-starrers. Now multi-producers are not able to make solo hero films. Again the budget here plays the biggest role to make films with 2-3 heroes.”
Amod Mehra adds not just stars, even the directors’ fee and other expenses need to be curtailed. “If you are making good cinema, then the price of the actors is out of question. Now you have to do it the other way around – give token money, if the movie works, the actors can take a share. Gone are the days when actors were paid 50-90 crore for a film. Even directors should be paid less. Why are directors paid 25-40 crore? It wasn’t the case earlier. Even the best of directors like Vijay Anand did not charge lakhs of rupees. Why do you think a film like 83 ran into losses? The hero took 45 crore, the director took 25 crore. They spent 70 crore among just two people, how will the film recover that money? How is this justified for a film based on history, on cricket that people know already about? There is no element of romance or comedy, only cricket! How does it become feasible to recover the money? Gangubai Kathawadi is not a big hit today, because the director took 50 crore, Alia took about 25 crore. How will it work? So first and foremost is budgeting and then content. The writers these days get about 20-50 lakh. Earlier there used to be one photographer, now there are 5-6. That definitely soars the production cost. There were no vanity vans earlier, now there are multiple vanity vans on the sets, all adding to the cost. If you reduce costing by about 90 percent, content 19-20 chal jayega. Think about it, why does a film like Cuttputlli need a star like Akshay Kumar? Bottomline is, films never fail, the budget fails,” he says.
Need for sustainable IPs
As Amod Mehra believes, the audience will definitely come to the theatres if the content is appealing. “Slashing the ticket prices has already proved that alone will make no difference. Even if the price is low, people will not come to theatres to watch a film if the content is not appealing,” he says.
Immersive cinematic experiences, collective viewing experiences are the way forward for theatrical success, believes Akshaye Rathi. He feels besides having superheroes or superstars, we need to have IPs that can be monetised over a period of time. “Let’s face it, as much as all of us love our superstars, every superstar has a shelf life,” he says. “We’ve seen that happen to the greatest of the great, right? To Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna… and going ahead, it will happen to the superstars that are reigning the scene today. So we need to create some solid IPs that become the superheroes that audiences become fans of, like Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible series, or Dwayne Johnson in the Jumanji franchise, or Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious, or Robert Downey Jr being Iron Man. Now these IPs, the characters are iconic. We’ve had Tobey Maguire as Spiderman, and we’ve had Andrew Garfield as Spiderman as well. But Spiderman was still the superhero that had fans.”
Bollywood has certainly begun the journey on these lines where a franchise like Brahmastra is an IP that is creating a fanbase of its own. There is Rohit Shetty’s cop universe, Golmaal universe, and the spy universe that YRF has created that have a following of its own. “I truly hope that we can do more of these in the future and have these IPs monetise themselves irrespective of the actor featuring in them,” Akshaye concludes on a hopeful note.