“This is going to be a one and a half year long sabbatical,” was how D Suresh Babu began the conversation over phone. Suresh Babu owns Suresh Productions, one of the biggest movie banners in India, with its celluloid footprint in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi and is mulling the impact of Covid19 on the world of cinema and entertainment.
T S Sudhir of Filter Kaapi Live spoke to Suresh Babu for an understanding of the kind of Corona-induced hit the movie business has taken and how the industry could well change dramatically over the next few years.
T S Sudhir : Is this the worst crisis for the film industry across regions in India, across continents in the world?
Suresh Babu : Without a doubt, yes. 100 per cent. One has never seen anything like this ever. We have had disruptions due to floods and cyclones, strikes but this is unprecedented. Internationally, look at Walt Disney which is the biggest media brand, it is shaken completely. They hire 2.5 lakh people around the world but today their theme parks, cruiseliners all have stopped.
Sudhir : How bad is bad for the film industry in India? What’s your assessment of the situation?
Suresh : Multiply every crisis into 10 and we are there. The exhibitors are looking at huge losses. PVR, for instance, which is valued at around Rs 10000 crore or Inox that is valued at Rs 5000 crore has lost more than 50 per cent. My cinema theatre business is valued at about Rs 800 crore but now what theatre owners across the country have is just their inventory.
Sudhir : What has been the chatter within film industry circles? Are filmmakers like you looking at what the recovery path could be like?
Suresh : Everything depends on whether we get the vaccine and how soon. Two, once the lockdown ends and restrictions are relaxed, the first to get back to work will the post-production staff. Then shooting may resume but in carefully crafted environment and that too could be more for television and OTT platforms. These will be the first off the block. But then they are just 10-20 per cent of the whole movie business. Only after some amount of comfort comes in, shooting will commence in full steam.
Sudhir : Do you see stories being rewritten, keeping restrictions in mind?
Suresh : Yes, that could happen. People could rewrite stories to ensure they can shoot with just a crew of 20 people. It will be calculated risky filmmaking with protocols in place. For instance, travel to Ramoji Film city in Hyderabad, the entire crew stays there for three months.
Sudhir : That will be Quarantined film making.
Suresh : Question is whether families will let them do such a work schedule. But I think social distancing is here to stay. Also a general sense of better hygiene will come.
Sudhir : To go back to the point you touched upon a little earlier, do you see OTT becoming a platform that regular filmmakers will embrace more now?
Suresh : OTT will be valuable especially if big companies come in. The question is are we looking at a scenario where the entire world has a subscription to OTT platforms. Will it become as normal as having a mobile phone with 5 subscriptions to five different OTT platforms? Then value of the product will go up. Producers could say to the OTT then, for example, that you pay me one dollar for every impression. Different revenue models will emerge but content will always remain king. The key is how to be a differentiator in the market. The advantage on the net is that the whole world can be watching you.
Sudhir : Given how the budgets of many films had shot up, do you envisage a situation where the big stars will have to take a pay cut now?
Suresh : In the initial phase, yes. But stars will continue to be sold. Scripts will be important, good writing will get paid.
Sudhir : Many other businesses associated with films too have taken a hit.
Suresh : Yes, from fashion to cosmetics to tour and travel to retail stores, the full cycle has suffered. The larger and deeper question is do we continue to pursue growth or be like Bhutan where happiness is what we aspire for.
Sudhir : You mentioned about theatres earlier. Given that it will take some time before the audience starts visiting cinema halls again, would it mean the deathknell for the single screen halls. Will they manage to survive since they won’t have deep pockets like some of the multiplex chains?
Suresh : On the contrary, they may be better off as the single screen cinema halls will be deemed to be more safe. Because for the filmgoer, he will not have to pass through a shopping mall with the crowds on his way to the multiplex screen on the fourth floor. Even if the single screen owner is not able to sustain his film exhibition business, he still has real estate, he can always convert into a godown or use it for some other purpose. A multiplex has nothing to sell.
Sudhir : How many of your movies have got stuck since the lockdown began?
Suresh : Oh, the list is long. Four movies which were in different stages of shooting have got stuck. From Venkatesh’s `Naarappa’ that needs another 25 days of shoot to `Crrush’ that requires another 7 days of shoot. We have invested a lot of money and done a lot of planning for Hiranya. The Telugu remake of `Dream Girl’ is scripted and was ready to shoot. I had taken the rights to `Sonu ki Titu ki shaadi’, so that is also in the works. And more projects with Kajal, Regina, Nivetha Thomas.