The underdog diaries

How small budget movies are striking it big at the box office

It seemed like an error in judgement. Why was John Abraham releasing his maiden production venture Vicky Donor bang in the middle of IPL season? The timing, combined with the film’s theme — sperm donation — seemed to seal its fate: another film that would bomb at the box office. “It is a contentious subject,” actor-turned-producer Abraham accepts. “But I was quite confident.”

As it turned out, his confidence wasn’t misplaced. Made on a ₹9 crore budget (of which half went into promotion), the film has raked in about four times as much at the box office. Abraham is yet to sell the satellite rights and this successful showing means he will make a killing when he does. “Even if the film had bombed, I would have got ₹50 lakh. Now, ₹15 crore,” he smiles.

Few Bollywood movies actually lose money these days; thanks to overseas and satellite rights and sales of music, most of them at least recover their costs, if not make a profit. But there’s a difference between making money and making a hit and, going by the evidence, small and medium film-makers seem to have discovered the winning formula earlier than big-budget producers. Of the 39 Hindi films released in 2012 so far, 29 were made for less than ₹15 crore. In all, 11 made money for everyone down the chain, of which eight were low-budget movies. Films like Agent Vinod and Tezz, which cost around ₹40-50 crore, fizzled out. 

What does that say about the film industry and viewer preferences? Does the amount spent on a movie, to make or promote it, not matter to the audience? Not exactly — the blockbusters of 2011 were all big-budget movies like Don 2, Bodyguard and Ready, after all — but it does seem to prove an old truism: films that tell an interesting story click.

Take a look at some of this year’s low-budget hits: Kahaani, Paan Singh Tomar, Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya and Vicky Donor all had offbeat themes and all of them made multiple times their cost through ticket sales (See: Crowd pullers). Similarly, No One Killed Jessica, inspired by a real-life incident, was made on a ₹8 crore budget, and was the subject of much debate and discussion long before its release last year. It earned ₹30 crore at the box office. “The buzz helped a great deal in getting people to watch the film,” says Siddharth Roy Kapur, managing director, studios, Disney UTV, the film’s producer. “You can’t afford to go wrong with the theme.”

It’s also important to point out that for small films, audience appreciation is perhaps more important than for big-banner films. And it’s not only because they can’t bear losses as well as their better bankrolled counterparts, although that’s obviously a consideration. Small films earn a bulk of their revenue from box-office sales (See: Show me the money), unlike big film-makers who depend significantly on satellite and overseas rights. Most film-makers agree that content is still king, although flashy special effects and good music can also prove a compelling proposition. “You have to know who is likely to watch your film,” counsels Mukesh Bhatt, whose banner Vishesh Entertainment produced Murder 2, a 2011 hit.

Abraham agrees, the Delhi-based Vicky Donor with its strong Punjabi flavour resounded with North Indian cinema-goers. Of the opening weekend’s all-India net collection of ₹7.75 crore, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and the East Punjab territories together brought in ₹3.07 crore, or nearly half.

Timing is critical for small films to make it big at the box office. All the budget films that succeeded this year ensured their release didn’t clash with any big banner film. There have been some notable mistakes as well: Hema Malini’s home production Tell Me O Kkhuda released alongside Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra.One during Diwali last year and, perhaps not surprisingly, sank without a trace.

Abraham says the decision to release Vicky Donor during the IPL was planned deliberately. Perhaps drawing on his years of being a media planner before he turned to Bollywood, he says, “There is fatigue regarding cricket.” Besides, other film-makers had decided against any big releases, leaving the field open. 

Box Office magic

Sujoy Ghosh, director of Kahaani, believes there is no success formula in Bollywood. “All one can do is minimise one’s risk. Perhaps smaller producers are better at that because they don’t have big money,” he says. That’s a lesson Ghosh learnt the hard way. His last film was the 2009 Aladin. A lavish, ₹35-crore production starring big names like Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt, it recovered barely 10% of its budget.

For Kahaani, Ghosh stuck to inexpensive stars, shot the film on Kolkata streets and chose to market the film more through social networks than traditional media. His promotions budget was ₹4.5 crore (compared to ₹30 crore spent on Ra.One).

Certainly, film-makers keep a tighter watch on costs when it comes to budget movies, even if they have financial backing. UTV, which made big-budget films like Jodhaa Akbar and Rang De Basanti, and chose a less-expensive hero, Irrfan, for its latest release Paan Singh Tomar.

Interestingly, it released the film across 300 screens digitally, saving 25% on distribution. According to Kapur, getting the math right was critical. “We knew getting it right in the top 10 cities was important since they account for 60% of total revenues. Once the film gained momentum, we increased the number of screens,” he adds. Eventually, Paan Singh Tomar raked in twice its ₹8 crore budget (₹5 crore for production and ₹3 crore for release). 

Vicky Donor, too, saved on expenses since it was made with a newcomer cast and filmed in a month. In contrast, big banner films can take anywhere from six months to a year for shooting alone (post-production could take another six months). Throw in overseas shoots and big-star names and the delays can be even longer sending costs skyrocketing.

Also, star fees can make up as much as 20% of total production costs while a single song or special-effects sequence can cost up to ₹1 crore. “Costs add up if you have an expensive sequence,” agrees Kumar Taurani, chairman, Tips Industries. “Budget films allow you to move on quickly to bigger projects which we continue to produce,” he adds. Taurani, who produced Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya with UTV earlier this year, kept a tight leash on costs by filming on location in Patiala and completed shooting within two months.

The ₹9-crore film generated box office revenues of ₹24 crore and Taurani explains that projects with tight budgets form the core of Tips’ pipeline. The split will be roughly even, although Taurani clarifies that a decision will be taken project by project. “It comes down to the theme. If it is good, budget will not be a constraint,” he says. An upcoming project, for instance, is the ₹40-crore Race 2.

The biggest challenge however, is to strike the right deals with distributors and exhibitors. Here, the absence of backing from a big banner can hurt. “Nobody really knows how the film will do, which is why producers choose to sell satellite rights much in advance,” explains Ghosh, who sold the satellite and music rights for Kahaani for ₹8 crore. Of course, he had an ace up his sleeve: Viacom as distribution partner. Not only did this save him from having to negotiate with distributors, it also helped Kahaani get better show slots at theatres. 

Going by the current trend, Jannat 2 seems to be the next big hit. The film, which released on May 4, has made ₹43 crore on a ₹9 crore production budget. Costs were kept down and the monies are now coming in as audiences are reacting favourably to the crime film. And as Vijay Singh, CEO of Fox Studios, which co-produced the movie with Vishesh Films explains, “The theme, actors and music all worked well and that is what made th film a hit.” These factors certainly sound like basic hygiene but, as records show, they’re also equally difficult to pull through.