No more big bucks from corporates (Column: B-Town)

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The last 20 years or so brought about a complete change in the way the film industry works. The corporate houses invaded the film industry. Some thought it would be for the better of the industry, while the others were sceptical.

Those who were happy were the ones who had made some reputation in the media, if not really, because of the work they did. And the corporate houses wanting to make inroads into the film business knew only such media made celebrities. They would be used as the stepping stones for these prospect hunters.

The film industry had always depended on outside source for money. Initially, there was a breed called the film financers and this included some of the biggest names with high reputation. But, there was a second rung that drove a tough bargain — 3 to 3.5 per cent pm interest deducted at source, renewable every quarter! In such an event, a producer was always keen that he released his film in time before the interest for the next quarter was due.

Even with this kind of dear money situation, the makers survived and the industry still managed to put out as many as 150 films a year. The filmmakers stuck to their work, the stars did their bit keeping their lives guarded and private and happy with their film career.

The stars always enjoyed a great fan following among the movie buffs. Those were the days then watching a movie was a bigger priority than watching a cricket match.

But actors found a rather odd kind of fans. There were people who did not want to chase stars, rather have the stars at their beck and call! These new fans were the underworld, smugglers, builders, politicians, the lot. They catered to the stars’ greed. Come to Dubai, entertain the people that be, take back a colour TV and a couple of lakh as gift. Attend a bigshot’s wedding and earn appearance fee!

The filmmaking worked a lot on cash transactions, and nobody cared where the money came from — the underworld or the corrupt politicians. From any source which made illegal money but had little use or knowledge as to where it could be used. But in return, this new lot of financers turned stars and celebrities into their court jesters.

Business was done on the terms dictated by the underworld. They had taken fancy to overseas film rights and the newly-arrived video rights. For a filmmaker, overseas rights equalled one major film circuit like the Bombay circuit and that usually was his margin. Calls from Dubai dictated terms, otherwise a sharpshooter was always around to take a shot at a producer or a star. There have been many examples of big names in the film industry who survived such attempts while Gulshan Kumar of T-Series was not so lucky.

So, the corporate foreign companies that did business in Hollywood with their satellite operation in other major metros, when they entered the Indian film market, it was seen as a positive sign, as something good. The two entertainment industries, the world’s most lucrative, Hollywood, and the world’s biggest, India, would do business together and complement each other. Looked rosy.

The first attempt at the corporatisation in the film industry began in late 1990s when reputed banker, Uday Kotak, felt that Amitabh Bachchan, was a brand and a brand equity could be built around him. And Amitabh Bachchan Corporation was launched.

The move spelt disaster from the day it was envisaged. Even before any revenue could be generated, there were huge expense. An entire hotel in a high-end Juhu area of Mumbai was rented as the office. A CEO was appointed and, for rest of the staff, sundry clerks, errand runners, packers and dispatch men from other companies were picked up. Making them wear black blazers seemed to be their ID as corporate employees. The company’s first production, “Tere Mere Sapne” (copied from the Hollywood film, “Trading Places”) was a reasonable success.

The experiment failed so much so that Bachchan faced bankruptcy proceedings. Somehow, he managed an annulment.

The venture failed because none of ABCL’s highly paid personnel knew what filmmaking and marketing were, as these existed in those days. This was not the job of MBAs and marketing wizards. Filmmaking was a personal touch business.

The newly arrived corporate houses from abroad made the same mistake. They had none of those who knew the Indian film industry. Films cannot be marketed like consumer products like biscuit, cola or soap (in fact, the ABCL CEO, when he left the company, found his right place joining Coca Cola, which was his real calling).

The companies that invaded the Indian film industry never bothered to learn about it. They had just about everything except an idea of what creativity meant, and how and why films ran in India. All they had was money, which they spread far and wide. Just about everybody they invested in made money except them. Unfortunately, they invested in the media-made celebrities instead of content-oriented projects. For them, a project was one that had top stars and the makers were ones who could rope in those top stars. It was such a disaster in the making!

You may be a dance master or an actor’s stooge, if you can put together a top star project, here is a hundred crore for you, make a couple of films for us. Actually, they were financing projects, not films. It was more like speculating than creating.

What is more, budgeting was something that was always questionable. You had stars whose films never crossed Rs 100 crore-collection, and their films were granted a budget of more than that! There seemed to be some kind of give and take happening. For, after all, whose money was it? A 100-crore film meant that, for recovering investment, it had to collect at least Rs 225 crore at the box office. How many films manage that?

An example will make it clear how nobody had a clue about budgeting. A company had backed a film produced by Abbas-Mustan, starring Govinda, being shot in South Africa. That is when the recession set in. The company decided to shelve the film despite the fact that shooting was already halfway through. The company decided to pull the carpet and asked the producer to stop shooting because they could not give any more money, and had decided to write off the losses.

However, surprisingly, the producers managed to complete the film without any more funds from the company! Miracle? No, just that the film could easily be made at a much lesser cost, about which whoever vetted the budget had no idea.

Then, the overheads. These corporate houses employed hundreds of them. Why was it necessary when all that the companies did was to outsource the production of films? Traditionally, before these companies came in the scene, a filmmaker managed with a staff of just two to three people, since rest of the workers, like technicians and others, came on board on contract basis only when a film was under production.

It comes as no surprise that now all these major companies that elevated film production to budgets of crore from the manageable lakh, have stopped this business. Many filmmakers benefitted but there is no report of these companies making profits. If they had, they would still be in the business.

(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and trade analyst. The views expressed are personal)

–IANS

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