Are GST, piracy, creative constraints driving Indian filmmakers to turn to web content?
The amount of visual content out there seems to be in an inverse relationship with the size of our screens. Television and cinema are no longer able to accommodate the vast amount of content that is cropping up every day. Thus, new shows and films are spilling over to the boundless realm of internet.
Web series on streaming services are not a new phenomenon. But they have been increasingly gaining traction all over the globe. However, prolific filmmakers from world cinema have expressed their reservations against streaming services like Netflix and Amazon by alleging that they are not only eating into the business of cinema but also stealing from prospective viewers the joy of watching films on a life-size screen.
Earlier this year, the Cannes Film Festival selected two Netflix releases — Bong Joon-ho's Okja and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories — for its Palme d'Or competition for the first time.
French theaters, which have strict rules regarding streaming service films, rebelled at the thought of a movie that won't play on the big screen winning the Palme d'Or — the biggest award in film next to an Oscar, and to some, even more important. The festival relented and next year won't accept streaming-only films in the competition.
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who presided over the competition jury this year, said, "I personally cannot conceive of not only the Palme d'Or, but any other prize, being given to a film and then being unable to see this film on a large screen. The size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair you're sitting in. It should not be part of your everyday setting. You must be small and humble in front of the image that's here."
Recently, Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan also echoed the same thought in his trademark irreverent style. "Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films. They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they're not even getting in the game, and I think they're missing a huge opportunity."
Though he applauded the opportunities that the streaming service provides to aspiring filmmakers and actors, he also pointed out how that is a disfavour to the business of cinema. "I think the investment that Netflix is putting into interesting filmmakers and interesting projects would be more admirable if it weren't being used as some kind of bizarre leverage against shutting down theatres. It's so pointless. I don't really get it," he said.
However, filmmakers back home have not joined the bandwagon of booing digital content. Filmmakers like Kabir Khan, Karan Anshuman, Ekta Kapoor, Rohit Shetty and Karan Johar have either already turned to the web or shown keen interest towards the new age medium. No filmmaker has eliminated the prospect of directing a web series so far.
There are multiple factors at play here. Firstly, while the audiences are embracing fresh content on all platforms, film distributors and producers seem to be stuck in a rut of positioning only formulaic films. In their attempt to cater to the diverse masses that India harbours, filmmakers are often left to compromise with their grammar and incorporate more acceptable tools to communicate the idea.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, filmmaker Kabir Khan said that he is not yet ready to conform to the Bollywoodisation of his craft. He threw light on the immense amount of creative freedom that the digital platform offers along with the liberal budget that depends on the story rather than the star.
"For instance, while telling the story of the INA and their association with the Japanese (in his debut web series The Forgotten Army), I will not have to somehow trace the Japanese's origin to India so that they can conveniently dish out dialogues in Hindi. The Japanese will speak in Japanese and that is immensely liberating for me as a filmmaker," said Kabir.
While the target group shrinks in comparison to cinema, the filmmakers can indulge in the liberty that comes along with it and make the most of the niche audience that they present content to. From the community viewing experience of cinema to the family viewing experience of television, the content evolves to individual viewing experience in case of web series. Clearly, if there is no one around you, the content has to be of superlative quality in order to play the perfect viewing companion.
Secondly, the evil of piracy can be curbed to a considerable extent given the availability of content within the immediate reach of the viewer. Releasing the content simultaneously on streaming service will allow a check on piracy as the viewer will have to pay only a modest subscription fee to relish their favourite content.
Popular HBO show Game of Thrones was the most pirated show in 2015. The major reason behind the same was the unavailability of episodes in India which forced viewers to resort to piracy before encountering spoilers. However, streaming service Hotstar has proved to be the knight in shining armour. As of last season, it has now begun showcasing latest Game of Thrones episodes to its subscribers, within minutes of the US telecast.
In fact, the streaming service came up with a fairly creative anti-piracy campaign keeping Game of Thrones as its focal point. "All torrents must die", it pronounced in patented Game of Thrones fashion.
Thirdly, the recent imposition of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has made matters only worse for filmmakers. Eighteen per cent GST will be imposed on a movie ticket priced Rs 100 and below whereas 28 percent GST will be imposed on tickets priced above Rs 100.
While this imposition was already a major constraint in production, Tamil Nadu government refused to remove local taxes on cinema halls in the state, which allowed the tax rate to reach up to an excruciating 51 percent. Tamil Nadu cinema hall owners went on strike indefinitely till the matter was resolved a few days later.
The impact of GST on the entertainment industry has further nudged filmmakers towards generating web content. Madhu Chopra, mother of Priyanka Chopra and co-owner of Purple Pebble Pictures, said that they were now looking at digital avenues for regional film production as the new GST would only escalate the fixed costs of theatrical releases.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Richa Chadda condensed the entire wave towards digital content in a nutshell. "The tax is close to 51 per cent, single screens are dying, studios are shutting and there is corruption everywhere. The cost of promotions and advertising has become more that the budget of a film. My friends in Mussorie drove down to Dehradun, which is 90 minutes away, to watch Masaan as there are no single screens left in Mussorie." This probably explains why the actor chose to star in Karan Anshuman's new web series Inside Edge on Amazon Prime.
Thus, all these factors have added up to the frustration of filmmakers who have been hassled by the ordeal of putting out a film in theatres. While the experience of watching it on the silver screen remains unparalleled, the cost to paint it there is becoming exorbitant every single day.