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A Reel Tempest

Thanks to the lockdown, the Indian film industry has lost over Rs 2,000 crore as films are shelved. Will the big studios work with smaller ones later on to salvage themselves collectively from this storm? By Geetanjali Mehlwal

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After the lockdown of March 24 due to Covid-19, India’s mammoth movie industry has come to a grinding halt as businesses have closed to slow its spread. As cases steadily amplify, the fate of leading flagship productions hangs in the balance. This uncertainty may last a couple of months or even longer. It will be a protracted while till people actually venture out fearlessly to the cinema halls to watch their favourite films.

Over the past few weeks, the Indian film industry has lost over Rs 2,000 crore as stay-at-home orders and social distancing norms kept moviegoers away. The primary endeavour after the dust settles will be to persuade audiences that theatres are not so perilous. Historically, people flocked to cinema halls after World War II and after a 45-day strike in India in 2009, so multiplexes are hopeful of a repeat this time if safety can be assured.

Due to the lockdown, all releases have been shelved. Baaghi 3, starring Shraddha Kapoor and Tiger Shroff, released on March 6 in Mumbai, Delhi and other metros but experienced a turn down of 20-30 percent in the audience numbers. Films slated for release in China, which is a huge market for Bollywood films, have been put on hold. Bollywood production houses have invested nearly Rs 500 crore in the making of films such as Sooryavanshi (starring leading actor Akshay Kumar with extended cameos by Ajay Devgan and Ranveer Singh), Baaghi 3 and Coolie No 3 which were going to be released in the second and third quarters of this year. The release of the Daniel Craig-starrer James Bond film No Time to Die, scheduled for April 2020 in India, too has been postponed indefinitely.

Film events such as IIFA 2020 have been deferred for now. Mumbai’s foremost integrated filming complex, the usually vibrant Film City, cancelled its popular Bollywood film tour and locked its gates. Desolate movie sets are testimony to the fact that filming of dozens of films, TV shows and web series has been abruptly abandoned.

The Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association took a proactive step during this time and issued a release stating that the shooting of all films, TV and web series would be halted from March 19, 2020. This coincided with the closing of cinema halls across several states. Similarly, Indian Film and Television Directors’ Association President Ashoke Pandit said that all associations and industries across India “are with us” in this decision.

The release of Rohit Shetty’s much-awaited action thriller Sooryavanshi, scheduled to be released on March 24 and predicted to be the biggest blockbuster in the first quarter of 2020, has been shelved for now, said Rohit Shetty Picturez. Salman Khan was scheduled to travel with a large crew to Azerbaijan to shoot for his upcoming film Radhe.

Angrezi Medium, the exceptionally talented actor Irrfan Khan’s comeback film, too has been gravely affected as its theatrical release was on March 13 just when the virus was percolating into the country. Homi Adajania, its director, made an announcement on Instagram that it would be re-released when it becomes safe to do so. The movie is a sequel to the 2017 Irrfan Khan starrer Hindi Medium.

With 1,500 films a year, India’s film industry is also one of the country’s largest employment generators. The Federation of Western India Cine Employees, which represents tens of thousands of workers across the production chain, be it artistes, cameramen, assistants, technicians, spot boys or light boys, is facing an acute financial crunch.

Various entertainment companies are doing whatever they can to help those in distress during this lockdown. Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEE) has offered financial help to over 5,000 technicians, spot boys, camera and crane operators, freelance make-up artists, hairstylists and so on. Punit Goenka, MD and CEO, ZEE, reportedly said: “We stand committed to financially support all the daily wage earners working in our production ecosystem. In these challenging times, it is extremely critical for India Inc. to come together and support the national level initiative undertaken by our Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” The company will also counterpart the voluntary contributions made by its employees to the PM Cares Fund through an in-house gateway.

Aditya Chopra’s Yash Raj Films (YRF) and the Yash Chopra Foundation will be supporting many daily wage earners and their families and in Phase 1 of the plan, Rs 1.5 crore will be paid to them. Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN) has earmarked Rs 10 crore to provide a month’s salary to each of the daily wage earners working on the network’s shows and will supply groceries to 50,000 of them in the M&E industry for a month. NP Singh, MD and CEO, SPN, said: “As a conscientious conglomerate, it is our responsibility to direct efforts towards ensuring aid reaches our primary beneficiaries who have contributed to the success of the network.”

On April 5, Sony Pictures Networks India and Kalyan Jewellers through their brand ambassador megastar Amitabh Bachchan pledged monthly ration support to one lakh households of daily wage workers belonging to the All India Film Employees Confederation.

Apart from employment fears and woes resulting from salary cuts and job losses, many individual artistes, writers, directors, musicians and independent producers are wondering what will be the status of their contracts. Studios and channels are devising their own mechanisms for addressing these issues. From e-mail and digital approvals for contracts (with undertakings to physically sign and courier contracts once normalcy resumes) to renegotiations on fees (citing loss that would result from this extended suspension of business) and dates, many are attempting to avoid irreparable dent to their businesses.

Just like their film counterparts, television entities are left wondering about the status of their contracts as production has halted. Networks are airing shows that were created prior to the lockdown and re-runs of older popular episodes and shows. Artistes, content creators and technicians of TV shows are unsure as to the abeyance of the “terms” and other agreements.

However, the winner in the present scheme of things is the digital platform. With the world locked indoors, web content has become the principal source of entertainment and delight for most people. It is no wonder then that digital studios have seen a cathartic growth in their membership base. They, in turn, have been very proactive in updating and enlarging their content catalogues and have added more “art imitates reality” content such as shows which depict similar situations on the reel. Audiences have been absorbing these like sponges. But these shows and films illustrate content already existing or created much prior to the lockdown. So, while their creators, producers and platforms continue to reap benefits from the current consumption of this content, those who were in the process of locking their content deals/contracts or commencing pre-production or production post their signing, are hit more as they await the signing amounts due under those agreements.

The most pertinent question that comes to mind is whether this present situation calls for invoking of the most compelling clause, namely, the force majeure clause that allows for suspension or termination of contracts without penalties on either side.

One can only speculate that business will resume in the near future and contracts abided with, though in a rather stunted form. From seeing a good run at the box-office and a very receptive audience’s appetite towards various experimental subjects (each of which surprisingly did very well over the last several months), Indian cinema witnessed one of its most interesting periods just before the pandemic took everyone by surprise.

The world’s most prolific film-making industry may find the way to recovery a costly and gruelling one. Especially as the desolate reality of empty cinema halls poses a real threat to the existence of many who are part of this industry. One wonders if in the face of this tempest, the bigger players, especially digital studios, can work together with smaller and mid-sized entities to salvage themselves collectively from an eminent drought that looms over the industry.

— The writer is a media and entertainment lawyer

Lead Picture: UNI

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