Coming soon, and not just to theatres

Posted on November 7, 2015


Baradwaj Rangan reports on a film market at the Mumbai Film Festival, which hopes to help directors like Vetri Maaran target the screens on your laptops and smartphones.

On the second day of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, the producer Guneet Monga (The Lunchbox, Gangs of Wasseypur, Shaitan) screened a two-minute trailer of her film Monsoon Shootout to a bunch of distributors gathered in a small room. Afterwards, she recalled the Orson Welles quote about a filmmaker’s life being about 2 per cent movie-making and 98 per cent hustling. “We’re starting the journey of hustling from here,” she said. Everyone laughed.

Monga went on to apologise for the lack of subtitles in the trailer, but there was really no need. The slickly photographed clip had candlelit romance, cops, a snarling Nawazuddin Siddiqui, lots of gunfire. Perhaps sensing that the film might be perceived as male-oriented actioner, Amit Kumar, the director, quickly added that the women in the audience during a screening in Russia saw the story as one about choices: to be with the good guy or the bad guy, to be with the guy with money or the guy without money. In case the distributors were still not convinced, he said that the film had been tweaked from the version that was shown at Cannes, in 2013. Now, it was India-ready. Now, there was an explanatory voiceover. Now, there were songs. This was 100 per cent hustling.

Monsoon Shootout was part of 24 films (18 features, 6 feature-length documentaries) selected for the Mumbai Film Market (MFM), an initiative by Kiran Rao (Chairperson of MAMI), Anupama Chopra (Festival Director), and Smriti Kiran (Creative Director, Programming, Production and Operations). “For a while now, I’ve been wondering how to make films that are not market-driven,” Rao told me. “Building a bridge between risky/independent/small films and the audiences for them – this concerns me as a filmmaker. When I came on board MAMI last year, I thought it was an opportunity to start looking at this.”

Both Rao and Chopra have deep-rooted connections in the industry – the big players, the distributors and studios and sales agents. They called on them. “It’s a small, one-day market,” Rao said. “The vision is that MAMI should be a place where independent films are discovered and encouraged and celebrated.” Chopra joked that this was their version of an arranged marriage. “The boys and girls are going to check each other out.” To officiate the proceedings, Rao and Chopra called on Saameer Mody, Managing Director of Pocket Films. With good reason. He helped them round up the grooms, produce the market.

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When Pocket Films began operations – as a database (a sort of online yellow pages, really) for the film industry, named – Mody met a lot of people who’d made short films as a show reel but did not know what to do with them, how to take them to a wider audience. This was around the time YouTube had launched in India. Mody and his partners saw an opportunity and became channel partners. Today, Pocket Films is India’s largest aggregator and distributor of short films in the digital space. “Anyone can load their film on YouTube,” Mody said. “But Pocket Films comes with advantage.” It’s a site people seek out. It has films listed under categories: Short Films to Make You Believe in Destiny, Short Films That Will Put You in a Good Mood, Short Films That Will Make You Learn to be Happy with Small Things in Life. All of which means that the chances of your film being found by a viewer is much higher, especially after the debut of a one-hour TV show dedicated to short films on NDTV Prime, titled Prime Talkies With Pocket Films.

With MFM, Mody is extending his experience – one might even say expertise – to feature films and feature-length documentaries. This is not the first time a film festival has hosted a market, but this is the first time a curated set of films (culled from the Indian submissions to MAMI) is being presented to potential buyers. “The initial pool consisted of around 225 films,” said Bina Paul, Head of the Indian Program at MAMI, whose partner in the two-and-a-half-month curation process was Deepti DCunha (Programmer, Indian Selection). “We were really keen on the whole business of not concentrating on Hindi cinema, putting an emphasis on the fact that India is not just Hindi cinema.”

Hence the line-up of – apart from Hindi – Tamil, Assamese, Malayalam, Marathi, Haryanvi, Gujarati, Bengali, Telugu and Kannada films. There’s even a Hindi/Nepali/English entry, Chandrashekhar Reddy’s Fireflies in the Abyss. (Official synopsis: Even with the odds stacked against him, Suraj, an 11 year-old boy, fights his way out of a life in the ‘rat-hole’ coalmines to put himself in school.) “The market works in various ways,” Paul said. “Some might buy the film’s rights. Some may buy remake rights. Others may be interested in distributing the film with subtitles.”

“We have two objectives,” Mody said. One, to highlight good independent films for different distributors. “Sometimes filmmakers lose out because they don’t have the right sources or contacts. We are getting all these distributors in one room.” He spoke of theatrical distributors like Yash Raj, Eros, Fox, and also non-traditional buyers like and Amazon Instant Video, which brings us to Point Two. “Impress upon filmmakers that theatrical distribution is not the be all and end all.” Smita Jha, Leader – Entertainment and Media Practice India, PricewaterhouseCoopers, told the audience, “Put the mobile at the centre of your business strategy. In less than two years, 50 per cent of the world’s population will be mobile internet subscribers.” It’s no accident that the logo of Pocket Films is a smartphone peeking out of a denim pocket.

I asked Anupama Chopra if filmmakers would find it hard to reconcile to the fact that their films will be seen on a smartphone. “I know it can seem like defeat,” she said. “But filmmakers need to rethink.” She said that the Indian business model is now like Hollywood’s, where it’s easier to make a $200 million film than one costing $40 million. “For a mid-level film, costing around Rs. 4-5 crore, you have to spend something like 5-7 crore on publicity. And movie-going is so expensive today that the average viewer will choose the big mainstream movie at the theatre. You have to seduce them on other platforms. It’s the choice between not finding viewers at all versus finding them while they’re, say, having a meal. If your work is good, they may begin to seek you out, even in theatres.”

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Vetri Maaran, the acclaimed Tamil filmmaker who is currently readying his Visaaranai for release, didn’t seem overly concerned about finding audiences through non-theatrical avenues. “I make films for my people, but with some international sensibilities,” he told me. “These markets can help to take my films to non-diaspora audiences.” He’s been to film markets at Cannes and Montreal, hawking his 2011 feature Aadukalam, and he pointed to Kaaka Muttai, which took the film-festival route to success in both domestic and international markets. He said he was interested in meeting with Amazon Instant Video, to explore the possibility of digital release a week after a film is released in theatres. “I want to see how they can help.”

But this isn’t about finding viewers, he said. At least, it’s not just that. “People who don’t go to theatres are going to see the film on a pirated DVD. This is about making more money for my investors.” He sees this as a way to recoup the money he loses by not compromising – only, when I dropped the word, he gently corrected me. “Filmmaking is about compromise at every stage.” He prefers the term “exploitation of viewers,” through commercial ingredients like item songs. He wants to reduce this exploitation. “That’s why we need to do something unconventional about the way we market films.”

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There was another Tamil filmmaker on the list – Anucharan, who made the excellent Kirumi. When I asked Kiran Rao about the inclusion of films (like Kirumi) that have already been released in theatres, she said, “With some films, the run in cinemas is so short that you can’t really say they had a theatrical release. They have the potential to reach more audiences on different platforms.” Plus, the intent was to present to distributors a combination of attractive, mainstream-enough films and films that are a harder sell. “I know Visaaranai will find a release in the Chennai market,” she said. “But it’s a tough, intense film, and I don’t see it being widely distributed elsewhere. So it’s much smarter to consider a platform-release mode, wherein you release a film in a few territories and then expand the release based on word of mouth, or allow people to watch the film online, legally. This is going to be essential for filmmakers like me, who make films without stars.”

I asked Mody if the market was a level playing field, given its pre-selection of films that were allowed to make a pitch to distributors. These chosen filmmakers were even coached on how to make their pitch, how to work out sales strategies. Mody said, “We are inviting top-level distributors and decision makers. They have extremely busy schedules. We value their time and want to give them projects that have been curated.” Bina Paul used the word “accessible” a lot. “We chose films that are accessible at some level. This is, after all, the first year, the first time something is being done like this. It might be self-defeating if we put in films that the market is not interested in. We want to build this.” A few days after the market, Mody told me that “a lot of interesting conversations” have been happening, though nothing has been officially closed yet. I asked Anupama Chopra if the MFM could be seen as some sort of movement. She said, “It’s too ambitious to think about the market like that. But look, it’s finally a business. It’s dhandha, as crass as that sounds. Even if one film finds a distributor, we would have done our job.”

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