Marketing costs and independent films, an uneasy mix, says Rahul Puri

How many of us actually watch small films? Films that perhaps don’t have the big star cast or the big directors. Maybe there are films that don’t have the backing of big studios and will rely heavily on word of mouth from the target group, referring it to peers. How many of us really go to the theatre, pay Rs 250+ and watch these films? I doubt the answer to my question is, many, if we are being honest. The reality is that in spite of most of us moaning about the quality of storytelling in films, we generally base our film watching decisions on factors like star cast and the amount of marketing visibility. The small films usually lack these ingredients and therefore, they are not top-most in the minds of the viewers when it comes to choice for consumption. And this is usually despite the potential of their story. Forgive me for this roundabout way of getting to the point.

There is a huge issue of marketing films in our business and the smaller, independent films (the films a lot of people laud as ‘good cinema’) usually ends up with the short end of the stick. An old time distributor would call these films ‘art-house’ or say they aren’t commercial and therefore, they can’t be marketed well. But there is a distinction between something that is targeted to a niche and something that is completely unmarketable. One of the large issues that our business has to address over the next few years are niche films and how we deal with them and create a viable business model for them. The West has art house theatres and a thriving independent circuit including channels, festivals and markets where films out of the mainstream can find a way to be commercial in nature. India has to find a way to resolve this issue too. We have many terrific films that don’t make it to theatres and therefore, we deprive our audiences of seeing some really great films.

Look at the films that win National Awards. How many of us actually see them outside their home state? Would it not make sense for the rest of the country to see them? Are these stories that wouldn’t resonate with other Indian audiences? I can’t say the answer is yes for sure but in general it has to be true. Marketing costs and promotional expenses is one of the main bone of contention here. A film is considered impossible to release if it can’t justify a certain spend on marketing and promotion. The absolute amount of this figure has grown over the years thanks to increase in prices of media as well as the growth of media outlets and platforms.

Today a film is deemed to have had a poor release if it doesn’t do the latest reality shows, launch a motion poster at a 5 Star hotel or do an eight city tour for press and promotion. All this, plus traditional forms of advertising and other marketing tools costs money. Lots of it. Where do little, independent films get this money from? Moreover, if a small film does get this finance, how do they decide what is actually effective and what is not? Marketing campaigns have a template to them these days and all agencies try to enforce this upon producers stating previous successes or competitors spend. This sometimes is relevant but mostly it’s about consuming the all important inventory that most of the agencies, channels and platforms need to exhaust in order to enhance profitability. Whether it’s needed, effective or even useful for a particular film is secondary at times. Thus, a small film is over burdened making it more unprofitable thus perpetuating the cycle that these films are generally a huge risk.

So what’s the solution? Well, better and more innovative marketing planning, campaigns and execution. Most of which is probably available and there are agencies and marketing gurus out there capable of delivering. It will just take a producer or a studio the gumption of saying no to the herd mentality and giving it a real shot. The filmmakers really deserve it.

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