Bollywood makers rethink promotional game ahead of big releases, focus to avoid backlash and political controversy – The Indian Express

All publicity is no more good publicity. In what is clearly turning out to be a monumental learning year for the Hindi film industry, artistes are not just rethinking ways to mount better films but also revamping how they want to reach out to their audience: relying less on traditional media interviews, avoiding controversial talking points and favouring social media influencers to make noise about their movies.
Bollywood has been wrestling with a perception problem, especially this year, when only a handful of Hindi films have truly shone at the box office. The conversations around films have been “negative”, as their dismissal figures have been drummed up along with relentless social media hate for film stars, including Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar, Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor.
In the last week of July, when superstar Aamir was asked about boycott calls surrounding Bollywood–and specifically his film Laal Singh Chaddha–his answer, requesting people to not boycott his movies, led to a nationwide debate. What it also did, according to various industry experts spoke to, is caution makers to avoid wading into topics that can cause an uproar.
A source from one of the biggest film marketing agencies shared with how production houses are trying to cut down press interviews in a major way to safeguard their films.
“A lot of South Indian films have not had media interactions in the south and they’re used to having press conferences instead. Similarly, many Bollywood banners too are cutting down on media interactions when it comes to film promotions. Most say it is to cut down on building negativity around a film,” the source said.
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In September, when Ranbir Kapoor-Alia Bhatt starrer Brahmastra was gearing up for release, the makers followed suit and hosted some select pre-release interviews. The film’s high-octane promotional campaign constantly braved online negativity, as calls for boycott only grew louder–with even on-ground protests outside Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain against Ranbir and Alia.
“The team did not want any diversion from the film in the form of some statement or political topic being brought up, which would have been far removed from what the film stood for or intended to say. The makers decided to keep the media, at least before the film released, at a distance,” an insider shared.
According to the marketing agency source, efforts are now in place to have planned, largely interviews-free campaigns to avoid any untoward attention on movies and stars.
“It is easier and safer to have partners on the film than press. Most stars want to not answer ‘tricky’ questions and keep controversies at bay, so this works in their favour. Production houses too want to draw the audience’s focus on their film, so it works for them too to have planned promotions and PR instead of freewheeling press interviews,” the source said.
The best alternative, if it suits the film’s theme, is to take the microphone from the media–or restrict them for mostly “off the record” conversations–and give access to social media influencers to make content featuring stars. Though the practice has been in place for years, at least before the pandemic there was a balance between influencer marketing and press interviews, which has now completely tilted.
“Most stars today choose to have a concept shoot with influencers. For them it is the kind of work they already do, and it keeps any kind of controversy at bay. For them, it is like shooting a couple of ads in a day.  Interacting with content creators, influencers and making reels is a win-win situation for the stars, the production houses as well as content creators as they have more direct reach with audiences than the media has.
“The scene with content creators is also quite controlled as mostly they choose not to put the actors in a tricky situation, and they are designed to promote in a more effective way. They write their own script, plan the shoot, so it is less stressful for production houses,” the source added.
Digital content creator Shravan Shah, with a following of over a lakh on Instagram, said post pandemic, the reliance on influencers has only multiplied. “There was a time when influencers were looked at purely for the purpose of entertainment and knowledge. But after the pandemic, the influencer eco-system has completely grown.”
Superstar Shah Rukh Khan, who would routinely talk to media on his birthday and Eid as a ritual, has also, over the years, stopped media interactions. His last press interview was during his 2018 film Zero. This year on his birthday, the superstar hosted a meet and greet with fans, where media was out of sight.
Actor Ranbir Kapoor’s first release of the year, Shamshera, had a mix of spread-out media interactions and a heavy Instagram influencer campaign, where the actor was seen dancing with content creators and being a part of their comedy sketches. The videos were widely shared, received a lot of love and likes but when the film released, Shamshera opened at around Rs 10.25 crore, a disappointing figure.
“What is clear so far, and without a doubt, that media interactions where questions go beyond films and into areas of boycotts and backlash are a risky proposition,” a trade analyst shared with on the condition of anonymity. “Not that it can dent box office collection, but simply that they tend to generate conversations which no producer likes today. But what is also quite clear, is that influencer campaigns can generate views, but not necessarily get you big box office numbers. If the trailer or music doesn’t work, nothing will work,” the trade source added.
This year, Bollywood also witnessed a strange mix of promotional campaign window. Aamir experimented a longer campaign for his Laal Singh Chaddha and dropped its trailer in May, three months before it hit the screens. While Akshay Kumar’s fourth theatrical release of the year Ram Setu launched its trailer just two weeks before its Diwali release.
Trade expert Joginder Tuteja said there is no method to the madness, as producers decide on a promotion window based on their films. “Brahmastra had a one year long promotion, some South films are also scheduled to have a year-long promotional schedule because they are looking at a pan-India release. On the other hand, there are curtailed promotions happening too, like Ram Setu trailer which had dropped just two weeks before the release.
“All kinds of promotional windows are being applied. A lot of South films have this trend of coming up with promotions with just a 15-day window. There is no real trend or intent behind that either. It is all what the makers believe. For event films, it makes sense to have a long promotion because you want to establish a film in the minds of the audience. I can’t foresee a Pathaan releasing with a 15-day promotion schedule,” he added.
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