What are filmmakers doing during the lockdown?

With movie theatres closed and film shoots cancelled, filmmakers are using the time to revisit scripts, plan new projects and introspect

Published: May 23, 2020 09:31:52 AM IST
Updated: May 22, 2020 02:30:05 PM IST

filmmakers bgClockwise from top: Aditya Dhar, Neeraj Pandey, RS Prasanna & Renuka Shahane

On May 6, amid the lockdown, actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote on his blog that he had shot promos for the 12th season of Kaun Banega Crorepati and some social messaging videos after taking necessary precautions. He added that work that was scheduled for two days was completed in just one day. A day before that, Hollywood filmmaker Manoj Night Shyamalan tweeted that he had begun casting for his new film, which will be shot as soon as it is safe to do so. “I have been overwhelmed by the auditions. Recorded in homes all around the world. With such staggering numbers,” he wrote. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in heavy losses for the film industry globally, as theatres remain shut and shoots cancelled. The fate of films that were ready for release remains uncertain, while some producers are contemplating releasing them on over-the-top platforms. Director Shoojit Sircar is releasing Gulabo Sitabo on Amazon Prime Video.

Several filmmakers, however, are confident of the industry emerging stronger from the crisis. And they are doing their bit towards this by scouting for locations from their homes, editing content that has already been filmed and refining scripts, among others. Forbes India spoke to four filmmakers about the future of the industry in a post-Covid-19 world.

Cinema will bounce back: Aditya Dhar, Director, Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019)
Upcoming Project: The Immortal Ashwatthama

aditya dhar-7174

For the last 10 to 12 years, I was mostly involved in writing; it is a job where isolation is involved. You are in a room for 8 to 10 hours a day, imagining or thinking of stories. During this lockdown, I have been working extensively on the script of my next film, The Immortal Ashwatthama, and the pre-production. Given the scale of the movie, the more we work on pre-production, the better it is for the film; we’ll waste less time once we go on the floors. Most of my days are spent on Zoom calls, discussing some aspect of the film. We are location-hunting and are in talks with various companies around the world. Given the current situation, we are keeping all options open. If we have to shoot parts on a studio floor, we’ll do that. We are supposed to start shooting in March 2021. We still have time, but because of the lockdown there will be some ripple effect. Lead actor Vicky Kaushal’s dates may have to be readjusted if Takht [the film he is doing before Ashwatthama] gets pushed ahead; our schedule may have to be reworked. 

Business is likely to be affected for the next six months at least. There will be a lot of support from the digital media for films and we are seeing that already. Some films are scheduled to release directly on OTT platforms, which are benefiting from the lockdown. The normalisation of the theatre experience will take time. Filmmakers will keep digital options open because we don’t have to spend on marketing and PR. The profit is on the table and the risk is lower for the producer, especially in an uncertain environment like now. As an industry, we’ll have to relook at budgets and the cost of production. We’ll have to cut down on overheads and put our energies and monies into making a great film. We may have to forego staying in the best hotels or taking the best flights.

(As told to Kunal Purandare)

The theatrical experience will come back sooner or later: Neeraj Pandey, Director, Special 26 (2013), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Special Ops (2020) on Hotstar
Upcoming projects: Untitled  films and web series 

neeraj pandey_0328Image: Neelesh Kale

The situation unravelled rapidly… within a couple of weeks we had a lockdown and were exposed to the enormity of the virus. We had just released Special Ops and there were multiple projects on the floor—both digital and films—that had to be put on hold. It was a tough call with lots at stake, but we had no option. The priority was to tide over the crisis. Work can happen only if we see through this. While we are in for a long haul... we are putting our heads together on what could be our next step once we get back to normalcy. 

Everyone in the industry understands it’s going to be tough for the theatrical business. But that’s our first love and we will support it. Cinema is the preferred format… the community experience is so embedded in our lives that we look forward to it and there will be no substitute for such experiences. Once production starts, people will eventually start making content and normalcy will be restored. A movie will open up somewhere or the other and there will be learnings from there.

People worldwide will react differently to lockdown restrictions. The smarter nations will be the quickest to recover. My recommendation would be to fill your mind with positive thoughts. Read, watch (anything that you like) and if you have the gift of doing nothing, do that. Apart from developing new projects, the writer in me is always thinking... it’s a way of life. I am spending a lot of quality time with my family. I am reading and listening to music. I have been collecting Vinyl records over the years, but not had the time to listen to them. I am listening to SD Burman and Shailendra—rediscovering my everlasting love for their incredible compositions.  

Our industry has been a neglected stepchild. There is little respect for the work we do and the levels of employment we generate. The loss in recent months has been enormous. There is a lot of pain and suffering, and I don’t see it improving soon despite the help we have been providing. I hope we come to a situation where people resume work, but I don’t see it happening soon. I am not a pessimist, but it’s going to be a tough road ahead.

We have to get back to doing what we do best and therein lies the answer to most of our problems. We are born with a survival instinct and the ability to adapt. The show must go on and it will. Cinema on its own has survived anything and everything. You will see a small bump here or there, but the theatrical experience will come back sooner or later. ​There are some experiences, which will always be exclusive to cinema.​

Of course, there will be a rush towards OTT to showcase content that’s ready. Some mid-sized films will release directly on OTT… these are business calls. I am sure most of these platforms are planning to start productions in controlled environments with limited crew. It’s all about adapting to new ways of customising content. But once people are able to travel, we will return to the bigger stories. OTT can never be a substitute for the cinema experience, but would certainly be a game changer.

For storytellers, these are exciting times with multiple platforms at our disposal. Often, we shy away from a theatrical release because of the marketing and publicity costs involved. As it is there is so much clutter [with multiple films releasing on the same day]. So it’s better to recoup the cost by putting it on OTT. Small and medium scale production houses who are facing the brunt of this pandemic would definitely be approaching these platforms. But let’s not look for shortcuts and abuse this medium. It’s a fantastic opportunity for new age storytellers and technicians to tell stories in the most risky fashion to an international audience. 

I am more than eager to shoot once the opportunity presents itself. But if the situation demands we have to shoot with VFX, we will have to take that call. The world will certainly take some time to heal. Movies are slightly down in the pecking order.

(As told to Anjan Das)

All of us should take a pay cut: Renuka Shahane, Actor-director, Rita (2009)
Upcoming Project: Tribhanga on Netflix

renuka shahane_20200508_204811

The lockdown came as a complete shock. I was fortunate that I had completed shooting for my film and most of the editing work. However, a lot of my peers had to cancel their shoots and incur heavy losses.

Although I am confined to my home, I am totally immersed in my project. The entire post-production of Tribhanga is yet to be completed. It took me some time to adjust to working from home. Netflix stepped in and ensured that the technicians got computers at home. We kept talking over video calls and worked around the editing process. There is a lot of VFX involved and that process has also started. It gets a bit tedious at times because in a studio, you can immediately correct and discuss things. But we have made significant progress. The sound and other technicalities can be completed only after the studios open. In fact, if we manage to complete everything, we may showcase the film earlier—in end-2020 instead of early 2021, as scheduled. Because it’s one of the projects on its way to completion unlike others which are stuck.  

In terms of the industry, it’s going to take longer for us to adjust to the new normal. We shoot in congested locations, so it’s difficult to maintain social distancing with a unit of 150 people. Safety precautions can be adhered to, but actors can’t wear masks and perform.

It’s going to be extremely difficult for theatre owners to make a profit for a long time and so, as an industry, we need to help each other, including our technicians and those who work on daily wages. All of us, especially the big stars—I shouldn’t be saying this on their behalf—should take a pay cut. It will take a long time before normalcy returns. We’ll also have to take a relook at the cost at which we make and sell a film. We’ll have to rethink this model and work in a viable manner so that everybody earns money.

It’s possible that some filmmakers will opt for the digital medium, and won’t wait for theatres to reopen. Of course, if it’s a film made for the masses and the makers have the capacity to wait it out, they will see how the situation evolves.  

I am using this time to do a lot of writing. I am revisiting the script that I had started before Tribhanga went on floors. It has been with me for three years, and I haven’t had the time to dwell upon it. I am also working on a web series, though it hasn’t been commissioned yet. I used to feel handicapped because I hadn’t seen certain films. I have seen a lot of Malayalam films in this phase and have been blown away by many of them.

(As told to Kunal Purandare)

The impact will be felt next year also: RS Prasanna, Director, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017)
Upcoming Project: Untitled film

rs prasanna_20200511_175622Image: Meenakshi Ramani

I attended a meeting in Mumbai in mid-March when I realised a lot of people were wearing masks and many thought I had done a brave thing by flying in from Chennai. Eventually, I learnt that offices were closing and people were being told to work from home. The seriousness hit me only then. I had another meeting the week after, but I held it online.

I am still writing my film, so the lockdown has not affected me that much. But a lot of people who had started production or were on the verge of completing their films are badly stuck.

This time has helped me go back to the drawing board, but not having face-to-face meetings and missing the human element in communication made me uncomfortable. But actors are available for narrations, which is good. Even OTTs are looking at greenlighting a lot of projects. People who were earlier snobbish about the medium are now willing to embrace it.

My writers, however, took a lot of time to adjust. They work from home otherwise too, but this time they couldn’t. Suddenly we were talking about the gravity of the situation and whether the film will even get made. Now we are doing calls and Zoom narrations. We have realised work can go on. At least we are privileged to have work.

To make the most of the time on hand and keep away from the gloom, I started giving online lessons on filmmaking with 15-minute videos on YouTube for two weeks. I am also extensively developing projects across the web. I am looking forward to debuting on the digital medium. I also got back my reading habit, which I had lost for a long time. I have gone back to my favourite authors who taught me cinema.

I’ve heard that some studios in Los Angeles have announced social distancing while filming. I don’t know how that will work out. I am sceptical, because film sets are completely unregulated.

Filmmaking and safety don’t usually go hand-in-hand. Yes, some production houses will take care, but we are not a regulated factory where there can be checks. At the same

time, you have to earn money… people will have to go and work. It is scary. 

Most people will hold back till there is clarity. But people will want to throng theatres whenever they open. The theatrical experience will never go out. People will give you lots of revenue, but if you have ‘socially distancing seats’, theatres won’t break even.

There is going to be a huge shift towards digital because it’s going to take longer to make movies and screen them. The impact will be felt largely next year also. I don’t think we have begun to understand the enormity of it. 

Digital platforms will get more eyeballs in the immediate future, but they will be under pressure to create content. Nobody has a library ready for six to eight months. Also, I don’t understand this theatres versus OTT... it’s just a different form of storytelling. It’s like having to choose between a Friday night party and a romantic date on a Sunday... why does one have to choose? Both will coexist.

(As told to Kunal Purandare)

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