Monday, 31 October 2011

When The Tree of Life released in a handful of Indian theatres a month ago, film enthusiasts were rejoicing. They were finally getting a chance to watch, on the big screen, a film by Terrence Malick, who had made such gems as Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World. It had won the Palme d’Or, the highest award at the Cannes film fest, just a few months ago. That Brad Pitt top-lined the cast was just a small bonus.

But while Malick fanboys-and-girls lapped up the arthouse film, which dealt with evolution and death, the audience at theatres screening the film was sparse. And most of those who did turn up went away disappointed that it was “not like other Brad Pitt films.”

If you’re expecting a turnaround in this story, there isn’t any. The film ran to pretty much empty houses for about three weeks, before being pulled out. “We kept it running for that long, hoping that more people would come in. Such films are an acquired taste, and need time to grow on audiences,” says Deepak Sharma, head of distribution at PVR Pictures. His company has been releasing non-studio Hollywood films in India for a few years now, such as Biutiful, Warrior and Drive recently. Non-studio films are those produced outside Hollywood’s Big 4 studios — Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Fox and Walt Disney, which have Indian branches to release their films.

Sharma says that almost all the niche films are losing propositions at the box office, many having to be discontinued after a week’s run. “Drive got four or five stars by most reviewers, but that didn’t translate into numbers. That it was a film by the award-winning Nicolas Winding Refn, and starred the noted talent Ryan Gosling, didn’t seem to matter either,” says Sharma at his Andheri office in Mumbai. Nevertheless, PVR is busily chalking out plans for their next Hollywood release, The Three Musketeers.

So how does it make business sense to release these films in India, given that there are few takers for them at present? Sharma says he has a five-year timeframe in mind for it to pay off. “The English-speaking population in the country is on the rise, and with people logging onto the Internet even in small towns now, the hunger for concept-driven films will only grow. Eventually, we will have to look at international films to satisfy this hunger,” he says, pointing out that currently Hollywood films constitute only 8% of the film market in India, and this is bound to go up considerably in the next few years.

That’s when Sharma feels PVR’s experience will stand them in good stead in relation to the competition that will try to hop on to the bandwagon. “We already have a good ten years of releasing such films and there are a number of things, like identifying the right films, costing, marketing etc, which we have got better at since we started. Others will have to start from scratch.”

Judging by the script
A few others have already started getting into the act. Ram Punjabi, who has been living in Indonesia and distributing Hollywood and Bollywood films there for the last 30 years, started Multivision Multimedia Pvt Ltd in Mumbai in 2007. The idea, says Hiren Gosar, who handles distribution at Multimedia, was to pick the best of the non-studio films. This typically meant scouting for films produced by the likes of Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment, and New Image, which are renowned production houses working outside Hollywood’s big studios.

When Multivision picked The Hurt Locker for distribution in the Indian sub-continent before it went into production, it had no clue it would go on to win the Best Film Oscar a year later. “The films mostly get picked at international festivals like Cannes, Hong Kong etc. You pick them on the strength of their scripts,” says Gosar. “Once you develop a rapport with the production house, they may start sending across scripts of their upcoming films and also give you preference over other distributors.”

A strong script sense is vital to pick the right films, and Suniel Wadhwa, who started 52 Weeks Entertainment Inc, feels he has that. Among the ‘scripts’ Wadhwa picked last year was Source Code, a moderately budgeted film which did decent business.

“Also, the Hindi version (dubbing a film in a regional language costs roughly Rs7-8 lakh, but the returns from small centres are good) titled Kaalchakra did well. I attached the tag line — ‘Har ghadi maut khadi’, which communicated the plot of the film well.

Indian audiences want to watch new concepts, which they don’t always get from Hindi films. The idea is to also make these films accessible to them in a language they can understand.”

For Wadhwa, picking a film that is commercially viable is important. His next release is a disaster film, The Impossible, which he describes as a Titanic-meets-2012.

Investing in the future
Time was when watching a non-studio film on the big screen was a rarity in India. You may have heard of Quentin Tarantino then, but you had to look for VHS cassettes, and later CDs of his films like The Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. A couple of years ago, however, his Inglourious Basterds got a wide Indian release.

Deepak Sadarangani, senior film journalist, says that after living on a staple diet of indie films in the US for more than eight years, he found it difficult to find his fill of such films when he returned to India in 2001. But things started to change. “It was around 2003-04 when these films began to release. The number has steadily grown since, thanks to the fact that the multiplexes need more and more films to keep business going. But it’s just a fragment of the films available out there,” says Sadarangani, adding that he is optimistic about the future.

PVR for one is certainly in it for the long haul. Currently, they release roughly 30 to 40 Hollywood films in a year, some of them popular franchises like Twilight which do well at the box office and nullify the losses they make on their more avant garde films.

Multimedia has a similar outlook. “Out of the 12-odd films we release every year, only 3-4 make money. But we are in it for the long run. There will come a time when most of these films will find an audience in India. We want to use the time till then to create a strong brand,” says Gosar.

Source: DNA


  1. I'm happy someone has taken the initiative. You really can't blame the distributors for not doing the needed. The audience I saw The Tree of Life and Drive with were immature and didn't deserve to be there. But nothing can be done about that.

  2. I almost feel obliged to do something for the movie lovers in this country. Not the phony, self-proclaimed torchbearers of art-house cinema, who've seen one Tarantino, and think they know it all. But for thousands of others like me who wait with bated breath for a Martha Marcy May Marlene or a We Need to talk about Kevin to release here.

  3. I live in Chennai. If there is a way I can help, I'd love to.
    Here's my mail address: