Distributing Indie Films - Is This The Way Forward?

By Jahnavi Patwardhan. Posted on June 03, 2015

Indian indies are finally coming-of-age. A slew of films in the recent past have made a mark internationally and won acclaim at major film festivals. This is true for both fiction & non-fiction. Filmmakers have found their voice and every part of the country is seeing a resurgence of fresh talent that believes in telling new stories in forms hitherto unseen.

No Theater For Indie Films?

While the arrival of cheap yet high quality cameras have lowered the cost of production, it has not resulted in a steady stream of indie films getting screened at theaters across the country. The lack of star power and unique stories that defy the box-office friendly templates mean that these films struggle to find distribution. This has been the case with many critically acclaimed and award winning films including the likes of Liar's Dice, Anhey Ghore Da Daan and Miss Lovely that ran for but a week or two in select theaters in few cities.

The only option for such films till now has been PVR's Director's Rare initiative which ensured that indie films at least got a nominal release. Films like The Untitled Karthik Krishnan Project, The Greater Elephant, Shuttlecock Boys, Lucia, Local Kung Fu, When Hari Got Married, Tasher Desh got a release thanks to the efforts of Shiladitya Bora at PVR.

However no on else has quite picked up the baton and indie films continue their struggle to find distribution like they did 5 or 10 years back. Without a marketing budget, it is next to impossible for these films to break into multiplexes and compete with big-budget star vehicles. Indie films also tend to be niche in orientation. General masses may not be very enthusiastic about most of these films. Given this, the existing multiplex driven distribution channel might not be the best model for these films.

Film Clubs & Screening Spaces - An Alternative Distribution Model?

The question then arises as to what could be done to encourage and screen these films. While the mass of our audience might not appreciate these films, there is a sizable niche audience interested in watching them.

A positive development on this front is the emergence of alternate screening places in our cities that have a regular viewer base inclined towards independent cinema. A prime example of this is the Matterden Centre that has now been running for some time at the refurbished Deepak cinema in Lower Parel, Mumbai. Set up by the Enlighten Film Society it regularly screens independent, arthouse, regional as well as classic films from around the world.

“We want to build Matterden’s identity as a Prithvi for films,” says Enlighten’s founder Pranav Ashar, referring to the theatre hub in the north of Mumbai. The idea is to create an independent, exclusive hub for alternate cinema that can pull the right kind of crowd. Similar such initiatives are live and running across almost all major cities in India. Hubs like Hive & The Root Reel in Mumbai, Arbhaat, Lost The Plot & Popup Talkies in Pune, IndiEarth in Chennai & Bengaluru and the Suchitra Film Society in Bengaluru.

Indidoc is another such initiative started by some like minded documentary filmmakers including Nishtha Jain & Miriam Chandy Menacherry.

In an exclusive interview, Miriam Chandy, one of the founders, explained the idea behind Indidoc "We are a strong representative voice of the Indian Documentary community. An engaging space for documentary filmmakers, practitioners, supporters of the docu movement in India – anyone engaged with documentaries (directors,editors, cinematographers, sound and music directors, writers, other technicians, film festival curators, workshop organisers, distributors, funders, journalists etc).

Talking more about Indidoc and what it does, Miriam said "The first screening in multiple film clubs on October 2nd, 2014 was a new and exciting initiative. We screened the Bangladeshi film Are you Listening?. It was voted by the film clubs and was especially relevant because at the time of the screening, different parts of the country were battling with severe flooding and the film captures the poignant account of a family facing this reality. 

It was also a very visual film that unfolds through imagery and characters that transcend language limitations and therefore we got a very positive feedback from smaller towns where the film was well received despite not following the language or subtitles. We would like to continue these screenings on a regular basis but being filmmakers ourselves caught up in our own projects we are facing hiccups with making a continued and sustained effort. Hopefully we shall crack a more regular screening schedule soon as film clubs have shown a lot of interest and participated enthusiastically."

The warmest response was from younger  clubs who were keen to access the latest and most topical documentary films. Indidoc also got a very positive response from film clubs in smaller towns who don't often have access to this content. Indidoc compiled this list of screening spaces and the list is downloadable for anyone who wants to use it.

Of Travelling Cinema & Open Air Screenings

Perhaps the first filmmaker to understand the relevance and power of taking his film directly to audiences was Sandeep Mohan. He took his film Hola Venky to almost 85 such screening spaces across the country before finally releasing it online. From corporate offices to community centers to open air film clubs, the film screened not only in India, but in the US and Singapore as well.

One of the places it screened at is Lost the Plot in Pune, an open air screening space that screens a mix of cult, classic and independent cinema for everyone to see. When asked about the idea behind Lost the Plot, Nikita Naiknavare (the founder) said "The idea came to me when I was studying in London back in 2012. Open-air cinema had just started becoming popular there. I went for a couple different screenings and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

At the same time, I was tired of the lack of good movie options in the multiplexes back home and a little nostalgic for some of my favourite childhood classics like My Fair Lady or ET or The Sound of Music. I was lucky that my parents introduced us to the Hollywood classics early on. The thought of people not having seen these films ever in India was quite disturbing and so Lost The Plot came together."

Speaking about what ails the indie space, Nikita said "We need a large enough and unified market! There are a lot of initiatives being taken all over the country to promote independent cinema. This is a great move. I think we are all still in the market creation stage though – too few urban youngsters are aware that good quality content is coming out of India as well. There is also the angle of developing a taste for it… that takes time."

Taking a cue from Sandeep's example other filmmakers are now hitting the road as well. Nisha Pahuja is taking her had hitting doc The World Before Her to villages across India. This is a welcome trend and we might see more Indie filmmakers taking this route to getting their films seen.

However these screenings do not yet have an economic model in place. A film may find it's audience and that is a big deal in itself, but it still has to recover it's cost. And free screenings are probably not the answer to that. Unless one finds a way to do a co-ordinated release across these film clubs with an entry fee, a part of which flows back to the filmmaker. Now that might just open up the space and provide a viable distribution model for producers and filmmakers alike.

Is anyone listening?


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