Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota: Small-budget films must look to OTT platforms instead of conventional theatrical releases
OTT platforms, like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar afford wider audiences and indefinite runs, the scale of reach depending on whom we’re talking about
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota released last week and ended up with collections of about a crore over its opening weekend, a figure most analysts believe will end up being the film’s lifetime revenue at the Indian box office. The film that’s been shot on a small budget makes no compromises as far as its content goes and seemingly ticks all the right boxes. It picks up on the nostalgia of every Indian middle class kid having grown up watching Chinese martial arts films, and injects a solid dose of comedy via smart dialogues and black humour. The action sequences set a very high bar and the only criticism some people have had is that the film is too clever for its own good at times; definitely not something that should have resulted in these kinds of collections, going by the reviews.
Hamid, starring Rasika Duggal, is a more sombre affair. Set in Kashmir, the film released the previous weekend and barely made an impression at the box office. Once again, this was a film that unanimously won the hearts of critics but found no takers at the box office. This has been a pattern for some time at the Indian box office, with small budget films seemingly not finding an audience. But is that really all it is?
To understand what went wrong for these films, it’s important to understand the economics of film distribution, which provide a far-from-level playing field to start with. In the days before digital screens, each physical print would cost a producer in the region of Rs. 50,000 and that would be a limiting factor for mid-budget and small budget films that would play safe and release only at centres with a higher probability of recovering that investment. But the shift to digital screens doesn’t seem to have helped producers either, particularly at multiplexes where one would assume the consumers of this content lie. The VPF (Virtual Print Fee) fee of Rs. 20,000 per screen charged by multiplexes might seem trivial when you’re talking of movies that are expected to rake in hundreds of crores, but paying a crore to release a film across 500 screens doesn’t exactly make business sense when you’re expecting small collections.
The counter argument here is that a good film will get good word-of-mouth thereby allowing producers to bump up the number of screens in smaller centres over time. But when the multiplex owners are willing to give you two shows a day, one of them inevitably a morning slot, it further closes the window of being discovered by accident. Good films work on word-of-mouth, but that needs to start with enough people watching it in the first place to start the conversation.
This isn’t a new problem at all but the definition of this type of film has changed a lot. A decade back, any content driven film not featuring an A-list cast would be branded a “multiplex film”. Today, even small town India boasts of multiplexes and the new and improved theatre-going experience has filtered down a few levels deeper into India’s middle class. Content driven films like Stree, Andhadhun, Badhaai Ho and Tumbbad saw long runs at theatres last year and the kind of collections that no “multiplex film” could have dreamed of a decade back. This only goes on to prove that Indian audiences are not averse to mid-range content driven films, featuring known faces and great stories; it’s not just about an A-list cast any more. These films tend to have longer-than-usual runs at multiplexes and it’s this factor that’s been most telling on smaller films that come with only a great story as their differentiators.
What then, does a producer of a small film do? Why, release it on an OTT platform, of course. Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP films, the producers of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota were trendsetters of sorts when they released Love Per Square Foot on Netflix last year but it wasn’t by choice. Screwvala has gone on record saying that the film was supposed to have a theatrical release, but was eventually released digitally because of the exorbitant VPF charged by multiplexes. But is that such a bad thing?
OTT platforms, like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar afford wider audiences and indefinite runs, the scale of reach depending on whom we’re talking about. A film on Netflix gets a simultaneous release across 190 countries and if that doesn’t level the playing field, nothing really does. Producers of small films bypass this option and insist on a theatrical release for the most intangible reason of them all: the romance of 'the theatrical experience'. Sure, there are exceptions but when the odds are stacked up against you the way they are, it’s like playing the lottery.
What’s worse is that audiences today are a lot more aware of the kind of business a film does. And the trade isn’t very kind to films that do badly. Far from being labelled flops, most of these films get branded with the word ‘disaster’, a moniker that stays with the film forever. It takes something special to rise above this and achieve cult status over time, and not every film becomes an Andaz Apna Apna. Taking a film to an OTT platform after a disastrous theatrical release not only brings down its price tag, but also introduces preconceived notions in the minds of the most open audience available today. The sooner producers realise that the “multiplex film” of yesteryear is today’s “living room film,” the sooner we’ll see justice being done to good content that comes in small packages.
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