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what makes a film successful? I suppose this is the one big question all filmmakers and people in the film industry grapple with. Is the story alone the biggest part of what makes people like films? Or are there other factors? Stars, brands, marketing, etc. All of these are important elements without a doubt but can we say without question that if the story isn’t good, these things can still make a film a success? Rephrasing, is a strong narrative enough to make a film work?

 

The first thing one thinks of in a film is its story. When you see a trailer you try to think of what larger story the film will tell. When you see a poster, you think of how these elements will play out in a 120 minute film. But it is also well known that story alone is not what Producer consider when making films. Since the inception of the Star system, film stars have had roles and stories massaged to fit their image or their strengths. When big marketing started, posters, trailers and songs, which often had not relation to the actual story, were trotted out across media to woo and pull audiences. These days reboots and remakes try to capitalize on brand and nostalgia to ensure that a film is awaited and gets people into theaters. Hollywood and more recently Bollywood have relied on big VFX and big action and stunt scenes to thrill audiences which sometimes are not focal to the story but end up being the more prioritized piece of the film. They have all had their say in how a film does at the box office at the end of the day.

But Stars, VFX and marketing tend to be the luxury of big films and big filmmakers. What of smaller films and their success? Does all this mean they have no chance? Well recent past has shown that films like Neerja, Queen and Sairaat, which have had medium to low budgets, have performed admirably at the box office. What is the basis for these films success? Is that story and narrative alone? Or is there something else to it? Perhaps topicality. Sairaat certainly benefited from that. Neerja had a patriotic and biopic element that gave the film an instant brand and recognition. Queen had catchy music and foreign locations shot in an unconventional way.

The importance of story and narrative to a film, especially a small one, is paramount. As with the three films I mentioned, the only way they would sustain themselves in a competitive market would be if the audience not only came but then recommended the film due to its impressive story line. Big budget films too can really surpass expectations with a compelling story line, for instance Sultan and Dangal both had strong narrative elements which drove proceedings into which star power and some innovative marketing and great music added. These films outperformed due to the fact that their narratives resonated strongly with the audiences and didn’t dissipate once the initial hype wore off .

Oddly these narratives then work for films becoming strong brands. The Christopher Nolan Batman films were hugely successful on the back of a shared narrative. Marvel have built out a universe of films, now 13, with narratives crisscrossing characters and plots from various movies. Audiences build expectation for each film not just on the story line of the singular film but also wanted to understand the larger narrative of the entire universe. Hollywood is continuing this ilk with Warner Brothers doing it for the DC Superheroes as well as Harry Potter and most of the other big studios are conceiving their tent pole films like this as well.

What of India though? True sequels are rare here still but this idea of a shared narrative isn’t. The Dhoom franchise or the Munnabhai movies are not true sequels carrying the characters story forward but they share a similar narrative which can drive audience expectations. Even other franchises like Murder, Golmaal, Housefull, Masti and others have repeated the same trick. In general box office returns have increased even if the films story has not deviated too much as audiences are driven on brand and the consistent narrative of each film. Bahubali is the biggest example of a true sequel in Indian history and the expectation for the second part of that franchise is immense. A shared narrative will ensure that Bahubali 2 open bigger than its predecessor in every way.

So is narrative the sole secret to a film’s success? No. This much is clear because there are films which have good and strong story lines that fail all the time and every year. Is it the most important? Yes. There can be little doubt that a strong narrative and story will help give the film every chance to succeed in a cluttered and crowded market. This must therefore be all filmmakers number 1 priority.

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