New Delhi: Debutant director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s small-town saga Nil Battey Sannata that released last Friday has so far notched up collections of 1.88 crore. The absolute numbers may be low by themselves, but the fact that the film was backed by motion picture studio Eros International has ensured that the Swara Bhaskar-starrer, low on standard star appeal and poster value, got about 300 select screens across the country, besides substantial praise and conversations both offline and on social media.

To be sure, that they need an integrated studio to back their films is a lesson independent filmmakers have learnt over time, especially when it comes to content-driven movies in contrast to star-studded outings. Director Hansal Mehta’s recent Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Aligarh was co-produced by Eros too. The biographical drama on Aligarh Muslim University professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras made 2.5 crore in box office collections and was released in around 400-450 screens. Another Bajpayee film, a thriller called Traffic, produced by Endemol Shine India Production and backed by Fox Star Studios, releases on 6 May.

“Endemol had bought the rights of the original Malayalam film and we approached Fox which was smart enough to see the potential and understand the script," said Ram Mirchandani, chief operating officer at Endemol Shine India, referring to Fox’s backing for the film as a “blessing". The studio not just gave inputs on the script and worked out a controlled budget with their understanding of the trade but was also involved in post-production with dubbing, mixing and VFX after the film’s director Rajesh Pillai passed away.

“It really was with their support that the film became larger-than-life. They have the marketing muscle and distribution network to take this film international, including to non-traditional markets, say Cambodia, and Traffic is a film that can travel," he said.

Mirchandani knows of nearly 200-300 films that lie unreleased in India at this point of time. He also cites the example of Dibakar Banerjee’s cult movie Khosla Ka Ghosla, which was ready for nearly three years before being picked up by UTV Motion Pictures in 2006.

“I think every studio should allocate 10-15% of its annual budget to such films. Not only will some of them possibly break out and prove profitable but think of how much credibility it can bring to the brand, a case in point being Neerja for Fox," he said.

Essentially, there are two ways a studio can come on board for a niche, content-driven film. One, to be involved right from the inception when a script is laid out or pitched to it and green-light the project if it sees value in the proposal. The other, considering the huge number of films produced in India, is to look at already existing films in which conventional movie backers may not always see value.

“We’re constantly evaluating material like this and occasionally we find something which has tremendous value," said Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer, Viacom18 Motion Pictures. “In that case, what we do is, if the film is already made, we try and see what best we can do, in terms of editing or altering it in a way that we believe would help its recoveries."

For instance, the studio saw Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Manjhi—The Mountain Man, which released last year, as a film relevant to the youth instead of being a festival or niche product.

“So we had to cut it in that fashion," Andhare said of the film that earned 12 crore at the box office. “It’s basically about shaping a product that we believe can stand in the market on the value of what it has to offer in terms of content, and then giving it the kind of marketing that is vital because that is what puts the wind beneath the sails in such projects."

Marketing muscle remains a studio’s biggest strength.

“Traditionally, an independent producer has little or no marketing capability," emphasized Andhare. “They understand things like trailers and posters and think that is marketing."

What a studio offers is an integrated marketing platform where a movie is promoted in a way and on a scale that matches the campaign for a newly launched packaged consumer product.

“That would start from what the integrated campaign idea is, which in turn stems from the positioning you want for the film, for which, further, the film may also have to be slightly reshaped. And then getting around to bringing it to a full campaign and deploying various touch-points so that the essence of the film comes alive," he said.

Especially when it comes to films that may not be high on poster or star value, there is an even greater need for the science of marketing.

“There must be something inherent that you basically derive or generate curiosity from," Andhare said. “In a cluttered environment with higher number of films being released and so many other competing avenues of entertainment, you will need to find something unique basis which you can attract and generate curiosity and conversation around your product. That’s classic marketing at work."

The other advantage comes in terms of the gigantic slates most studios work with. With an average of 12-16 films a year, their engagement with exhibition partners and the machinery to deploy films across the market in the country remains superior. Besides, there is greater ability to monetize the film across its television, digital and other emergent platforms that only an integrated studio has access to.

To be sure, the industry, too, is more welcoming of different genres of films. “I think the industry is opening up to writers and directors from all over, especially small towns," said Nil Battey Sannata director Iyer Tiwari. “Studios also recognize the need to source and invest in the ideas out there. Yes, if you have a studio backing you, 90% of your job is done. If not, you work slightly harder."

It is more about whether these non-starry vehicles can thrive without the big names backing them. Rajat Kapoor’s acclaimed Ankhon Dekhi (2014) stands out as an example, according to Iyer Tiwari.

But as Andhare says, it’s not just limited to releasing a film. “Release is a very last-point agenda. If you really want a film to be received by the audience, to become a talking point, to be discussed on social network, you need a professional set-up."

All figures are from movie website Bollywood Hungama

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