New Delhi: Director Nila Madhab Panda’s Friday release Kadvi Hawa, a film based on climate change and produced by Drishyam Films, has Bollywood studio Eros International on board to present and distribute it.

Drishyam’s last two releases, Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Rukh and Rajkummar Rao-starrer Newton, were also backed by Eros. While the two films managed decent releases and collections of Rs68 lakh and Rs22 crore, respectively, Kadvi Hawa will also reach a larger audience, thanks to Eros, Drishyam said in a statement.

The Manish Mundra-owned company is not the only boutique studio that has come of age in Bollywood, thanks to major corporate studios looking at these smaller production houses for niche content. Smaller independent production houses are increasingly being backed by bigger studios—a trend now gaining momentum thanks to quality cinema that the former make.

Bollywood has a history of home-grown production houses like Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films even as foreign studios Walt Disney, Fox Star Studios and Sony Pictures Networks started eyeing the Indian market in the 2000s. While independent producers have always been around, the widespread success of content-driven films like Gangs of Wasseypur (a 2012 film produced by Anurag Kashyap and JAR Pictures along with Viacom18 Motion Pictures costing Rs9 crore that earned about Rs22 crore) proved their financial viability and brought their makers to the forefront.

A few other recent collaborations have worked well too. The success of films like Masaan (co-produced by Drishyam, Phantom Films and others), Neerja (co-produced by Fox Star Studios and Bling Unpugged) and Shubh Mangal Savdhan (co-produced by Eros and Aanand L. Rai’s Colour Yellow Productions) has made the dynamics between big and boutique studios more relevant, while encouraging several independent producers.

“If you see the overall content consumption pattern of audiences over the last two years, there’s been a marked shift to quality content. So effectively, content benchmarks have gone higher," said Vikram Malhotra of Abundantia Entertainment, which has co-produced Akshay Kumar-starrers like Baby and Airlift with T-Series and is now collaborating with Fox Star Studios for a biopic on badminton legend Pullela Gopichand.

The audience is that much more conscious of the money and time they spend watching films in theatres, Malhotra said. That, in turn, has increased the need for producers and distributors to understand this growing trend. The second is big studios’ own need to scale up.

“Our ambition is to do ten plus films every year. If we have to scale up, we have to adopt a variety of different business models to get there," said Vijay Singh, chief executive officer, Fox Star Studios. “We can’t do all ten films in-house. These production houses have an enviable track record and bring their unique storytelling, which, in turn, augments the diversity in the portfolio of films that we offer to the audiences."

But there is also an inherent need for such films to be picked up by big companies.

“More often than not, the promotion and distribution cost of these films is greater than the cost of production itself. You can make niche films like Aligarh and Newton for Rs1.5-4 crore but then you will need an equal amount or more to actually give these films visibility," said Jyoti Deshpande, group chief executive officer, Eros International, adding that putting the film out often doesn’t just translate into a commercial release. They might have to be marketed in the festival circuit and in case of something like Newton, there has to be a mainstream release and a lobbying plan for the United States.

“Plus most of these films have some social message. So while we are profit-making organizations and we do invest in films wanting to make money, but there is also a greater sense of purpose in being associated with these films," Deshpande said.

The modalities, however, may vary. There are cases where the studio is involved right from the scripting stage, which Malhotra says is ideal because the input and financial risks are lower and there is greater ownership from both sides. But the corporate may also come in once the film is complete, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“The studio may not always be interested in a small, niche film right in the beginning, wondering if it would recover its investment or not. They come on board after watching a good product," said Ajay G. Rai of JAR Pictures, which has produced films like Gurgaon and Nil Battey Sannata.

“If you’re known in the circle, the narration happens sooner and the feedback also comes faster on whether they’re on board or not. If they don’t know you, it’s difficult to get access considering there are so many scripts and so many people wanting to make films. Given my own experience working in a corporate, I know it’s better to take a finished film to them and the kind a particular studio will take up," said Rai.

Evolving audience taste and the fading star system warrant more such films. Eros, which admits it was known for star-driven spectacular vehicles at one point, has made a conscious attempt to change and says at least one-fourth of its annual slate comprises boutique productions. Up next immediately, it has Anurag Kashyap’s sports drama Mukkabaaz, co-produced along with Colour Yellow and Phantom Films due for release on 12 January 2018. Then there is Happy Bhag Jayegi Returns, starring Sonakshi Sinha with Colour Yellow and three projects with Drishyam.

“The studios all have the ability to think scale, they are working across 40 projects at one time. The boutique, on the other hand, lives and breathes that film for that time. The creative execution of the vision is what that boutique brings to the table, within the budget that was green-lit. The studio looks at taking that and showing it to the world, taking that whole distribution risk because the capital outlay for marketing these films can be greater than the budget of the film itself," Deshpnade said. “Plus these films may not hold much theatrical value but they’re great for digital media. People may not spend Rs300 going to the cinema to watch them but they are interested in the content being produced."

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