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India's Indie Sector: Winning Overseas Awards but Lost to Audiences

The way India's indie film sector is now finding viewers and funding through digital distribution deals could have repercussions for the movie-making business model across the world, according to attendees at the 2016 Film Bazaar.

Photo: A Death in the Gunj: Independently produced, internationally acclaimed.
A Death in the Gunj: Independently produced, internationally acclaimed.
Photo: A Death in the Gunj: Independently produced, internationally acclaimed.
A Death in the Gunj: Independently produced, internationally acclaimed.

While India's mainstream Hindi-language film industry has been struggling over recent years, the country's independent film sector has been experiencing something of a creative renaissance, albeit one that has yet to deliver substantial financial rewards. This has resulted in a growing number of films that reflect the realities of contemporary life in India, as opposed to the escapist, fantasy version championed by Bollywood. Frequently backed by local entrepreneurs, many of these films have premiered at international film festivals before going on to win major awards.

Most recently, Shubhashish Bhutiani's Hotel Salvation took Unesco's Prix Enrico Fulchignoni following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Konkona Sensharma's ensemble drama A Death In The Gunj, meanwhile, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, later seeing its director take the Best Indian Female Filmmaker Award at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Overall, though, it's not just Indian independent directors, but also talented filmmakers from other South Asian nations who are starting to make their mark. As a case in point, Deepak Rauniyar, a Nepali director, drew considerable praise for White Sun, his second feature, at its Venice premiere in August. The film then went on to win best film in the Silver Screen Awards at the Singapore International Film Festival last month.

In some way or other, nearly all of these indie films have a tie-in to the Film Bazaar, the projects market and financing event organised by India's National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), which takes place in Goa every November. This year's edition – the event's 10th anniversary – had a sidebar dedicated to virtual reality (VR) filmmaking, as well as its usual focus on a variety of South Asian film projects at a number of different stages of development and production.

Commenting on the role played by the Film Bazaar, Nina Lath Gupta, Managing Director of the NFDC, said: "The event is not simply a market – it's a complex amalgam of training, development, promotion and curating a selection of good films for the consideration of the domestic and international markets."

As in previous years, the 2016 event attracted many of the leading film producers, funders, festival programmers and sales agents from across India, North America and Europe. Taking star billing this year was Philip Lee, the well-known Hong Kong producer, who talked attendees through a career that has stretched from line producing Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the late 1990s to raising finance from Asian investors for The Revenant, the 2015 multi-award-winning western starring Leonardo Di Caprio.

As ever, though, the main focus of the event remained the funding and distribution of South Asian feature films. Since its launch a decade ago, the Film Bazaar has helped to nurture a number of successful co-productions with European moviemakers, including several films that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, most notably The Lunchbox, Masaan and The Fourth Direction. Despite this, the Indian film market is not one that depends heavily on European subsidies or public funding. In fact, in most cases, the country's indie filmmakers find backing much closer to home.

Over recent years, several forward-thinking Indian entrepreneurs have financed a variety of story-driven, independent film projects. Among the most high-profile of these backers is Manish Mundra, an oil industry executive who has bankrolled several movies through Drishyam Films, his Mumbai-based business. Newton, Amit Masurkar's upcoming election satire, is just one of many films to have enjoyed his patronage. Another prime mover is investment banker Ashish Bhatnagar, who financed A Death In The Gunj through Studioz IDrream, his production and distribution outfit.

Bhatnagar attended this year's Film Bazaar, in part to announce he was backing Sir, a class-conflict drama by Rohena Gera, the celebrated Indian writer and director. Summarising his approach to funding movies, he said: "My strategy is to invest in interesting stories and engaging screenplays that speak to a global audience, while ensuring that we're developing a sustainable business model."

The indie sector has received a further boost from Rohit Khattar's Cinestaan Film Company. As well as handling international distribution for A Death In The Gunj, the Mumbai-based business is also financing a slew of other independent features. In addition, this year's Film Bazaar saw a new addition to the roster of would-be backers, with Saregama, a Kolkata-based music company, announcing plans to produce 100 indie films – each budgeted at about US$500,000 – over the next five years.

Photo: Hotel Salvation: UNESCO award-winner.
Hotel Salvation: UNESCO award-winner.
Photo: Hotel Salvation: UNESCO award-winner.
Hotel Salvation: UNESCO award-winner.
Photo: Maroon: A pioneering approach to digital distribution.
Maroon: A pioneering approach to digital distribution.
Photo: Maroon: A pioneering approach to digital distribution.
Maroon: A pioneering approach to digital distribution.

Explaining the decision to move into this sector, Vikram Mehra, Saregama's Managing Director, said: "With this project, we are trying to change attitudes towards independent films both in India and globally. We want to prove that independent cinema is not just creatively fulfilling, but also commercially viable. We are looking to work with fearless filmmakers who want to work on bold stories."

While there is an encouraging increase in investment for films looking to be produced outside India's studio system, many Indian indie filmmakers still struggle to get their films distributed even on their home turf, ensuring that very few of them turn a profit. At present, Indian cinema screens are only open to mainstream Bollywood and Hollywood fare, while the satellite broadcasters – the second-most important revenue stream for movie makers – will not acquire films that have not already performed well at the box office or that have an A (restricted to adults) rating.

For Sensharma, who worked as an indie film actress before making her directing debut with A Death In The Gunj, finding an audience remains the key problem. She said: "Even if you manage to get your film made, getting it distributed is a nightmare. Many good films only get one showing, maybe at 11am, so obviously they won't do well. While it's getting easier to make films, releasing them is still very difficult."

Following years of struggling to gain access to cinema screens, India's growing ranks of indie filmmakers are now starting to explore other strategies, most notably digital distribution. An increasing number of directors are now releasing their films via the growing number of TVOD (transactional video-on-demand) platforms, such as iTunes and Google Play. They are also targetting the SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) services, which have proliferated in India over the last 12 months.

Adding to the country's existing local SVOD and advertising-driven (AVOD) services – including Eros Now, Hotstar and SpuulNetflix, the global streaming giant, launched in India in January, while Amazon Prime Video made its long-anticipated debut early last month. With Netflix and Amazon now locked into something of a turf battle in India, they are both paying big bucks for the rights to stream independent films. Netflix, with its digital-first strategy, pays particularly well for any films it can premiere on its platform without them having had a prior theatrical release. While the streaming giants can't buy everything, their arrival has clearly re-invigorated the indie sector.

Unsurprisingly, digital distribution was high on the agenda at the Film Bazaar. Indeed, one of the independent film world's biggest stars, Abhay Deol, announced he would be heading a new initiative – Abhay Deol Presents – which aims to acquire critically acclaimed Indian independent films and then work with online platforms to secure them a straight-to-digital worldwide release. He said: "If you provide these platforms with premieres, they are more willing to take a chance on you. Then you don't have to delay your release while you are waiting on the multiplexes."

Working in association with FilmKaravan, a US and India-based digital aggregator, Deol's new venture has already acquired the digital distribution rights to three films – Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Labor Of Love, Payal Sethi's award-winning short film Leeches and Brahmanand Singh's Kaagaz Ki Kashti, a documentary telling the life story of Jagjit Singh, the legendary poet and performer.

Explaining the thinking behind his new project, Deol said: "The way we consume content has changed. The economics of a theatrical release don't make sense for independent films, with the minimum print and advertising budget creating an unsustainable burden for small films. We need to find alternate means of distribution in order to reach global audiences."

Deol sees the model adopted for Maroon, an indie psychodrama directed by Pulkit, as providing a template as to how a digital distribution strategy should work. In this case, Basil Content Media, a Mumbai-based sales and representation company set up by producer Vivek Kajaria and festival programmers Sanjay Ram and Rajat Goswami, released the film worldwide on iTunes, following its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Explaining the economics of the process, Kajaria, who is also working closely with FilmKaravan, said: "Out of the 100-150 independent films that are produced each year, less than five make money. There are times when there is something that, due to its scale or marketability, should be released in cinemas and we are happy to do that. With other films, though, it often makes more sense to go straight to digital."

Ram, one of Basil Content's Founding Partners, estimates that the marketing for the theatrical release of an independent film can cost up to three-and-a-half times as much as the original production budget. He said: "This means you have to gross up to seven times your production costs just to recoup. Even some of the biggest films are not doing those kind of numbers."

For these new digital evangelists the biggest challenge they will face over the coming years is convincing filmmakers to forego a theatrical release. Explaining this particular hurdle, Amit Masurkar, the director of Newton, said: "For most of us, our love of films began when we watched them on the big screen. In the cinema, you get the audience's complete attention, as opposed to a home screening where people are often doing something else at the same time. If they're in a theatre, you know they've come with the intention of watching your film."

This is the dilemma faced by filmmakers everywhere as digital distribution encroaches on traditional release patterns. Somehow, though, it seems more pressing in India – a cinema-obsessed nation that is seeing local filmmakers winning awards globally, but has yet to find a sustainable business model for its movie industry.

Photo: White Sun: Award-winning work from Nepal.
White Sun: Award-winning work from Nepal.
Photo: White Sun: Award-winning work from Nepal.
White Sun: Award-winning work from Nepal.

By the time the next Film Bazaar rolls around, Indian producers should have some solid figures showing whether it is possible to make money via the digital route or whether it's worth holding out for theatrical distribution. They should also be well aware of whether iTunes and Netflix can truly deliver global audiences or if they would be better off focussing on viewers closer to home. Filmmakers and producers across the world will be watching closely as these conclusions are reached.

Film Bazaar 2016 was held at the Marriott Resort Goa from 20-24 November.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Goa

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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