For its latest action comedy, Men In Black: International, which releases worldwide on Friday, Sony Pictures India hasn’t just stopped at dubbed versions in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
The international studio is getting Bollywood actors Siddhant Chaturvedi and Sanya Malhotra to voice for lead stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. There is also a rap song planned with Chaturvedi, who in the run-up to the film’s release, travelled to the US to meet Hemsworth, while constantly rallying up his social media fan following to go watch the film.
Meanwhile, Universal Pictures has released the trailer of its new action film, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, due for release in August, in no less than 10 Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Punjabi and Bengali. This April, Disney India had already taken localization to a new level with its initiatives for Avengers: Endgame—with popular Tamil writer and director A.R. Murugadoss writing the Tamil dialogues, while superstars Vijay Sethupathi, Andrea Jeremiah and Rana Daggubati dubbed for characters. Besides, music composer A.R. Rahman came up with a special anthem for the film. For the Hindi version of its latest fantasy musical, Aladdin, Disney got singer Armaan Malik to voice for the central character, besides singing a special number for the film.
Industry experts say localization and marketing initiatives by Hollywood studios in India have come a long way over the past five years, when the only big tool was to dub the film in local Indian languages.
Localization strategies for big-ticket films, such as Endgame, in India can today cost a studio as much as ₹15 crore, up from ₹3-5 crore half a decade ago. According to Showbiz 2.0, the annual entertainment report by ESP Properties, a division of GroupM, out of the total ₹285 crore spent on marketing movies on TV in 2018, English films contributed 18%.
“The western movie world has realized that to succeed in India you need to Indianize," said Rudrarup Datta, senior vice-president, marketing, Viacom18 Motion Pictures. “Apart from using Bollywood stars for a localized dub to increase familiarity with a film, it’s now common practice to have big Hollywood stars do India-specific call-outs on social media, influencers and journalists now routinely attend world premieres and get face-to-face time with key talent alongside international media. The other visible change is the increase in the number of Indian brands now wanting to partner with Hollywood films beyond just Hindi movies."
In the past, Viacom18 Studios got Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and Vin Diesel to India for the promotions of their films, Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol, and XXX: Return of Xander Cage, respectively. Each visit was marked with multiple events. Studios now also insist on writing the film afresh, and not merely translating it in a local language with appropriate nuances.
“A few years back, when we looked at our films, we realized that they were definitely global stories, with extremely universal values and there is no reason why they should not be appealing to a larger section of Indian audiences," said Bikram Duggal, head of studio entertainment at Disney India, attributing the trend to rising awareness of global stories through the internet, and higher disposable incomes in India, which allowed greater inclination, especially among younger audiences, to try different stories. Disney’s first attempt at getting nuanced writing in a local language was with The Jungle Book (2016). In the last three to four years, the footprint of audiences that Disney reached out to theatrically with its Hollywood productions has increased 10-fold, Duggal said.
Shony Panjikaran, director and head, marketing, Sony Pictures Entertainment India, said Hollywood studios were always making efforts to localize American films for Indian audiences, but the scale and frequency of it has really gone up. According to Showbiz 2.0, for the opening weekend collection of Rs14 crore and above for films (across languages), there is a strong correlation with the number of trailer views garnered on YouTube, social media conversations around the movie and the leading actor’s popularity.
“With the digital revolution, a vast majority of the film audiences are available online. So, whatever we do, we think digital," Panjikaran added.
Sony has also started getting into a lot of data-led marketing, wherein the company has information on what the Hindi- or Tamil- or Telugu-speaking audiences watch, and can even use it to select the right voice cast.
This information can also be used to cut a good local language trailer, which may sometimes also be cut differently than the English version, for India. Plus, the growth of Hollywood in India ensures that local stars don’t just see dubbing as a money-minting exercise, unlike earlier. They are happy to engage their massive social media fan following with fun contests and marketing initiatives for the Hollywood film.
According to the Ficci-EY media and entertainment industry report 2019, net box office collections of Hollywood films (including all the dubbed versions) in India in 2018 was ₹921 crore. Panjikaran said about 7-8 years ago, the contribution from dubbed markets for Hollywood films was 20-25%, now they bring in a minimum of 40%. Datta added that with increased multiplex penetration, Hollywood films, especially dubbed versions, are garnering audiences in tier-two cities as well. India as a market has been moving up the charts on the global box office collection list and is a contender for the top contributor in the Asia Pacific region (apart from China) in case of many films.
To be sure, bigger strategies mean bigger money. Studio heads agree unanimously that for the bigger tent-pole superhero and action films where there is potential, they are more aggressive than they would have been six years ago. But the difference is that, earlier, a lot of money was spent on TV and print advertising, which has been drastically cut down to use in a far more targeted and optimized manner towards digital audiences.
“Spends have definitely gone up. There is no (other) way you can reach out to millions of newer audiences. The footfalls we are getting for our films is many times higher and that is happening because of the initiatives and our ability to scale the spends up," Duggal said.