At a time when the film industry is going through a recovery phase after witnessing losses of thousands of crores owing to the pandemic since March 2021, reports of actors charging a hefty amount of money for their remuneration keep resurfacing time and again. At Film Companion's Producers Adda 2021, top producers including Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Nikkhil Advani and Sameer Nair came together to discuss the problem, the rationale behind it and the need to pay the crew better.
Anupama Chopra (AC): I spoke to Nitin Tej Ahuja, the CEO at the Producer's Guild. In 2020, there was 80% loss of revenue; Harminder Sandhu at Box Office India said, 'In 2021, we should have ideally looked at a nett of 8,500 crores, we are going to look at 1,500 crores.' I understand that producers have made money because there are streaming platforms, but exhibitors and distributors obviously haven't. Given this scenario, apparently, actor prices are still going up. How is this possible?
Karan Johar (KJ): I am so fed up. I have seen prices of actors rise through the worst period of cinema for no reason. They hadn't had a release, their last release was a failure, their films have not taken off, and yet they are just [rising their prices] because they are riding on the digital money. They have gone beyond deluded. And we all have to just suck it up and work with them because this is what we do.
Zoya Akhtar (ZA): Or [you can choose to] not work with them. Work with other people. People will not stop watching your films.
KJ: But there are verticals involved. There is a satellite, a digital, and there is music – these are the three verticals that you sell. When you do your mathematics and you take certain actors, you have a certain recovery rate and you can make your stories. The moment you go completely raw and new, you have to cut on the quality and the way you make the film, unless you are a big filmmaker.
ZA: I find the disparity above the line and below the line quite offensive. You cannot make a good film without technicians. They are artists, they are not just "technical crew." And the disparity is just shocking.
KJ: Yes! Pay the writer, the cinematographer, the editor.
AC: You all are the biggest filmmakers currently working. How would you not be able to do this together?
KJ: It's not possible.
Reema Kagti (RK): Yes, there's always that one film where you can't cut the budget and you can't go with a newcomer.
KJ: Once a filmmaker's project, on which they have worked hard for years, is green-lit and an actor says yes, then you know that for the filmmaker, you have to stretch, because they have been working. So, you will pay that money knowing that it'll get adjusted during the recovery but it's not fair, because you make nothing [as a producer].
ZA: What about working structures with backends?
KJ: They don't understand. Because in the climate that we are in, nobody is taking theatrical backends. You are taking a percentage of profit instead, which you can offer as well. Striking those deals with megastars make sense. What I am not understanding is that there is a younger order that is yet to prove their muscle at the box office. But instantly, you hear [them asking for] 25-35 crores. What are these numbers?
Nikkhil Advani (NA): Can people stop talking in multiples of nine? Their salary just goes up by nine times. When I ask them how, they say, 'Nine is my lucky number!'
AC: But are you telling me that Dharma Productions can't tell people that this is too much?
KJ: You can have hard conversations and probably can strike a better deal than maybe another production house will. But it is still not fair. I would rather pay top dollar and much more to members of the technical crew who really, really make your film special. There are editors who have saved films. There are cinematographers who have uplifted films.
I'm like, 'Why am I paying this actor over Rs. 15 crores and I am paying my editor, Rs. 55 lakhs? It's not making any sense to me.' But that's just become the market norm. And then there are certain editors, writers, cinematographers and lead technicians who have upped their numbers, and more power to them. If they are delivering, they must be paid. Even in our own production house, I feel the mindset is like: 'Why are we paying the writer so much?' How dare you say that? The film is good because of the writing. It's not good because an actor comes and does their job. Of course, they'll do their job well but the fulcrum of the film lies in its narrative.
NA: I am not taking any names, but there are only 7-8 people who are actually deciding everything. So, if they decide the number, everybody follows. He's getting that number, as a producer, you're like, 'Oh my God! If I'm giving one guy this number, what happens when another guy finds out?'
AC: What is that number?
NA: It has reached Rs. 135 crores [for one actor]. So, I'm not even getting into the numbers. There's a lovely line this particular actor told me, "6 hero hain, do jail me hai, sab mere paas aayenge [There are six top actors, two of whom are in jail. Everyone will come to me]."
Sameer Nair (SN): But the thing is, if these are the six [big stars], you have to pay them because they are the ones who get that ROI. But there are others to work with as well. If X gets this number and that benchmarks the industry, then I think that's our fault. If the industry gets benchmarked because of that and then everyone plays into that, it's our fault.
NA: What Sameer is saying is correct. That particular actor who is charging you the money is getting ROI, so you are feeling, 'Ok great, I am recovering that cost.' But everybody is basically saying, "Abhi aapne usko itna diya, toh abhi mera itna ho gaya."
SN: What will also come in the watch now is the pricing structure – currently, there is a fixed pricing structure where an amount is set aside for theatrical, satellite and digital. As time passes, the streamer data is going to call out these things. They are going to have a different perspective based on the viewership data.
KJ: There is already a certain adjustment in satellite money because of the digital revolution. The moment there is a massive adjustment there, everything will change.
RK: It's age-old demand-supply. For the number of films we make, there are just 7-8 viable stars.
KJ: But yes, every single person is charging more than they were two years ago. It's not a 10% rise but a 100% rise sometimes.