The last 20 years or so have brought about a complete change in the way the film industry works. Corporate houses invaded the film industry. Some thought it would be for the better of the industry, while others were sceptical.
Those who were happy were the ones who had built up a reputation in the media, if not really because of the work they did. And the corporate houses wanting to make inroads into the film business knew only such media-made celebrities. They would be used as stepping stones by these prospect hunters.
The film industry has always depended on outside sources for money. Initially, there used to be a breed called 'film financers' and this included some highly-reputed names. But, there was a second rung that drove a tough bargain -- 3 to 3.5 per cent per month interest deducted at source, renewable every quarter! In such an event, a producer was always keen that he release his film in time, before the interest for the next quarter was due.
Even with this kind of 'dear money' situation, the makers survived and the industry still managed to put out as many as 150 films a year. The filmmakers stuck to their work, the stars did their bit keeping their lives guarded and private and were happy with their film careers.
The stars always enjoyed a great fan following among the movie buffs. Those were the days when watching a movie was a bigger priority than watching a cricket match.
But actors found rather an odd kind of fans. There were people who did not want to chase stars but would rather have the stars at their beck and call! These new fans were the underworld, smugglers, builders, politicians and others. They catered to the stars' greed. Come to Dubai, entertain the powers that be, take back a colour TV and a couple of lakhs of rupees as a gift. Attend a big shot's wedding and earn an appearance fee!
Filmmaking worked for the most part, on cash transactions and nobody cared where the money came from -- the underworld or corrupt politicians. From any source which made illegal money but had little use or knowledge of where it could be used. But in return, this new lot of financers turned stars and celebrities into their court jesters.
Business was done on the terms dictated by the underworld. They had taken a fancy to overseas film rights and the newly-arrived video rights. For a filmmaker, overseas rights equalled one major film circuit like the Bombay circuit and that usually was his margin. Calls from Dubai dictated terms, otherwise there was always a sharpshooter around with their sights trained on a producer or a star. There have been many examples of big names in the film industry who survived such attempts, while Gulshan Kumar of T-Series was not so lucky.
So, when corporate foreign companies that did business in Hollywood with satellite operations in other major metros entered the Indian film market, it was seen as a positive sign. The two entertainment industries, the world's most lucrative, Hollywood, and the world's biggest, India, would do business together and complement each other. The picture looked rosy.
The first attempt at the corporatisation in the film industry began in the late 1990s when reputed banker Uday Kotak felt that Amitabh Bachchan was a brand and a brand equity could be built around him. And the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited was launched.
The move spelt disaster from the day it was envisaged. Even before any revenue could be generated, there were huge expenses. An entire hotel in a high-end Juhu area of Mumbai was rented as the office. A CEO was appointed and, for the rest of the staff, sundry clerks, errand runners, packers and dispatch men from other companies were picked up. Making them wear black blazers seemed to be their ID as corporate employees. The company's first production, 'Tere Mere Sapne' (copied from the Hollywood film 'Trading Places') was a reasonable success.
But the experiment failed so badly that Bachchan stated at bankruptcy proceedings. Somehow, he managed an annulment. The venture failed because none of ABCL's highly paid personnel knew what filmmaking and marketing were, as they existed in those days. This was not the job of MBAs and marketing wizards. Filmmaking was a personal touch business.
The newly arrived corporate houses from abroad also made the same mistake. They had none among them who knew the Indian film industry. Films cannot be marketed like consumer products like biscuit, cola or soap (in fact, the ABCL CEO, when he left the company, hit the right spot by joining Coca Cola, which was his real calling).
The companies that invaded the Indian film industry never bothered to learn about it. They had just about everything except an idea of what, how and why films ran in India. All they had was money, which they spread far and wide. Just about everybody they invested in made money, except them. Unfortunately, they invested in the media-made celebrities instead of content-oriented projects. For them, a project was one that had top stars and the makers were ones who could rope in those top stars. It was such a disaster in the making!
You could've been a dance master or an actor's stooge, but if you could put together a top-star project, here were a hundred crore rupees for you, make a couple of films for us. Actually, they were financing projects, not films. It was more like speculating than creating.
What is more, budgeting was something that was always questionable. You had stars whose films never crossed the Rs 100 crore-collection mark but their films had a budget more than that! There seemed to be some kind of give-and-take happening. For, after all, whose money was it? A Rs 100-crore film meant that, for recovering investment, it had to collect at least Rs 225 crore at the box office. How many films manage that?
An example will make it clear how nobody had a clue about budgeting. A company had backed a film produced by Abbas-Mustan, starring Govinda, being shot in South Africa. That was when the recession set in. The company decided to shelve the film despite the fact that shooting was already halfway through. The company decided to pull the rug and asked the producer to stop shooting because they could not give any more money, and had decided to write off the losses.
However, surprisingly, the producers managed to complete the film without any more funds from the company! A miracle? No, it was just that the film could have been easily made at a much lesser cost, but whoever had vetted the budget had no idea of this.
Then, the overheads. These corporate houses employed hundreds of them. Why was it necessary when all that the companies did was to outsource the production of films? Traditionally, before these companies came on the scene, a filmmaker managed with a staff of just two to three people, since the rest of the workers, like technicians and others, came on board on contract basis, only when a film was under production.
It comes as no surprise that now all these major companies that elevated film production to budgets of crores of rupees from the earlier manageable lakhs, have stopped this business. Many filmmakers benefited but there is no report of these companies making profits. If they had, they would still be in the business.
The writer is a veteran film writer and trade analyst. The views expressed are personal.