Mahesh Narayanan: Those with content library will conquer the film industry

Award-winning editor and director of films such as ‘Take Off’, ‘C U Soon’ and ‘Malik’ tries to predict how filmmaking and watching films are likely to change on account of the pandemic

The time has come to adapt to a new normal. Initially, like other sectors of the economy, the film industry also suffered terribly. Once it became clear that it was going to be a long-term situation and would not go away soon, other sectors began coping with the new scenario. Education became online, ‘Work From Home’ became a large-scale reality, and so on. The Internet’s potential became evident to all, and availability of data became a big issue in almost every household. As filmmakers, our challenge has been to get people to keep aside time to spend watching a story in a closed environment. To keep them glued to that and in that environment was our greatest challenge all through the years of filmmaking. We assumed that the theatrical experience would last for a long time. That is not how it is going to be.

We have seen celluloid give way to digital, but all the changes were not standardised; people worked in different formats and algorithms. Once the 5G sector opens up, theatres are also likely to go into streaming set-ups. What we predicted as innovations in about five years is going to take place within a year’s time due to the pandemic. Corporates — perhaps some entity with a huge library — will head the distribution scene almost in the same way the OTT sector is playing out now.

Those with content are going to conquer the industry. Technology that has been under research and development for a long time has been accelerated during the pandemic and, soon, it will be much like theatre viewers watching a large TV in a theatre. Once 5G comes in, buffering time and delays will be reduced significantly. We are going to watch superior quality too. Until now, in most theatres, we were watching 2K projection content. What we are now watching at home now is much superior to that. And as smart TVs become popular, many are accepting 4K. Netflix and Amazon now has 4K content. So there has to be a shift in technology in theatres.

Ringing in the changes

Almost all theatres were closed till recently. At least a few might be renovated to accept new technology; soon, others will have to follow to stay in the game. At the same time, manpower will be reduced drastically. So a lot of people will lose their jobs. For instance, I began as an editor on celluloid. While editing on celluloid, we would need the assistance of six to eight people. Now one person can easily do the same on a laptop. All that is required is the mindspace, a computer monitor and a visual headset. Manpower is being reduced steadily, and there is no point in resisting that transition.

But once you change to such a new technology, globally, there will only be one release for a film. Now if you take the case of a film in a regional language, there might be a distributor for West Asia, another for Canada, and another for the US markets. Soon that will be stopped. There will be just one distributor and no additional costs will be involved. You will give the content to one distributor who will distribute it to the entire world. The reach will be much more, films and content will also see an increase.

As content increases, there will be a filtration… such as what kind of content should go to theatres, what should go to mobiles, what for televisions. For instance, in the US, even now, in the case of OTT platforms, there are separate rates for mobiles and televisions. That is gradually coming to India. Take a platform like Hulu, a popular one in the US. They are producing content and releasing it simultaneously on multiple platforms like theatres, televisions, mobile apps and so on.

In such a scenario, content creators like directors may not have the right to choose the platform on which our film will be screened. It might be done by some big players; for instance, they might decide only films like Baahubali need be screened in theatres and smaller films need not be. Audiences might start accepting it as going to cinemas is likely going to be expensive.

For instance, in Malayalam, they might choose to screen only films of superstars in theatres. Or, in some cases, films that clicked on the digital spaces might be chosen to be screened in theatres as well. Revenue is bound to increase too.

But content will always be king; emotions, the way you narrate stories, the way you perceive content, even the reaction from audiences will be the same.

Embracing technology

Speaking about C U Soon, we had never attempted such a film, a screen and computer-based film. Found footage films has been done before in India, like Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha. I was trying to come up with something that one could do while working from home and within the restrictions of COVID-19 safety protocol. You can count on your fingers the number of screen-based films made worldwide in the found footage genre. The Collingswood Story is popular among techno geeks as it develops through the internet, chat windows, computers and the like. But then a sub-genre developed among such screen-based stories, which focused on horror and a kind of sensuous content.

We did not know if a film with strong emotions would work. That was what we attempted. How can we make an emotional film travel through various screens and devices? That was challenging. We wanted to see how and if we could it.

Ever since the pandemic put restrictions, we wondered how we could work within that framework. Artistes cannot be stopped now. There is a lot of independent filmmaking happening. A new wave is shaping up in Indian cinema. No organisation or person can stop that happening. It has become impossible. Even if one does not get a theatre, one can create a link, share it with select audiences and let them watch the film.

I am almost confident that for some time cinema is going to be made in studios like how it was in the olden days. There will be outdoor shooting but we may have to put up sets and shoot inside sets. For about two years, content producers are likely to play safe and restrict numbers and observe safety protocols in view of the pandemic. They will be more dependent on VFX and advanced technology to create more real-like scenes.

I, for one, welcome the government’s decision to restrict films crews to 50 persons. That is enough to make a small film. A lot of films have been announced in Malayalam cinema. So if there are 10 films being made with 50 people, 500 persons will gain employment. I feel that is how the film industry is going to be shaped. While conceptualising films, we will have to factor in the new normal.

Till the pandemic, Malayalam cinema was trying to gain revenue in a haphazard way. There was quite a bit of indiscipline in filmmaking, including on my film sets. All that is going to change. So many means of revenue has opened up for Malayalam cinema. One new avenue is remake rights, which was not much of an option earlier. Now, it has become a huge option since the films are doing well.

While we were making C U Soon, Fahadh (Faasil) and I were talking to certain providers. They were apprehensive whether the film could have a pan-Indian reach since Malayalam is a regional language and the content also, they felt, was not pan-Indian. We were keen on breaking that barrier and prove that a film made in Malayalam could be watched by anyone in India and resonate with them. We wanted to prove it visually that it was possible. That was the first step.

When we go for a digital release, the content has to be intriguing enough for the viewer to want to sit through. They have this device called the remote that is missing in theatres. In television channels too, the remote could not be used to forward a story. A person who comes to the theatre comes with a mindset to watch the film and might be willing to put up with lags or certain drawbacks in the film’s plot. However, to hook people to a film with a digital release is going to be a challenge. I am still learning that. That is the reason why even web series on OTT platforms are not like the soap sagas on televisions. There are plot changes, twists… everything is planned to keep the viewer glued to the story.

We have to embrace technology. There are going to be transitions, which might be painful. But change is the only constant. Virtual reality might be the future of films, perhaps even involving the audience. We don’t know. But emotional content will always have its audience; there is a universal truth in it.

(as told to Saraswathy Nagarajan)

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