New Delhi: Bollywood’s top mainline studios are training their eyes on the lucrative regional cinema market for production and distribution of films. Having begun its local film production in India earlier this year with Akshay Kumar-starrer Padman, Sony Pictures Entertainment India announced its foray into the regional space last month with a Malayalam project to be co-produced by and featuring Malayali superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran. However, Sony is not the only leading Bollywood studio betting big on regional cinema.

After the spectacular success of Tamil-Telugu war epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion that it distributed in north India last year, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions will continue its foray into regional cinema by distributing Madhuri Dixit’s Marathi debut Bucket List, which is due for release on 25 May. Viacom18 Motion Pictures too, will follow up on its successful Marathi suspense thriller Aapla Manus that released this February with a light-hearted post-Independence Marathi tale Cycle on 4 May and Punjabi film Nanak Shah Fakir, both of which it is distributing.

“The audience is evolving and opting to view more content-centric films, the shift is also seen within the Hindi film industry where small-budget films and independent movies are receiving appreciation from viewers and critics alike," said Apoorva Mehta, chief executive officer, Dharma Productions. “Regional cinema, for the most part, is extremely content driven, and this appeals highly to today’s evolved audience."

Vivek Krishnani, managing director, Sony Pictures Entertainment India, agrees: “As far as Hindi cinema is concerned, we are finding ourselves at a point where we are looking for great writing, otherwise we’re going into the same zone of remakes and sequels repeatedly. When you look for inspiration around the country, you see great content emerging from regional cinema and that market brimming with ideas."

There is a marked rise in occupancy at cinema chains for regional films, which is exciting, Mehta said. And the statistics back his argument: according to the Ficci-EY Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2017, online ticketing platform BookMyShow reported average occupancy of 45-46% for regional films last year, compared to around 39-40% in 2016.

To be sure, the regional success stories to draw inspiration from are many. While Baahubali 2 remains the most successful Indian film to date, other breakthroughs have happened lately with Marathi blockbuster Sairat, a Rs3.5 crore film that touched the Rs100 crore mark and is currently being remade in Hindi by Dharma Productions. Tamil action thriller Mersal, released during Diwali last year, had grossed more than Rs250 crore worldwide.

In an earlier interview with Mint, Sudhanshu Vats, the group chief executive of Viacom18 Media Pvt. Ltd, said regional cinema is the company’s growth engine given that 60% of India communicates in its native language.

ZEE Studios, a relatively older player in the regional space with hits like Sairat to its credit, says it is gratifying to note that other leading studios across the industry have started developing interest in regional cinema.

“Our focus at the regional arm of ZEE Studios has always been to deliver films which touch the market’s cultural chord, a common thread which runs across all our projects," said Mangesh Kulkarni, business head-Marathi Film Division, ZEE Studios, which has three Marathi films lined up—the controversy-ridden Nude which was pulled out of the International Film Festival of India last year, a biopic called Anandigopal and a massy entertainer Rampaat.

With regional films, a lot of it is a matter of access too.

“Logistically, the arrival of multiplexes ensured that distribution of regional films wasn’t limited to a certain region or locality," Mehta said. The greater number of screens across the country has meant wider release for films across languages and irrespective of region. “For any production house or studio with a firm grip over audience preferences, this is another opportunity to expand its footprint in newer markets by reaching out to a varied demographic," he added.

Other logistics also help. Krishnani pointed out that the good thing about regional cinema is that there is a large audience restricted to a smaller geographical area which ensures your film promotion and advertising remain cost effective and you have the possibility of a decent return on investment.

“Regional cinema, unlike Bollywood, is not entirely star-driven and is often made with limited resources. A Rs5-6 crore budget is good for a decent-sized film banking on content," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema. “Box office aside, about Rs2.5 crore come from satellite rights while digital is increasingly emerging as a new stream of revenue. Plus, if the film does well, there is a huge demand for remake rights for Hindi."

To be sure, there’s regional cinema and there’s regional cinema. While the content-centric genre is mostly restricted to Marathi, Bengali and Punjabi films with budgets ranging from Rs2 crore to Rs12 crore, the south Indian film industry operates in a league of its own.

Not only is the film-viewing culture much stronger in the south, audiences also harbour a deep emotional connect to cinema. That makes recovery of high investment, as in the case of Baahubali, feasible, further encouraging Bollywood studios to make inroads. Plus, the dubbed versions of many of these films find fans among the Hindi-speaking demographic, widening reach even more.

“The south has a robust film industry that caters to even a more sizeable population than Hindi," Mehta pointed out. “So, at times, the budget of South Indian films surpasses that of Hindi films and can range anywhere between Rs10 crore to Rs200 crore. However, a large audience base ensures that the south Indian film industry can experiment with big budget films."