One of the biggest releases of the year, the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan          released to packed theatres on April 15, and went on to earn upwards of Rs 100 crore in its first week. But seven days prior to the release of Fan, a lesser known movie was doing the rounds on Facebook newsfeeds: The Blueberry Hunt. Made on a modest budget of Rs 45 lakh, which is significantly lower than the reported Rs 30 crore fee that SRK demands for an average movie, The Blueberry Hunt — featuring Naseeruddin Shah — was made available for online streaming barely a week after its theatrical release. Having failed to get the numbers at the box office, the film nonetheless managed to generate some buzz online, and is now considered a moderate success.  

The Blueberry Hunt is just one of many examples of how Indian filmmakers are waking up to the call of the internet. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo, with their massive user base, are beginning to be seen as legitimate distribution channels by both mainstream and independent filmmakers. And releasing a film online is now a viable alternative to the existing hegemony of big distributors and multiplexes. Just as there are more films being made these days, especially within the independent domain, there are more avenues on the internet to showcase them.

There are more films made in every genre because of cheaper film-making tools, not because of digital distribution avenues,” says the director of The Blueberry Hunt, Anup Kurian. “A recent iPhone, or a high-end android phone camera, has decent resolution, ease of use and affordability compared to a 16mm film format, Digi Beta etc. And so such films can be enjoyed in a multiplex as well as on a phone.”

Still from The Blueberry Hunt, directed by Anup Kurian.

So, as Kurian hints, digital platforms might not necessarily signal the end of entertainment as we know it. Aware of the limitations of straight-to-web releases, Kurian adds, “A theatrical release is still important for feature films. We did well in theatres because of our distribution plan. It was precise. The films did not release in too many centres, or have too many shows. Maybe by 2020 we will have an idea on what changes the proliferation of broadband, including 4G services, will bring to film distribution. The audience will want the content in the space they prefer: theaters, their cell phones, home theaters, tablets, TV etc. But the bit about monetisation is yet to be worked out.”

Still, it can’t be disputed that thanks to the online space, independent filmmakers, like Kurian himself, are finally getting noticed. While there’s no dearth of online streaming sites which can be of great help to filmmakers looking for an audience, a feasible revenue model is yet to be arrived at.

Besides subscription, which was a relatively new concept in India until Netflix took over the market — and Netflix saw quite a few people signing up even during its trial period here — the two most common sources of online revenue generation are from advertisements appearing at the top of your content on YouTube, and from the funding coming from big corporate players, if you manage to get some. An example of the latter being Yash Raj Films’ recent venture in the online sphere — their couple of web series called Love Shots and Bang Baja Baraat — which was sponsored by Airtel and Lakme.  

The distribution path for independent filmmakers has never been more convoluted than it is right now, but it’s never been more exciting either. A slew of platforms are now offering filmmakers new ways to get eyeballs, and even to monetise some of their works. For instance, BitTorrent, which used to initially cater exclusively to the music scene, has now opened up to an increasingly growing industry of filmmakers and video creators of all stripes. Theatrical exhibitors and cable companies now face competition from an abundance of digital players, including iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo and YouTube, among others.

The first full length Hindi feature film to be released online was the mammoth box-office success and Salman Khan-starrer, Dabangg. The film made its way to YouTube in 2011. This sent a stern warning to film pirates: that the mainstream was making inroads into their territory. Big production houses like UTV Motion Pictures, inspired by such a bold step, soon decided to follow suit and tied up with YouTube. Today, UTV’s films are available for online viewing for a small subscription fee.

But there are those who yet find the online space a loss-making enterprise. Independent filmmaker Raja Sevak released his eight-minute short film The Girl and the Autorickshaw on YouTube in March 2012. The film garnered over 30 lakh views, but Sevak could not reap the financial dividends. Explaining this, he says, “I’ve heard there is a system of revenue sharing, but I haven’t received anything so far. There’s a certain model on YouTube where after a film records a few lakh hits, it is promoted through advertisements. My film was made as a part of the Wassup Andheri Festival Short Film Competition, and although fully financed by me and my partner Ram Menon, the film is a part of, which has a tie-up with YouTube, and the details of which were not shared with us. They do have a standard revenue sharing model and I’ve heard the film has made some money, but nothing has come my way so far,” he adds.

Raja shot the entire film on his iPhone. “It was a terrific experience,” he says. “Previously, the plan was to use a Canon 5D, but since the film was to be shot entirely on the streets, amid traffic and in broad daylight, to get as little attention as possible, the plan changed to using the iPhone for the shoot.”

The internet remains, by far, the best platform to showcase short films in particular. Once posted, these movies stay online for long, generating hits over a span of time. Humaramovie (HM), founded in March 2012, by Vinay Mishra, Pallavi Rohatgi and Preety Ali, releases a new short every Tuesday on its website. “The best thing about YouTube is that it’s very easy to start any channel on it. But the difficult thing is to come up with an innovative idea. When we started HM four years back, the whole idea was to enable anybody and everybody, right from the prominent filmmakers to aspirational, ones to tell a story. In that sense, we have been very successful in generating a large amount of independent content: over 400 short films by very fresh and upcoming talent. There are almost no revenues. It’s mostly ad revenues and given the amount of money we spend on the making and marketing there is nothing we earn in return,” Preeti Ali tells Guardian 20.

Her colleague, Vinay Mishra is optimistic about the subscription-based model, provided there is high-quality content available. “All platforms,” he says, “like Hotstar etc. are going to spend big on the acquisition of customers. For all aggregators of content, it is imperative to have large audiences, and their only differentiator can be content. So, I think they will pay decent amounts for good content. How long this can continue is anybody’s guess. Digital distribution allows people to find their sweet spot in the kind of content they wish to consume, and at their convenience. For a large country like India, even niches can be very large and hence digital distribution will be very helpful for independent creators. However, it may not be the ad-based models which work best. A subscription model could also work.”

Producer Sailesh Dave, after dabbling in television shows such as Movers and Shakers and The Great Indian Comedy Show, ventured for the first time into film production with Amit Masurkar’s much talked about 2014 film Sulemani Keeda. On the popular film blog of Jamuura TV, Dave writes, “We were keen to release the film in theatres, but not many people were coming forward to release it. After facing a lot of difficulties, we realised that the best way was to release the film by ourselves. We got it released in 40 different theatres in six different cities, which we believe was a sizeable release. I must also mention Shiladitya Bora, who through the PVR Directors Rare initiative supported the film since its first screening and ensured that the film had a wide release with great show timings. Shiladitya personally ensured that the theatres screened the film even in its second and third week. We also realised that not many satellite channels were keen to buy the rights. That’s when we realised an online release was the most feasible option for the film. So we released the film online through The Viral Fever’s (TVF) new initiative TVF InBox Office. It enabled people to watch the film for as low as 99 Rupees.”

The director himself recalls how hard his producer worked for the promotional release of the film. “We didn’t have a big budget for the campaign and distribution,” Sulemani Keeda’s director Amit Masurkar tells Guardian 20. “My producer Sailesh Dave worked very hard to make sure to maximise the buzz that the reviews gave us. We held screenings in colleges and depended only on the internet for publicity. There are different avenues for recovering the investment and an online release is one of them. It’s the most democratic one and is a boon for films that have a niche audience.”

Still from Sulemani Keeda, directed by Amit Masurkar.

But much before a maker can even consider an online release, comes the important aspect of funding. Most independent filmmakers who start from scratch, and without the backing of a major studio, find themselves in a financial crunch soon after.

Back in 2009, having no DSLR around, the only camera that filmmaker Srinivas Sunderrajan could avail on rent and shoot a high-def film with was the Sony HDV. Discussing the financial viability of releasing his first film The Untitled Kartik Krishna Project on a tight budget of Rs 40,000 in 2010, shot with that HDV camera, he says, “I guess there’s not yet a stable revenue model for films out in the digital space, at least in India. This might be because it’s still growing as a market and people are still testing waters in terms of whether it’s a financially viable platform. To compound this, there are a lot of content creation-acquisition players in the market like Netflix, Fliqvine, iTunes, YouTube etc., each with their own ‘rate cards’. So yes, the future definitely will hold something brighter and positive in terms of finances, thereby empowering the filmmakers to see digital as a powerful platform.”

It is in exigencies such as these that crowdfunding platforms step in. It is estimated that as many as 4-5 campaigns for short films and documentaries are initiated online every week. Actor and co-founder of the crowdfunding platform Ketto, Kunal Kapoor says, “Makers of short films are not given enough attention. Producers do not want to bet their money on a short because it doesn’t give them Rs 100 crore returns. That is where a platform like ours kicks in and helps filmmakers raise funds so that they can showcase their talent and can also take their movies to different festivals across the globe and make our country proud.”

Cinema is not the only medium which is being affected by the digital revolution. It is very likely that the television industry is going through a greater flux than cinema. With increased exposure to global movies and TV shows through streaming platforms, a sizeable portion of the audience is shifting away from television screens to laptops and smartphones. 

As a result, a growing number of filmmakers have their feet firmly planted on two boats and hop from one to the other with ease. This has given birth to a hybrid species. One such is the YouTube creator/TV actor: someone like Naveen Richard. A stand-up comedian by profession, he recently starred in the Comedy Central show Challenge Accepted, an Indianised version of Impractical Jokers. Besides, he is also a creator of YouTube videos, and co-founder of the YouTube channel Them Boxer Shorts. Talking about the future of television, he states. “It is inevitable that the internet will replace television and it’s only a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Even now, we see lesser and lesser people watching television. When it comes to English content, the switch to internet-based platforms is just around the corner. However, it will take longer for regional content on TV to move on to the internet.”

One of the reasons that platforms such as YouTube are attracting filmmakers and digital artists has to do with an unconstrained workspace that doesn’t have any intrusive corporate bosses. Contrasting the parallel experiences of working for both forms of media, Richard states, “There is obviously a lot more flexibility when it comes to making a YouTube video. Whereas while working in a corporate setup on a channel, there is usually a corporate head who does not share the same sensibilities as us, so that affects the end product.”

The digital revolution has only has just begun in the world of films. Most of us are not certain of what direction it will now take. But there’s clear consensus on one thing at least: it is here to stay.


‘TV needs TVF more than TVF needs TV’

Arunabh Kumar
Creator, The Viral Fever (TVF)
When I started TVF, as a production house, we were mainly focused on branded content. It was much later that we began seeing ourselves as makers of sketches, web series etc. It was out of a desire to tell stories and to create that TVF was borne.  While starting off, I had thought of associating with certain established youth-oriented TV channels. When I first approached most of these channels, I found that they were very resistant to change. It was then that I decided it would be best to branch out on my own rather than depend on others.  
When I asked my friends about their favorite TV moments, most of them couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t cricket or news-related.  For a very long time, television in the country has taken the viewer for granted and has ended up alienating many.  
For us, it has always been about quality content rather than the medium. We are presently in talks, and are open to collaborating with television channels. I think the future of television will be television, and it can’t be replaced. However, in the present scenario, considering the fan base we have created, one could say TV needs TVF more than TVF needs TV. Having said that, it’s a pipe dream for us to assume that platforms such as ours can replace television. At the end of the day, much larger sums of money are being spent on traditional forms of advertising. 
We have also recently ventured into movie-streaming territory with TVF Inbox Office. It’s a venture through which we hope to share quality movies that we like with our viewers, at a nominal price. Since most of us are used to watching movies for free on cable and online, it will take some time for viewers to warm up to this new format. We have found that Indian audiences are still averse to paying for non-traditional fare.
The digital medium is a brutal one. We don’t have the luxury to book screens which will ensure we have a monopoly. We have to be backed by good content. But at the end of the day, films are the ultimate litmus test in terms of scale. Having made sketches, and then web series, the next logical step for us is to enter the Hindi film industry. We have plans to do so by the next year. We hope to do our kinds of stories, and our own brand of cinema. 
We do not believe in the notion that a star sells a product. Even though we’ve had Shah Rukh Khan in our videos, we still believe that it is good content that will actually push a video to be popular. Many of our actors, such as Jitendra Kumar, have accumulated a dedicated following of their own and can hold their own against the who’s who of the Bollywood lot.  
— As told to Anubhav Parsheera


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