20 Minutes Live with R Balki: Re-imagining the Film Industry
The impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry has been massive, not only in India but worldwide. In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, cinemas have closed, release dates have been postponed, film festivals have been cancelled, and production has come to a halt. The crisis has already met a massive loss of $7 billion in box-office takings for the global film industry and this figure is expected to reach $17 billion by the end of May.
As a result of lock down, there have been continuous layoffs. In India, it has been estimated that there is a weekly loss of $10.5 million for the Bollywood industry. The immediate impact has been cataclysmic, but an uneasiness is also growing over the future of the film industry. As social distancing and self-isolation have become the new norm, it seems difficult for a business-built to survive at such communal experience.
This webinar conversation has been conducted with R.Balki, Bollywood Filmmaker & Screenwriter on the topic, "Re-imagining the Film Industry". In this webinar, Balki shares his thoughts on the current issue prevailing in the Indian film industry and how the film industry is preparing for the new normal post-COVID-19 era. As we all know, R.Balki is one of the most critically acclaimed successful filmmakers in India. He is a director, screenwriter, and producer who mainly works in Bollywood and rose to fame with his maiden directorial venture 'Cheeni Kum' in 2007 and later got more fame and recognition with 'Paa' (2009).
Impact of COVID-19 on Indian Film Industry
Narrating this issue, Balki says that COVID-19 is having a striking effect on the film industry similar to other industries. On all the fronts, the rapid spread of COVID-19 is being compared to a kind of battle. Due to lock down, everything has come to a standstill, whether they are cinema halls, multiplexes, or shopping malls. The prospects also say that there are few chances for people to go to theaters immediately after the crisis is over without any fear. They may do it only at the time of must-watch movies. But he says further that there is an existential crisis that is going on for the film industry in the current situation.
Is the OTT platform a new normal for the films?
For Balki, communication, i.e. the entertainment has become format neutral at present and viewers have already become habitual of watching content on the OTT platforms before the COVID crisis itself. It all comes down to telling engaging stories to the audiences irrespective of the platform on which they are watching. There are incredibly successful web-series like Games of Thrones and others which have been produced on a giant scale and have been widely accepted at a global level. People enjoy the experience of both platforms-large screens as well as the OTT form of content viewing.
The crisis and creativity
Balki shares his views regarding the current crisis and the opportunity which has been born along with it for the creative talents to emerge and come in. He says that this crisis has shaken people from inside and is asking a push from inside to bring newer means of showing creativity truly. Sometimes, it seems that what we are creating right now is meaningless in comparison to what is going around the world.
Balki is quite optimistic about people shedding their hesitancy and preparing to go watch movies in theatres once the COVID crisis stabilizes. This process will gain momentum once people will come out of their persisting fear and will feel safe for moving out of their homes.
According to Balki, OTT platforms are going to play a significant role in upcoming days as the theatres will be available online and offline with the OTT platform. So, releasing a film on online platforms is entirely up to the decision of the producer because these are entirely personal business decisions that impact everything and everyone associated with the particular film.
The business decision would be 'can I hold on for a year and then release it because I will get so much more money' or 'no, I can't hold on for a year financially.' It's a very hardcore business decision that will vary from producer to producer as per their thought process. A lot of things also depend on various deals that are being proposed on the table (to the producers).
Q & A
1. Are you interested in making films for OTT platforms?
Balki says that he is very much interested in making films for OTT platforms. It is a very exciting prospect for him purely because some of the best writing talents are emerging through these platforms with creative stories. He shares examples of Hollywood where most of the innovative writing is happening on OTT platforms. Slowly and steadily, India is also moving in that direction. OTT certainly allows more scope in terms of experimental cinema and series which are high on content and entertainment as well.
2. Does it make sense to make condensed versions of long serials so the audience can get the story in much less time?
As per Balki, people have become so much attached to the characters and the stories that they like to watch all the episodes in one go. When there are talks about attention span getting reduced nowadays, we see people hooked to the web series for 8-9 hours at a fascinating stretch, to say the least. There is so much involvement in the series that viewers are binge-watching every show that they find a connection with.
3. What are your views about the present crisis leading to some long-term good changes happening in the film industry?
Few changes are needed and may be propelled by the current crisis. Some of these changes could be:
Efficiency needs to be improved.
The cost has to come down a bit in various areas, be it remuneration or production.
Safety precautions need to be looked at due to COVID-19.
More planning is required now than before.
4. Do you feel that long formats will be more popular in rural India as compared to urban India although more money comes from urban India?
Balki thinks that it is more about the content that both the belts find interesting. He doesn't believe in the rural and urban divide. Sometimes, the preferences depend on the kind of exposure that people get during their upbringing. Also, there are many things that the audiences like irrespective of whether they belong to rural or urban India.
5. OTT doesn't allow for participation in the success/overflow of film-like in the theatrical release. Will that be a constraint for film producers to create movies for OTT?
According to Balki, OTT platforms already get a fair deal right at the beginning when they earn the releasing rights for the films. The budgets, however, need to be marginally less as the films don't get to earn theatrical revenue when they opt for OTT release. But it may happen in the future that we will get to see a pay per view kind of model for OTT which will be similar to theater revenue business in terms of recovery and sharing of revenues and not just be a flat fee for the films.
6. Are we professional enough as compared to Hollywood in terms of working as they have things like insurance which is missing here and other things as well?
Balki is of the view that the Indian film industry is far from being called global and operates in an environment that is quite different from Hollywood. They earn revenues globally as the films are made keeping in mind the global audiences whereas, for Bollywood, it is more of India and Indian diaspora as of now. All things said we are pretty much professional for the economics that we have at present in the Indian film industry.
7. Will the demand increase for the VFX and animation industry?
There is a very huge demand for the VFX and animation industry as there are many things which can now be done on the computer. Through computer graphics a whole set can be created so there is less need for physical labor for all such purposes. Moreover, many difficult to simple things can be re-designed and crafted with more efficiency and less labor.