As Hollywood turns up heat, Bollywood struggles to swing its first big hit

Left to Right: Guardians of the Galaxy (released May 5), Spiderman: Homecoming (to be released July 2017) are part of the Hollywood 2017 slate for India
Long before Guardians 2 is already raking it in and Hollywood is scoring another big one at the box office while Bollywood is still looking for its big hit of the year.  

Franchise films are setting Indian screens on fire; from less than five a year in 2014, there are 19 films being released in India this year. The numbers are up as is the noise around the launches. The movies are released in anywhere between 800-1,200 screens and are packed with pre- and post-release publicity and merchandise marketing. Studios like Disney, Viacom, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox are bringing in every big franchise film into India, not just the prequels and sequels but also movies that deal with extensions of the universe and sometimes even obscure character projections. 

Studio executives say that the franchise model has taken off in India since 2014. Be it sequels like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), they are drawing in audiences and attracting brands as publicity and merchandise partners.

Vivek Krishnani, MD, Sony Pictures Entertainment (India) says, “When a film is part of a franchise, it enjoys a level of awareness, which translates to velocity while driving footfalls. A film which is part of a franchise or simply a sequel promises higher occupancy (when compared to a standalone film) since the appeal is stronger.” There is a flipside to this because greater awareness means the audience comes with a set of expectations, formed even before the trailers are out in some cases. 

Amrita Pandey, vice-president, studios, Disney India believes that Indian audiences are particularly receptive to what she calls ‘universal blockbusters’ across genres like super-hero/ creature/ disaster/ fantasy fare that are language agnostic. “Some of the studio’s biggest box office successes have either been a part of a larger franchise (Marvel’s The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast), which makes them more relatable to the audience,” she says. 

Franchise films have managed to successfully exploit the merchandise model in the country too. Pandey says, “With a popular franchise there is a certain sense of ownership that the audience already enjoys. They know the characters, the story is something they have invested in. The inherent connection is the initial driving factor in most cases.” This leads many to invest in character-branded products and other licensed material, thereby giving the movie a life beyond the screen and opening up new revenue streams.

While Hollywood is milking its franchise formula to the hilt in India, Bollywood has struggled to create a successful one. There are a few such as Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, but these are few and far in between.

Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom18 Motion Pictures says that creating a franchise calls for sharp focus on strategy, and of course content. “What is important is to be true to the essence of creating a franchise. One needs to closely evaluate which films deserve a franchise. Not every film can be made into one. A franchise needs to ideally be able to take the story forward or up the scale of the film a few notches. Just making title franchises is a short term game and leads to a rapid decline after the first couple of films in the series,” he says. He gives the example of Mission Impossible franchise followed a similar trend, he says.

Franchise films, studio heads say, are a perfect study in how to build a brand. It is a long-term play, not just a one story affair. Also it works only when the creators are able to build a larger universe around the story, filling the plot with back stories, character extensions and open-ended resolutions that could take the story further. “The concept of a franchise forms the basics of brand building. Films invest heavily in marketing to create recall for the movie brand. When you extend the brand into a franchise, it significantly reduces the need to build the brand from scratch and hence marketing investments can be optimised with disproportionate returns,” Andhare says.  

It also opens up ancillary revenue streams like gaming and merchandise. “With merchandise, it’s a win-win for the studio and the brand. It gives a touch and feel experience (of the characters/franchise) to the audience. For the brand, it’s an opportunity to tap into the fan base of the franchise,” Krishnani adds. It is all about numbers at the end of the day.

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