In February, when Amazon took a unilateral decision to stop accepting documentaries and short films via Prime Video Direct, it underlined the lack of transparency at the heart of streaming services. While the multiplicity of services has meant many more opportunities for indie filmmakers and non-film family actors, the mindset of theatrical screening continues. Fees paid for movies are still determined on the basis of potential revenue in the first weekend. Indie movies usually grow in popularity by word-of-mouth over a period of time, yet they are paid according to the same metric as big movies. So, for Gurvinder Singh’s new film, Bitter Chestnut, even the specialty arthouse cinema service MUBI paid him a mere Rs 57,000. Most movies get in the range of Rs 35-40 lakh if they’re lucky, while even modestly budgeted commercial films, such as Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, are sold for Rs 35 crore. A movie with an A-list star cast, such as Gulabo Sitabo, was paid Rs 65 crore. Indie filmmakers argue that while their movies do get an audience, the minuscule fee usually breaks the back of their producers. And because there is no transparency in viewership figures, there is no scope for negotiation. A way out could well be an initial downpayment for smaller outlier films plus a performance bonus if it does well. But here’s the thing: unlike box-office revenue, there is no publicly available way of judging response on streaming services. Viewership data which shows stickiness of viewing or accumulated viewing over a period of time—the equivalent of lifetime revenue—is never shared either with audiences or with filmmakers. This, at a time when the biggest growth in the ‘Year of the Pandemic’ has been in digital subscriptions, thanks to a captive audience. According to a report compiled annually by FICCI and consulting firm Ernst & Young,
28 million Indians, up from 10.5 million in 2019, paid for 53 million streaming subscriptions in 2020, leading to a 49 per cent growth in digital subscription revenues. The growth was led largely by Disney+Hotstar, which put the Indian Premier League cricket tournament behind a paywall, acquiring new subscribers. There were also increased content investments by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and launches of several regional language products—of course, this was at the expense of TV and cinema. Yet, the space for the small films and the weaker voice remains limited. Clearly, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Anand Gandhi believes in the Trojan Horse method of storytelling. Smuggle big issues into entertainment and give audiences not mere information but also knowledge. So it is with OK Computer, a new series from his Memesys Culture Lab, which talks of a near future, 2031, when Artificial Intelligence has made machines almost like humans. It begins with a self-driving car seemingly murdering an innocent human bystander and ends up talking of a very contemporary theme—imposition of Hindi, the constant search for public enemy number 1 (here it is fake news) and comedians as the sharpest political analysts. My favourite bit in the series? Without giving too much away, the casting of Shekhar Kapur, a man who has been speaking tirelessly about technology and cinema.
Literary adaptations are a rich source of material for entertainment and have made money for some writers. But not everything that is bought by production houses is necessarily made. So, for every Half Girlfriend, The White Tiger and Serious Men, there is a Ramayana series by Amish or Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh that is not made. Some adaptations are pending for years. But hope is eternal and so whether it is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Last Queen (on the life of Rani Jindan Kaur, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s widow) or Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy’s book Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy, everyone is still pitching and buying, if not making.
Did You Know?
No one quite knows which ‘source’ told reporters that Aamir Khan is shelving his decision to adapt the Mahabharata for streaming because “now is not the time”, but the fact is that the famously methodical actor has identified as many as 18 books he will have to read before he can even get started. Not surprising given the many adaptations and interpretations of the epic.