Govt's Oscars publicity fund has warmed cinephiles' hearts but will not help win awards

Bollywood et al will have to raise both their game and budgets many fold to be able to qualify for the Oscar race.

Deepanjana Pal September 30, 2015 15:40:13 IST
Govt's Oscars publicity fund has warmed cinephiles' hearts but will not help win awards

After receiving brickbats for its Censor Board appointments, and more brickbats for suggesting there's hidden cinematic excellence in Gajendra Chauhan, and even more brickbats for arresting mutinous FTII students, the Indian government may finally have made a move that could warm cinephiles' hearts.

According to a report in The Indian Express, the central government is going to set up a fund that will help Indian Oscar aspirants publicise their films.

Govts Oscars publicity fund has warmed cinephiles hearts but will not help win awards

Representational image. AFP

"A recent proposal of the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry to this effect received a big thumbs-up from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now the ministry has started planning the dedicated corpus — funded by the government and the film industry — to finance full-fledged publicity campaigns for India’s entries in the run-up to the Academy Awards. 

“The idea was recently discussed with the Prime Minister and he was absolutely thrilled about it. He agreed that we must do whatever it takes to showcase our films before a world audience, and immediately accepted the idea to set up a dedicated fund for this,” a top I&B ministry source told The Indian Express." 

On the face of it, this seems like a great idea. The idea of investing in 'soft power' isn't new. Since ancient times, people have recognised the potential of extending one's influence peacefully and insidiously, using culture rather than force. The term 'soft power' was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye to describe that curious, vague ability to attract and persuade others without coercion and payments. In the contemporary era, perhaps the most famous example of using soft power to extend one's influence is South Korea. The country makes no secret of this. One official Blue House briefing put it quite plainly:
"Soft power is also an important diplomatic resource for us. 

The Korean peninsula is geopolitically a place thoroughly open to mutual understanding of continental culture and oceanic culture, as well as eastern and western culture.

Historically, such exchange and communication later created peace and prosperity. Our historical and moral strength to communicate with people of both the continent and the ocean is widely recognized beyond our national borders."

To this end, South Korea has invested billions in encouraging K-pop, fashion, video games and Korean cinema in particular. It slowly but steadily removed censorship, wooed expatriate South Koreans to come back, and developed the country's infrastructure. Side by side, the South Korean economy has strengthened. Today, South Korea is far from an obscure speck in Asia, and its soft power has a lot to do with the recognition it commands. The impact of soft power can't be calculated because it isn't quantifiable, but neither can it be dismissed.

Considering how little has been invested in Indian culture and liberal arts over the past decades, if the Indian government is trying to take tips from countries like South Korea, this is heartening. Despite all the chest-beating about the richness of Indian culture, aside from mainstream cinema, almost every other aspect of culture has languished in the modern and contemporary eras. Education privileged sciences and ignored the liberal arts. Culture is widely considered dismissable at worst and a hobby at best. Now, it's finally being recognised as a soft power. Of course, the flip side of this awareness is that we get Mahesh Sharma as culture minister, who will either prove to be one of the more crushing blows to liberal multiculturalism in India or the nation's most prodigious comic talent. Only time can tell.

For the time being, what we have is a government that's interested in museums, libraries and, as the proposal outlined above suggests, promoting Indian cinema at the Oscars.

It's worth noting that the centre's interest in Indian cinema isn't expansive enough to revitalise NFDC and give it enough money to resume its role of producer of independent cinema. From being the organisation that supported filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal, and kept the indie flame burning brightly, NFDC has become increasingly straitjacketed by an unsupportive Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

That said, without governmental financing, non-commercial cinema seems to be managing alright. Some might even say it's entering a second golden age, with films like Court, Fandry and The Lunchbox receiving national and international acclaim. What would be helpful is for the government to restore NFDC and give it more funding to both produce films as well as promote them in the film festival circuit.

Film festivals are what everyone looks at when they're looking for badges of excellence. Even Oscar hopefuls try to begin their journey at prestigious film festivals like those held in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Why? Because the Oscars are a racket. Everyone knows winning an Oscar is about money.

Indian talent has won numerous technical Oscars, from Bhanu Athaiya to Resul Pookutty, because they've worked on films produced by studios who are professionals at playing the Oscar game. But we've never won Best Foreign Film and our films don't come anywhere close to being in the running for the main Oscar categories. The government is absolutely right if it figures that money is the reason that an Indian director doesn't have a little golden man in their home. One has to wonder, however, if the government knows just how much money is needed to get an Oscar.

The fact is, we don't have either the financial muscle or the contacts to conduct the campaigns that are part and parcel of the run-up to the Oscars. London-based producer Stephen Follows wrote a blog post in which he served up some numbers. PR consultants are paid $10k-$15k, plus bonuses of $20k per nomination / win, Follows tells us. According to him, Shakespeare in Love spent $15 million on its Oscar campaign.

What fraction of these millions do you supposed the Indian treasury can spare? Will the government pay for the ads in American trade publications and industry websites? Will it hire PR and direct marketing agencies who make sure the film reaches the important Academy members and influencers? Does it know the power brokers of Los Angeles and Hollywood?

Glamorous and popular, the Oscars are a marketing gimmick. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences provides a publicity platform for films and actors, which helps everyone concerned earn more money. The Oscars are not about craft or excellence or even peer review. This is why the bulk of the films that are nominated and celebrated in the Oscars are commercial films, produced by Hollywood's biggest players.

If the government wants to go to bed with Hollywood studios -- or have a fling with them in the run-up to the Oscar season -- chances are the studios will be more than willing. All of them are eager to cast their net upon newer audiences. India and China are considered markets with great potential. However, unless the Indian government is also going to get into the business of distributing Indian titles abroad, funding an Oscar campaign is unlikely to have any impact in terms of enhancing our soft power. Collaborate with studios and independent Indian cinema loses a platform, which is actually what would significantly weaken our soft power. It's not as though commercial Indian cinema can fill that space. Bollywood et al will have to raise both their game and budgets many fold to be able to qualify for the Oscar race. Perhaps the government can set up a central fund for that too?

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