Thought Leader

Big Bucks or Quality Content – Which Is the Universal Language of Film?

Pierre Assouline| Paris, 01 Aug 2016

Tags : pickle,Indian films,content,holiwood,funding,reliance entertainment

As we know, for two decades mainstream Indian film producers have boasted of crossover-productions without ever having even a single film actually make the cross-over. Now we see the Indian Media & Entertainment sector aiming for a revenue target of $100 Billion – a fivefold increase.

Mainstream Indian films appear to have an international reach but the reality is that their audience abroad amounts mostly to an extension of their audience at home: the Indian diaspora. Mainstream filmmakers in India have not understood what it takes for cinematic language to be universal. If the Media & Entertainment sector wants to avoid similar disillusionment ten years from now, it must end wishful thinking and focus on the essential element which drives healthy growth: Quality Content. Undoubtedly, Quality Content. So why not start by expressing the M&E ambition in terms of Quality Content instead of $Billions? Big bucks should not be used as a placebo for Quality Content.

Of course, broadband, 4G coverage, competitive OTT platforms, reducing taxation, anti-piracy, theater network expansion... are all essential for Content to be conveyed at its best. These technological vehicles are the body but Content is the soul. To keep body and soul together, let’s not just finesse the body. Let’s nourish Content with diverse original creation.

New approaches for Quality Content funding

How to generate momentum for Quality Content production? Quality Content has greater possibility of being produced by individuals or small teams of individuals under proper guidance than by large conglomerates. This is truer today when content needed to satisfy all consumers’ preferences must cover a range of formats, genres, durations, wider than ever before. Indian production for example is practically absent from the worldwide craze for creation of innovative TV serials, or rather, just innovative serials as they are far more often watched on other kinds of device.

There are large Studios both in Hollywood and in India which made the smart move to finance some independent filmmakers, but that effort remains far too marginal. To address the urgent need to fund and promote independent filmmaking in India on a large scale, here are a couple of possible strategies.

The first has been used for decades in France and with political will could be implemented in India. Each admission to a theater carries a levy of 10.72% on top of government taxes. This percentage goes exclusively to the National Center of Cinema for redistribution to French film production and distribution.

Today American blockbusters are reaching an unprecedented high at the Indian box-office. Indian cinema is not benefitting from that imported growth in what will soon cease to be the least-penetrated market in the world. On the contrary, American films take screens away from an Indian cinema already suffering from screen-scarcity. Such a special levy applied to all admissions including Hollywood ones but redistributed only to Indian cinema production and distribution is a way to reverse or at least to arrest that negative trend. So that this special cinema levy does not adversely affect the number of admissions by inflating movie ticket prices, it could be partly or entirely funded from the entertainment tax, which in most Indian states is very high. A spin-off from this approach might be to change the way cinema is considered tax-wise. Just as Marathi films are tax exempted in Maharashtra or Tamil films in Tamil Nadu, independent films in general because of their cultural dimension should not bear the unfair burden of entertainment tax.

Further funding for Indian film production could come from the exhibition sector. Cinema owners, especially Multiplex chains, have always benefited from the powerful attraction of cinema to rake in revenue from ad space, overpriced beverages and snack sales. None of those significant profits generated by the power of cinema goes back to cinema. A fair share of those profits should ease funding of Indian cinema.

Producer training

The second strategy, running alongside substantial funding of independent films, is an established training program for producers. This is what is needed to relieve the problem of Indian films coming nowhere again this year on the Cannes Official Selection list. All year round I watch Indian films with the potential to be on that list, but which don’t make the cut because the filmmaker is on his/her own, bereft of guidance and protection from an insightful producer worthy of the name. The filmmaker has no one to tell him: “No, refine your script before we go on floors..." “You feel you went as far as you could? Let me hire a new scriptwriter with a fresh eye." “No, this actor would be a miscast." “No, don’t let the star twist your initial vision." “No, these subplots aren’t adding anything; they’re simply weakening your main story." “No, these dialogues are redundant." “No, more is not best, cut this scene and that other one too while you’re about it."

Lessons learnt

The mix of public and private funding along with proper guidance could boost Indian cinema internationally to an amazing extent. From the private sector, take Reliance Entertainment, for example. Reliance sprinkled investment around theater chains, studios, post-production infrastructures, lavish development “gifts" to Hollywood stars, TV, VOD, gaming, radio, etc., almost all given up today under constraint. If Reliance had focused its investment power simply on independent Indian cinema funding, production and distribution, they might have achieved wonders with a fabulous harvest of awards and an historic cinematic legacy.

Repatriate cinema money from movie tickets, theater ad space, food and beverage sales. Redistribute it widely to small creative filmmaker teams under the guidance of trained producers. Encourage Quality Content, sit back and watch the best Indian film ever.

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