New Delhi: From a year fraught with challenges—be it the cash crunch following the demonetisation of high-value currency notes, Bollywood’s infamous corporate crisis with several major studios running into losses (and in some cases, shutting operations) or the underwhelming box office performance of many star-driven projects, Indian filmmakers maintain there is a lot to take away from.

The first of which remains an understanding of budgets. “That (the corporate crunch) has been the biggest crisis (this year) and has visibly, taken a toll on the industry," said Ajit Andhare, chief operative officer, Viacom18 Motion Pictures. “We see ourselves as producers, not so much as a studio. What follows from that is right-sizing the film, spending on the right areas which generate impact, and running a prudent business model. We don’t look at acquisitions or having a pipeline where you have a release every quarter or every three months. Our focus has been profitability and not so much top line and volume."

Senior executives across studios maintained money will not be spent on movies indiscriminately anymore. While producers still tend to recover investment from digital and other upcoming streams of revenue, 2016 has been a largely unprofitable year for exhibitors, making it an extremely unhealthy value chain. For instance, big-ticket films like Fan and Mohenjo Daro only managed Rs84 crore and Rs58 crore from theatres, respectively.

“While Fox Star has had its best year in 2016, green-lighting films definitely demands more careful thinking by studios, as a consequence of which the number of projects being green-lit has come down," said Vijay Singh, chief executive officer, Fox Star Studios. “That is not necessarily bad as the industry has to work out more balanced risk-reward structures wherein all stakeholders, including actors, participate in the upside."

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Studio executives mention there is a possibility of more actors now becoming involved in the financial logistics of their projects, taking an upfront fee and negotiating a share in profits depending on the film’s box office collections. Business making long-term sense of that kind stems from the industry moving towards more content-driven cinema, in general and that includes outings of even the biggest stars of the country—be it Salman Khan’s Sultan, Akshay Kumar’s Airlift, or Aamir Khan’s Dangal, which at Rs300 crore, Rs128 crore, and Rs155 crore respectively, remain three of the biggest hits of the year.

“A star will definitely give you an opening on Friday, they may even give you a couple of shows on Saturday. But any film that focuses solely on star power without having the right script and screenplay in place will not have long legs," said Akash Chawla, ZEE Studios and ZEE TV business head.

The over-indulgent budgets have not yet been extended to at least the Hollywood marketing sphere in India which, Amrita Pandey, vice-president, Studios at Disney India, says, studios have been smart with. The massive success of Disney’s fantasy adventure film, The Jungle Book that made over Rs180 crore, becoming the highest Hollywood grosser in the country and superhero flick Doctor Strange that made Rs21 crore at the peak of demonetisation, points to the fact that audiences are becoming more language-agnostic besides the critical importance of localized marketing techniques.

“The tent-poles for which we see a potential here, we’ve been pushing consistently, and will continue to. What we are doing additionally (in 2017) is we’re localizing these films through the use of our actresses who have their own appeal," said Andhare of Viacom that brings Deepika Padukone-starrer xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and action comedy Baywatch that features Priyanka Chopra to India this year. “It’s about taking these films far more seriously and looking at how we can further grow this market and particular segment."

The extravagance also doesn’t extend to regional cinema which until now, remains independent of star power and constraints of publicity and advertising. The trend that began with the super success of Baahubali: The Beginning last year has reached another milestone with Marathi drama Sairat that made nearly Rs100 crore this year, encouraging major studios to take greater plunges. Eros International, for example, has scaled up its pipeline across languages—Bengali, Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, Punjabi among others and is currently looking at a 60-40 skew between their Hindi and regional films slate which could even go up to a 50-50, said Sunil Lulla, managing director, Eros International Media Ltd. Chawla of ZEE also reports considerable success for their regional, and particularly Marathi films in overseas territories such as the US, the UK, Australia and Africa.

To be sure, it all ultimately boils down to higher quality content. As a studio executive who declined to be named said, “Making noise doesn’t mean you’re going to build appeal for the film. A lot of marketing becomes about egos but then your numbers are also expected to be bigger. For a movie to do well, a lot of things have to come together. If you look at the excitement around the Raees trailer, it’s way higher than for any Shah Rukh movie we’ve seen at least in the last two years. It can’t only be about the star, it’s about the content and actor coming together."

All figures in the story have been sourced from movie website Bollywood Hungama and refer to the film’s net box office collections in India.

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