Fueling India’s Appetite for Entertainment

By Aarushi Jain

India is the world’s largest producer of films, yet by comparison the global entertainment business’ presence in India is negligible. The Indian film entertainment industry is a fast-growing sector but its true growth potential remains untapped. Previously stifled by a convoluted process making it difficult for foreign media companies to work in India, the industry is changing due to recent reforms but certain barriers persist. The relationship between India and the United States in this sphere also remains largely unchanged and the signing of a co-production filming treaty is necessary for the mutually beneficial growth of the film industry. 
Until recently the process to gain approval to film in India was inconsistent, lengthy, and costly, involving various ministries (state and federal). By establishing the Film Facilitation Office (FFO), a collaborative effort by several entities including the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), a standardization and simplification of the approval process has been instituted with the goal to attract more media companies and further boost a multi-billion dollar domestic media and entertainment industry. At present, seventeen Indian states and union territories provide filmmakers with incentives to shoot in their respective locations. Incentives range from the provision of tax breaks to subsidization of production costs. 
While the FFO serves as a one-stop portal to gain approval, some requirements have not yet changed. One such requirement is the stipulation of requiring a submission of a detailed script from foreign filmmakers in order to gain filming approval. The MIB may also grant approval with the caveat that a liaison officer must be present during filming to ensure adherence. Furthermore, if there are any script changes, the script needs to be re-evaluated and changes must be approved by the MIB prior to filming. In contrast, the process for domestic filmmakers only requires submission of a synopsis, not the entire script. The script review for foreign filmmakers is in place to ensure that no content that is in any way inflammatory or derogatory is shot. However, since this is a subjective determination it opens up the door to unnecessary censorship as was seen in the case of the James Bond movie Skyfall which was denied permission to shoot scenes depicting travellers on rooftops of a train by then railways minister Dinesh Trivedi. The sharing of scripts also poses a major risk factor as scripts can be leaked, which can deter major media companies from shooting in India due to loss of revenue from leaked footage or scripts. Although leaked footage and scripts are a rare occurrence and amount to criminal offense; such instances have taken place
India has filming treaties with fifteen nations which enables the treaty countries to streamline the shooting process. These co-production treaties significantly cut back the barriers as they include provisions such as no import/export fees or duties on approved filming equipment.  India does not have such a treaty with the United States. Co-production treaties enable the foreign filmmakers to access benefits and incentives that would normally be reserved for domestic production houses. Without the co-production treaty, filming costs for U.S. filmmakers wanting to shoot in India remain high and the approval process remains relatively long.  
A bilateral filming agreement between India and the United States would be particularly beneficial at a time when over the top (OTT) platforms and their investments are booming in India. India has an estimated 500 million active monthly internet users and the lowest cost of data in the world, making it the prime market for OTT platforms. American OTT providers recognize that in order to expand their consumer base they need to look outside of the United States to international audiences. One way to attract international audiences is to have content catered to them and major players such as Netflix are capitalizing on this by investing millions to create and license content for Netflix India users. Since Indian audiences will require content that is tailor-made for them, this also provides an opportunity for joint ventures with domestic content providers.  Thus, U.S. media companies like Amazon Prime and Netflix account for some of the biggest OTT platform players in the Indian market and have tied up with domestic production companies to produce original content. Furthermore, their reach in the Indian market is poised to grow with major telecom companies like Reliance Jio rolling out subscriptions plans that include Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ Hotstar for a fraction of the subscription cost in the United States. 
The media and entertainment industry is a golden opportunity for India to encourage growth in a sunrise industry. Easy reforms such as increasing the ease of filming in India can make the industry more accessible to foreign filmmakers and concluding a filming treaty between the United States and India can give a further boost to the U.S.-India commercial relationship.  
Aarushi Jain is an intern with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS