Cinema and alternate content

Hindi films have been the top dog when it comes to entertainment in India for decades. They were the aspirational peak of all media and entertainment could offer the consumer. TV may now have caught up and perhaps overtaken as the stable diet of the masses and the internet is providing alternative content for a generation still looking for their type of content but films place remains at the top for the moment. Or does it?

More and more short films are being made and younger audiences are moving to web programming which offer more overt, political and perhaps realistic content which today's generation are enjoying snacking on as opposed to committing themselves to a film which will consume the limited precious time they have without the guarantee of fulfillment. So, are more and more people moving to alternative streams of content in today's environment? And is it affecting films?

For the sake of this article, alternative content is content that does not suit the standard paradigm of Hindi films. Thus, we are thinking of shorter content which is more niche in its subjects as well as has a different distribution pattern. There is little doubt that today there is a plethora of investment into this alternative programming. Large corporate brands are using them as advertising tools and coughing up large sums for films that are as short as 8 - 12 minutes long. Obviously the brands still want some recognizable faces but they are willing to invest and this has meant more and more commercial filmmakers are doing interesting 'side' projects in this realm. In addition to this, there are the digital platforms - TVF, Culture Machine, Filter Copy, etc. which are dedicating themselves to making relevant, humorous short content to add to the internet snacking which more and more of the younger generation is accustomed to.

There is little doubt that these viewing habits are a function of a reduced attention span. The ease of being able to switch between video content and that too without having to pay for watching these videos means there is little to be gained by staying with a piece of content if it doesn't quickly grab your attention. Television offers you the opportunity to change the channel but even then, you cannot dictate what is on air. Film though is about paying to watch one piece of content and this means a commitment to sitting through the whole film to get to what you hope will be a satisfying end. There is a theory that perhaps the art of keeping 'bums in seats' is getting lost - both by audiences and filmmakers alike.

Is this shortening of viewing times and attention spans therefore affecting films? Well its not a new problem. Two decades ago, Hindi film run times used to be up near the three-hour mark, sometimes exceeding it with at least 8-10 songs. Today most Hindi films are loathe to go over two and a half hours and the number of songs has reduced drastically. This year has seen the run time reduce even further with many films going down to around about the two-hour mark. This is without doubt a function of shorter attention spans and writers have had to focus and tighten screenplays accordingly.

Is this therefore an inflection point? I am not sure. So much about the length of content depends upon the content itself. If the content is compelling, a three-hour opus is magnetic and doesn't allow the audience to stir. However, if the content doesn't work, even a ten-minute film can leave you squirming. Audiences need to be drawn into the world of the story. Once there, they can stay if the story-teller can hold their attention. This is where story-tellers need to focus and decide for themselves how long their story is suited to. The days of stretching stories out to suit some form of formatted template have gone. No one will accept that. Filmmakers need to assess their story itself and decide just how long it needs to be, to allow audiences to experience the characters and the world they exist in. Hollywood understands this. Generally, we point to content like Game of Thrones taking away cinema viewing audiences but we need to remember that even though each episode is shorter than a film, the series itself is much longer. A commitment is needed for the viewer and this comes because the story is so absorbing. Films need to understand that the same is true no matter the format.

- MD of Mukta Arts Ltd. on behalf of Mukta A2 Cinemas