The business of movies is changing faster than plotlines of a twisty noir thriller.
Just a few years back, if a movie business executive had told anyone at one of those swish parties in South Mumbai that in near future, major stars will drop studio commitments on masala films to work on long, complicatedly plotted multipart movies that will have dark themes, guests would have thought he’s a bit nutty.
Yesterday’s nutty is today’s reality
Saif Ali Khan rejected movie commitments because of his involvement in Netflix’s Sacred Games 2, that starts today. Akshay Kumar is happy being cast in Amazon Prime Video’s biggest Indian original, The End, and Abhishek Bachchan is shooting for Breathe 2.
A-list stars as happy campers in web series is one of the fundamental changes in India’s movie business, and that change carries within itself a number of other changes.
Movies have of course always drawn moneymen and talent and always will, the magic is there. But who calls the shots changes over time. Right now, the power hierarchy has changed from big studios and big stars as top dogs to starring roles for good scripts and inventive producers/directors.
In the earlier model, big studios acquired or essentially bankrolled star-fronted films. These days, producers are being able to raise enough funds from new players to start and execute projects. Good stories are the heroes and heroines of this business model. While big studios are not quite the villain, they now have what old Bollywood scripts used to call character roles – they are looking at reducing acquisition prices and retaining IPs.
“With new platforms and players, who are coming in with fresh investments, a project doesn’t necessarily need to be studiofunded upfront,” said Shariq Patel, CEO of ZEE Studios, which produced films like Manikarnika and distributed the film Kesari this year.
Karan Bedi, CEO of MX Player, an OTT player owned by Times Internet Limited, explained it well: “What we have been talking about for years… that script and content is king, is becoming the truth now with the advent of OTT. If you see some of the big films, Uri: The Surgical Strike,Badhai Ho, etc, content based films are working.”
Bedi added: “Big stars are still popular and enjoy loyalty of their fan base. They are crowd pullers. So they are able to retain some rights. However, initially, like in any new business model, prices were paid based on untested models. Now the price of stars is also adjusting.”
Patel explains why IP is crucial for studios. “From ZEE Studio’s perspective, any project that comes to us, my first conversation with any of the producers is that we need 100% IP if you want us to fund entirely, whether it’s a megastar or firsttime producer,” Patel said.
Superstars are losing their selling power. Another producer, who spoke off record, said “mega stars are losing their touch…with availability of new and good talent across the board, there is democratisation of talent. The grip of the troika of Khans – Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh – who ruled the box office for almost 20 years, is loosening. Last year, all three failed,” he said.
This is the second big change in India’s movie business in recent times. The first happened around 2007-08, when the industry became organised. As another producer, who also poke off record, explained: “Corporatisation of film business started happening with the launch of studio model in India. But the business has been resetting or recalibrating every 3-4 years. 2007 was madness…when everyone started paying a lot of money for any project. It was as if the gravy train would not stop”.
And as with all madness in any business the party eventually stopped. “The entire collapse happened”, as the producer described it. “Some corporates folded up and some merged into some others.”.
Today big streaming services are the major players. “The Netflixes and Amazons of the world are doing the same thing – paying big money,” said another producer, again speaking on condition of anonymity.
An industry veteran, he’s sure today’s big guns will also stop firing someday. “This (big projects being commissioned by streaming services) also will stop someday, but right now there is a mad rush and everyone is busy making hay while the sun shines.”
But till this party lasts, its effects are hard to miss. Take this bit of movie business as a classic demonstration of how things have changed.
In 2013, broadcaster Star India signed a Rs 500-crore deal directly with Salman Khan. Satellite TV rights of all his films went to the broadcast network. Star started the trend and also got other actors like Ajay Devgn and Varun Dhawan in the fold.
That was then. Now, Salman Khan’s movies will appear on Amazon first, ahead of a TV premiere. Star had to let go, as it could not match the price. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have signed similar deals with Netflix. Stars are looking at streaming services to get a good deal for their projects post-movie hall run. But streaming services have plenty of options other than star-fronted movies.
Studios don’t want to deal much with big stars because the latter keep IP rights, fully or in part, of their movies, they take these rights partially in lieu of their fees.
Broadcasters, who would earlier buy individual movies or a bunch of films from producers and studios, can’t always match deep pockets of big players in streaming services, who are better placed at pricing IP rights attractively.
Will all of this change again? It may. But right now, if at a swish South Mumbai party a movie executive says one day in near future, streaming players and good movie scripts won’t be the stars they are now, no one will believe him.