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Indian films that spend millions on special effects just don’t make good business sense

By Shelly Walia

Despite their mega budgets of around $250 million (Rs1,600 crore), Hollywood’s special effects blockbusters—from Avatar to the Twilight and Harry Potter series—often make good business sense. They’re served up to a massive global English-speaking audience, and their first-rate visual effects keep moviegoers glued to their seats.

Now, an Indian film—perhaps the most expensive ever made in India—wants to take on Hollywood, but with a budget of only about Rs175 crore ($28 million). Directed by S. S. Rajamouli, Bahubali will release on July 10 in multiple languages, including Hindi (backed by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions), Telugu and Tamil.

“Hollywood is much ahead of us in writing and execution. There’s no need to compare our work with theirs. I think getting 80% of their quality in our content with 20% of their budgets will be an achievement,” Rajamouli said in a recent interview. Some 15 visual effects studios and 600 artists have worked on the film over a period of more than two years.

But big budget Indian films, heavy on special effects, typically just don’t deliver the goods.

Producer Rob Cain, writing in Forbes, had this explanation:

…Hindi speaking Indians buy an enormous number of movie tickets each year, but with average ticket prices of just a dollar or two, and movies that gross only a few millions dollars on average, with little audience appeal outside their home turf, it would be foolish in most cases to spend more than a few million dollars to make an Indian language film.

“Indian cinema, including Bollywood, is popular only among people who know about it and sadly most of the world does not,” Tula Goenka, a filmmaker and professor at Syracuse University, told Quartz. “There is a mixture of genres in many films; the aesthetics are not reality based; the song-and-dance routines need getting used to; and most importantly the films are not readily available or widely shown anywhere.”

And apparently, films with special effects are even bigger losers.

“The big VFX-driven films, which are more westernised in their content, tend to alienate the mainstream audience in the smaller towns and rural areas,” Goenka explained. “And the multiplex audience in the cities stay away from these films because they can easily see the real ‘Hollywood’ production.”

Nothing special

Last year, for instance, Tamil film Kochadaiiyaan was made on a budget of Rs125 crore—and ended up with a net box office collection of Rs81 crore.

Tamil superstar Rajinikanth-starrer Enthiran (Robot in Hindi and Telugu) and Shah Rukh Khan’s sci-fi film Ra.One cost about Rs150 crore each, with heavy spending on special effects. And though both delivered big bucks at the box office, the return on investment was dented because of the high cost incurred on the making of these films.

Enthiran—released across 2,250 screens worldwide, with tickets costing up to Rs2,000 in Indian theatres—clocked a revenue of Rs179 crore, including Rs8 crore from satellite rights. (An unofficial estimate, however, is that the film collected Rs350 crore in worldwide box office sales.) Ra.One‘s return on investment was also low, with the film just about breaking even.

Other films with special effects like Drona, Blue, Love Story 2050, among others sank without a trace.