Varun Dhawan promoting Street Dancer in Gujarat

How do you know when a big Bollywood film is releasing? About 20 days before, you’ll begin to feel like its lead actors are stalking you. They’re on the front page ads of newspapers, they’re inviting you to dance challenges on social media, they’re smiling down at you from billboards and they’re on every reality show doing the same hook step. This step will most likely be from a remixed song that isn’t a part of the movie but exists only so that it can be used during promotions. You can also find actors at every sporting event, college, shopping mall and more. Film after film, it’s the same old drill.

One can see how a TV show or event could gain from a star’s presence, but is it really dialling back to the film? Will more people turn up at the theatre because the actors went on Kapil Sharma’s popular TV show or Dance Plus? And does every film have to do the exact same thing?

Filmmaker Kabir Khan clears it up. “Getting on to those reality shows is only helping the show, not the film,” says the director of films like 83 and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. “If it’s a small film, then getting on a TV show will definitely help you reach millions of homes. But they don’t want small films. That’s the trap. They want Salman Khan’s films. Now who doesn’t know Salman Khan has a film coming out?” he asks. In fact, many film insiders suspect that Bollywood film promotions end up feeding every other business apart from the film itself. It supports an ecosystem that includes PR teams, social media companies, brands the film is associated with, and actors’ stylists and hair and make-up team that get paid handsomely for each appearance they make.

One can see how a TV show or event could gain from a star’s presence, but is it really dialling back to the film? Will more people turn up at the theatre because the actors went on Kapil Sharma’s popular TV show or Dance Plus? And does every film have to do the exact same thing?  

In 2018, research agency Ormax Media compiled a report that listed the multiple factors that place more bums on seats at movie theatres. It said that the crucial drivers were the film’s trailer, its uniqueness and star cast. Its marketing ranked way below. The report also said that viewers primarily discover an upcoming movie on YouTube. Star visits to cities, paid print articles (Medianet) and reality show appearances are becoming increasingly ineffective. “Stars travelling to cities is the most wasteful thing ever. You have to fly them and their big teams, and you’ll get some local print coverage. That whole exercise is known not to give any returns,” says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax. Yet, every film follows these same beats during promotions and it doesn’t come cheap.

ormax audience bollywood report 2018

Today the print and publicity budget of a big Hindi film can go as high as Rs 25-30 crore (25% of this includes the cost of the film’s digital prints). If you’re thinking another film could be made with this budget, you’re absolutely right. Are such excessive spends really necessary? “No we don’t have to. We absolutely don’t,” says producer Siddharth Roy Kapur. Then why are we still doing it? “An Ormax survey may say that it’s the trailer and poster (that works) and most of us instinctively feel that it might be the case but there’s no way of knowing for sure. When financiers put in the kind of investment they do into a film, they don’t want to leave any stone unturned to ensure that the film gets a proper platform. It takes one person to jump off the cliff and save a hell lot of money on marketing at the risk of the film not getting the opening that it needs, and then everyone else will follow. No one wants to be the sacrificial lamb,” explains Kapur.

A movie, like any product, needs a sound marketing strategy – one that is suited to a product with a short shelf life. The fate of a film is hinged on that one opening Friday and panicky producers are trying just about everything to get your attention, because who knows what might work. If you sold this logic to a marketing head from the FMCG world he/she would probably keel over.

A leading producer from one of the oldest film companies, who did not want to be named, says marketing strategies are often driven more by the whims of movie stars and less by experts. “We waste a lot of money on things that don’t work, like big newspaper ads, only because the star wants it. We’ve tried to explain that with print circulation going down, these don’t help but then they’ll see other actors do it and say, ‘If his film has full page ads on Bombay Times, why don’t I’,” he says. Paid media is also less about reaching prospective ticket buyers and more about the industry talking to each other. “The distributors see it and think – picture garam hai,” he adds. Similarly, hoardings, which could cost up to Rs 80 lakh, are known to not deliver returns, but producers still buy space at strategic signals in Juhu and Andheri, where all major film offices are located. Think of it as a very expensive way of telling your colleagues that you have a film up for release.

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The cast of Housefull 4 took a 16-hour train journey with about 50 journalists to promote the film.

Films are now diverting most of their marketing spends to digital, as they should. But the challenge is to find ways to keep the buzz on digital consistent and engaging so that your film doesn’t get lost in the noise. A PR representative who has been in the business for long says the idea of flying stars everywhere only exists so that they’d have something to post on social media. “I am often told that going to colleges helps only so that you can post Tik Tok and Insta videos of the cast with students cheering in the background. These help build perception that people are looking forward to the film,” he explained. Last week, Varun Dhawan posted videos of him flying kites with locals in Ahmedabad to promote his film Street Dancer. The cast of Housefull 4 took a 16-hour train journey with about 50 journalists. Videos of Akshay Kumar moderating a game of Housie and Antakshari with journalists inside a jam-packed compartment flooded our TikTok, Twitter and Instagram timelines for days.

About 15 years ago, Roy Kapur says, films like Rang De Basanti started the trend of city tours and engaging with students on campuses. It worked then because the idea was fresh. “Today it’s become a part of the 20 things that every film has to do in order to be perceived as having marketed it properly. No one has reinvented the wheel,” he adds.

Let’s take a minute to see how the South film industry has navigated this problem. They spend a fraction of what Bollywood forks out (roughly between Rs 3-5 crore for Telugu and Tamil films) and most of their leading stars aren’t as overexposed as ours. In fact, many don’t give interviews at all and this hasn’t dented their opening day collections. Their window for film promotions is also way shorter. “We knew we would release our film Venky Mama sometime in December last year so about 6 months before we put out something saying ‘coming this December’. But the release date was announced 10 days before and we just put it out. Here very few films run on studio money. It’s personally financed so getting the film out soon is key,” explains actor and producer Rana Daggubati.

The stringent rules of the Telugu producers’ council also restrict wastage or flaunting of money. There are caps on how much a film can advertise on print and television. This way, a big film can’t out shout a smaller indie by throwing more money – it’s a level playing field. And even so, Rana says, film promotions are a mystery even to them. “There’s some gap in the entire system. The first time I realised this was so expensive was when I produced The Ghazi Attack because I did that by myself. It’s a lot of money that doesn’t come back and no one has done a study to see how much is enough,” he says.

And that’s the crux of the problem. There’s no way to tell the bad ideas from the good ones. Did the Housefull train journey contribute to the film’s strong box office numbers? Will the kite flying help Street Dancer? There are no answers. “The Monday after release, people stop thinking about the film. The producers also quickly move on to the next film. They don’t look back to see what worked and what didn’t in the campaign,” says Shailesh Kapoor. According to Prabhat Choudhary, who heads Bollywood’s biggest PR agency, Spice PR, “The industry is averse to research and data.” Well, then perhaps it’s time for someone to stage an intervention.

(With input from Anupama Chopra)

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