Hindi film studios hit pause as silver screen clouds up

Other than Yash Raj Films’ War 2, the Hindi film industry has seen no big movie announcements in the past few months. Top actors like Aamir Khan and Ranveer Singh are yet to greenlight new projects after their recent productions kissed the dust.

“Theatrical numbers are down drastically, and people are reluctant to commit to new projects. Everyone has taken a step back from announcing anything new and is being extremely careful about what to greenlight. It’s a case of extreme self-doubt,” said Yusuf Shaikh, business head of feature films at production and distribution company Percept Pictures.

In a recent interview, Akshaye Widhani, chief executive of Yash Raj Films (YRF), admitted the company suffered last year since many films were designed for the pre-pandemic period when audience tastes were different. However, YRF is pushing ahead with its so-called Spy Universe, a series of interconnected films such as Pathaan, Tiger and War, which it calls a big focus area.

“We are getting ready to lock our slate for the coming years. We will make announcements in due course, and the Spy Universe is going to become a larger part of our strategy,” Widhani had said.

The recent failure of films featuring mainstream stars like Ajay Devgn and Aamir Khan has increased uncertainty over what can bring audiences to cinemas. Devgn’s action film Bholaa, made at over 200 crore, is yet to touch the 80 crore mark at the box office domestically. Last August, Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha finished below 60 crore. Ranbir Kapoor’s romantic comedy Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar made a little over 140 crore at the last count.

Actors like Khan and Singh, who delivered three flops— ’83, Jayeshbhai Jordaar and Cirkus—since the pandemic, are yet to announce any new projects. And when large-scale entertainers are floundering, it is even tougher to announce films featuring stars with restricted appeal anyway, including the likes of Rajkummar Rao or Ayushmann Khurrana.

Shiv Chanana, senior vice-president, films, Super Cassettes Industries Pvt. Ltd, said audience tastes have changed, and not every film is finding viewers in cinemas.

“We’re not greenlighting anything unless we’re sure of it,” Chanana said. The company had planned to release 15-20 films annually in cinemas, and is now looking at a slate of 10-12.

“Audiences in the Hindi-speaking belt are not coming to theatres despite star presence. The biggest actors are not signing anything new, though conversations and meetings are on. A lot of producers have simply pushed announcements to rework budgets and scripts. Everyone is just confused,” said a film producer, declining to be named. The person added that with OTT platforms having tightened purse strings and acquiring films based on box office performance, a lot of projects are in limbo.

“Earlier, there was a certain amount of revenue assured from the sale of rights. That ancillary pie has shrunk, as has the box office, so everything has gone for a toss,” said another producer, declining to be named.

Star fee is under severe debate at the moment, the person added, and a lot of projects are yet to be locked as producers are expecting some correction based on what the star can deliver at the box office.

Box office response to films has been varied in the past year, agreed Gautam Jain, partner at media consulting firm Ormax.

While a few films have opened and performed extremely well, many other big star-cast films have had pathetic openings and poor sustenance.

“This kind of unpredictability increases the risk of producing big-ticket films with popular stars. The two other concerns are high fees commanded by leading stars and lower revenue from digital and satellite rights. The high fee of popular stars was a topic of discussion pre-pandemic. Post the pandemic, when the audience is looking at a visually rich, spectacle and theatre-worthy experience from films, the cost of production for any film being planned is increasing. This, clubbed with higher star fees, makes the plan for any big-ticket film risky and difficult to fund,” Jain said.On the other hand, streaming platforms and satellite channels are no longer paying the premium they used to for rights. Earlier, a major part of the cost of production would get covered by these rights and a film’s underperformance at the box office would not be a big risk for a producer. “Due to revision of prices and their linkage to box office performance, a filmmaker is thinking hard before taking on the risk of producing a big film. Hence, we are seeing lesser film announcements,” Jain added.

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