In an age of cut-throat competition in Bollywood, where a film which under-performs at the box office is taken off after a week’s run, is it feasible to make a film with little or no PR budget in the hope that word of mouth will suffice to ensure success? Some films have had no promotional expenditure yet managed to reach audiences and fill cinemas; others have sunk without a trace.
Is there any rule at play here?
Atul Mohan, editor of film trade magazine Complete Cinema says that anyone who cannot make arrangements for publicity should think twice before making a film. “The film making process has reversed in the last few years. Now, first you have to secure the publicity department (if you want to play smart). Film making is not much stress but releasing it is. These films hardly have any buyers for overseas markets.”
Dale Bhagwagar, Bollywood’s PR guru, describes these brutal times. “If the film does not catch on in the first week, exhibitors and distributors are likely to pull it out. If the producer does not spend on PR, advertising, marketing and a whole gamut of exercises under the publicity umbrella, it’s tough to get the initials in today’s time. Everything is a game of initials [the returns of the first weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday)] nowadays.”
Experience tends to indicate that a PR budget is necessary for a film to be noticed. For one, more films are being released today than earlier. Mohan says, “Twenty years ago, around 100 films were released in Bollywood per year. Ten years ago, approximately 120 to 130 films were released annually. Currently, 160 to 175 Bollywood films are released per annum.”
Newspapers, websites, social media, and blogs are awash in talk of films. How on earth can a film stand out amid all the noise and hype?
“When we released Hyderabad Blues in 1998, we had a negligible PR budget. Even five or six years ago, it was just enough to rely on a fan base as far as the box office outcome of a film was concerned. Word of mouth would go around, which would attract the audience. These days, there is so much of clutter that there needs to be a kind of an eyeball shift,’ said producer Ilahe Hiptoola.
Earlier, it might have been one film being released in a particular week. Now there could be several. K.D. Satyam, director of Bollywood Diaries, which released this year, says that a busy week can mean low visibility which in turn can spell bad news. “When it’s a low budget film, not much money can be set aside for PR. Our PR agency, however, rightly created the perception that Bollywood Diaries was meaningful cinema. The reason as to why the film didn’t make huge collections at the box office was that the release date was not appropriate. Twelve to thirteen films were released on that weekend. Hence, it got low visibility. Most of those who watched the film liked it.”
Some film makers who know they will not have a large PR budget abide by certain strategies to reap profits at the box office. Bhagwagar, who handled the PR for N. Chandra’s Style in 2001, recalls the director informing him that he had kept the making cost of the film low, the PR budget medium and the number of prints high. At a time when silver and golden jubilees were still the norm, he was confident that if the film ran houseful for even the first three days, it would recover its entire cost. Style went on to have a long and successful run.
He points out that Mahesh Bhatt and Ram Gopal Varma started the trend of producing low budget films in large quantities. They pooled in a considerable amount in PR as well. Dale Bhagwagar said: “They would make a film with Rs 2 to Rs 3 crores and keep aside Rs 1 to Rs 2 crores for PR and publicity. The cost of PR and promotions was almost the same as spent on the making of the film.”
These days, the number of movie theatres in which a film may be released may be fewer than earlier if there are no popular actors in it. “Small independent films have a hard time finding big studios which will pump in the money and distributors to release the film, even if the content of the film is good,’ said Satyam. These films are often given only early morning or late night time slots at theatres, which keeps away the footfalls.
Nonetheless, having said all that, there have been notable cases of films striking gold at the box office despite modest promotion. Bheja Fry was one of the biggest hits of 2007. Though the initial response was not great, news spread by word of mouth and the film caught on from the second week. Other examples were Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and A Wednesday! (2008) which fared well despite the small amounts spent on promotion.
Sometimes, a film with little publicity does well because journalists like it and want to write about it. A good example was Dum Laga Ke Haisha which made a profit because the critics wrote positive reviews and it won the hearts of the audience as well.
Sometimes, though, even word of mouth can fail if the timing isn’t synchronized. By the time word of mouth had built up some momentum for the 2016 film Phobia, it had already exited the theatres. The film lost money at the box office (koimoi.com). Similarly, Waiting, despite being an artistically polished film praised by critics and audiences, flopped at the box office this year (koimoi.com).
A film that makes more than Rs 100 crores at the box office will not necessarily make a profit. In Bollywood trade parlance, here are the various categories:
A movie in the Rs 100 crore club may still be a flop if it suffers a financial loss exceeding 50% of its investment. There’s no guarantee that the highest grossing film of the year will definitely recover money at the box office. These Rs ‘100 crore club’ movies usually rope in A list stars and splurge on PR as well. This year Sultan (Rs 300.35 crore), Rustom and Airlift were three Rs 100 crore plus films, which were super hits as well.
Certainly, a PR budget is something which cannot be ignored in 2016. Mohan breaks up the budget components of a film: “A-listers need publicity of around Rs 10-15 crores which may be around 20-25% of the budget. Medium budget films require Rs 5-6 crores which may be 50-60% of budget and small or low budget films need Rs 2-3 crores of publicity which may be the budget of the film itself (100%).”
Over-spending on PR can go wrong, he says, if it inflates the budget of the film in such a way that recovering the amount from the box office is a challenge. Common wisdom these days is that you should keep a reasonable amount for promotion and publicity but this should not exceed a certain limit.
Is it possible for films which didn’t spend adequately on PR to later recover the film’s budget through DVD sales and satellite rights? Mohan says there was a time when even small budget movies could blindly be dependent on satellite sales and home video rights sales but that has all changed.
“Both satellite and home video (DVD) markets are very low for low budget films. The DVD market is almost non-existent now due to poor physical sales as content is available online and the satellite market is good only for big stars movies.’
Film festival runs also bring some revenue. Licensed online film releases bring revenue to a film though it may not be adequate to recover losses at the box office. The focus therefore is to try to play safe and navigate the PR mechanism to make the film profitable at the box office stage. The PR sector in Bollywood films is therefore booming and is expected to expand with every passing year.