Cinema screens have been shut across India, and globally, film shoots have been cancelled. We seem to be living in a Black Mirror script. An entire industry that relies on collaboration between large numbers of people and big audiences now finds itself facing an unprecedented crisis.

At the same time, people are watching films and shows more than ever before. Television ratings have gone up and membership for online streaming platforms have grown, but the reality behind the scenes is more complicated.

Take our own example. At The Story Ink we provide producers and production houses with stories that ultimately become the movies and shows that people love, representing books (and their writers) for the purpose of adapting them for visual media. Before the lockdown we would close approximately five to six deals in a month – but since the lockdown began, the number of deals has gone down by 80%.

Books, masala movies and TV shows

The bridge between books and screen content in India has always been a long and shaky one. In the 1980s, films in India went through a shift from being meaningful stories to commercial masala entertainment that lasted decades. During this time, Indian publishing was not where filmmakers turned for material.

Since films are driven by a vision, books need to get the attention of filmmakers who are inclined to reading. Some Indian novels and stories have been made into compelling films, such as Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, which was adapted for the screen several times. Shatranj Ke Khiladi by Munshi Premchand was a classic by the great Satyajit Ray. A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond was adapted by Shyam Benegal as Junoon, and Tamas by Bhisham Sahni was made into a film by Govind Nihalani.

More recently, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, and Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Pinjar, based on Amrita Pritam’s novel, brought the focus back on books in Indian cinema. Bhansali’s Saawariya was based on the short story “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vishal Bhardwaj’s The Blue Umbrella, on a story by Ruskin Bond. But these could not really break into the commercial cinema world.

Then came Chetan Bhagat, who not only took the publishing world in India by storm, but also led the new book-to-screen trend in the country. With the film Hello being based on his One Night At The Call Centre, 3 idiots on Five Points Someone, Kai Po Che on The Three Mistakes Of My Life, and Two States and Half Girlfriend on books with the same names, he stormed the Indian box office consistently.

In the TV world a number of shows have used books as source material. The show Kum Kum Bhaagya is based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, one of India’s longest-running shows on television, is based on writer Taarak Mehta’s column “Duniya Ne Oondha Chashma”. Yeh Hai Mohabbatein, another popular television show, is based on Manju Kapoor’s novel Custody.

In the past two years, with the entry of streaming platforms, the focus is back on compelling stories from books. Among the notable book-to-screen deals are those for Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions, and William Dalrymple’s new book, The Anarchy.

A dearth of funds

For any production company, buying the rights to a book or story means commissioning a fresh project, which in turn means spending money. Ever since the Covid-19 lockdown began, shoots have been cancelled and projects, delayed. The lack of funds means that production houses won’t be jumping to make new deal even after the lockdown ends.

The first priority for these companies will be to resume their delayed projects. I fear that small companies which only have the ability to pursue a few projects at a time will not consider new deals, while the bigger companies will take on very few.

Ideally, the increased demand for content should be fulfilled by streaming platforms and TV networks, but the same networks have seen a substantial drop in their advertising volumes. This is because companies have to prioritise their expenses so as to pay existing employees first, and don’t have excess money for advertising. With no money coming in from advertising, TV networks have fewer funds for new content.

While streaming platforms have been able to maintain their earnings, owing to a large library, they too are facing hurdles when it comes to producing new content.

Going to the movies – and making new ones

Talking about films specifically, even if theatres reopen with restrictions and modifications, audiences may not rush to buy tickets for fear of contracting the virus. Recently, the CEO of one of India’s leading online streaming platforms pointed out during a chat that the falling advertisement revenues mean that TV networks will be allocating funds only for the development of projects already in the pipeline – at least till July. A similar view was shared by Shibashish Sarkar, CEO of Reliance Entertainment.

Large film production houses will now focus their resources on low-budget films that need compact crews in controlled locations, so that execution is not hampered. Sarkar said that restrictions on movement in metropolitan cities like Mumbai might hamper regular shoots in the future. As Gaurav Verma, producer and COO of Red Chillies Entertainment said, “We can no longer work with large crews, we have to learn to work efficiently with fewer people so that we can maintain a healthy and safe environment. This means less of travel, shooting in familiar locations, scripts with minimum locations, probably soundstage, and no elaborate setup requirements.”

It might be prudent to find stories that can be shot in non-urban, green, non-COVID districts. Sarkar also suggested that the trend for small and mid-budget films being released directly on digital platforms might fuel this category.

The advent of streaming platforms in India has created an alternative platform for films and shows. If a production house is able to make a film or show with a relatively small budget, it has the opportunity of being bought by a streaming platform at a guaranteed profit.

Back to books?

Will this encourage production houses to turn to books for their next script? National Award winning filmmaker Mikhil Musale said it will. “Considering that OTT is going to be benefitted the most, especially in the next six months to one year, stories from books will be sought after as both platforms and producers are in need of production-ready material.”

Verma agreed. “Books give us ready stories, tried and tested with reactions from the readers. We will see more and more books with a thematic inclination towards the audio-visual getting converted into films or series”.

Added Musale, “Since the story arc and characters have already been established in a book, conversion is easier than developing a completely original script, especially for a web series – which usually takes more time in a writer’s room.”

Two things will drive opportunity in the next few months: the choice of story, and the ability to collaborate on innovative execution strategies.

In my opinion, genres like action adventure, period historical, fantasy, and mythological epics will be difficult to set up in the near term. I would bet on single location thrillers, low-budget horror stories, comedy sitcoms, and compact family dramas.

On the collaboration front, this is the best time for authors and publishers to join hands with development producers, select the right books, and work with screenwriters and directors to create compelling and appropriate scripts that will fit the new normal

“These are extraordinary times,” insisted Gaurav Verma. ‘For the first time ever streaming platforms and entertainment on TV have no competition from sports, events, news, etc. The media industry has un-opposed insights into consumer behaviour, which will ultimately shape the future.” Disruption always calls for more innovation, and that’s what creators do best.

Sidharth Jain is Producer & Chief Storyteller at The Story Ink.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.