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Freeze frame: The pandemic effect on South Indian films

Arjun Ramachandran | Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

Off screen: The shut cinema halls, industry experts say, will be the last to reopen as entertainment is not viewed as “essential services”   -  THE HINDU/B VELANKANNI RAJ

The South Indian film industry is in freeze frame as finished productions languish without release and half-finished ones wait to return to the sets. Locked down at home, movie lovers are catching old favourites and a few new releases on online streaming platforms. Big-budget movies wait for theatres to reopen, even as film-makers and distributors worry whether viewers will be ready to step into movies halls just yet

* According to news reports, the Telugu film industry is stuck with films valued at ₹2,000 crore

* Insiders say that the Tamil film industry is facing an estimated loss of ₹150-200 crore a month

* Producers are now looking at OTT releases with movie halls and multiplexes facing an uncertain future

It is going to be a while before a movie-goer sits in a theatre, a bag of buttered popcorn on the side, surrounded by scores of strangers. The threat of Covid-19 has brought cinema — the making of films, screening and viewing — to a standstill, and the impact is being felt across segments.

The nationwide lockdown is being lifted in stages, but health experts warn against large gatherings or sitting in air-conditioned halls. Among those most affected by these warnings are film industries. With theatres and multiplexes shut, big production houses are not shooting and are deferring releases.

The prognoses are dire. Southern Indian cinema stares at colossal losses. According to news reports, the Telugu film industry is stuck with films valued at ₹2,000 crore. These films were either slated for release or were in production when Covid-19 halted all work. The shutdown has adversely affected thousands of workers, including daily wagers who have been left with no income.

Film shoots were cancelled soon after the nationwide lockdown took effect on March 25. The shut cinema halls, industry experts say, will be the last to reopen as entertainment is not viewed as “essential services”.

Insiders say that the Tamil film industry is facing an estimated loss of ₹150-200 crore a month. Several big releases have been postponed, among them Vijay’s Master, Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru and Dhanush’s Jagame Thanthiram. Shooting for Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe, Ajith’s Valimai, Kamal Haasan’s Indian 2 and Silambarasan’s Maanaadu is on hold, as is Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan.

The Kannada industry, popularly known as Sandalwood, also fears a loss of hundreds of crores of rupees. The Karnataka government has now allowed the resumption of dubbing and other post-production work for new productions, but a great many films slated for release in April now face an uncertain future. Among them are Nanda Kishore’s Pogaru, with Dhruva Darja; Tharun Sudhir’s Robbert, starring Darshan; and Puneeth Rajkumar’s Yuvarathnaa, directed by Santosh Ananddram.

Suspended animation: A still from Malayalam film Trance, now streaming online; (right) Kannada film Pogaru was set to release in April

 

Enter the new actor

But people now have a new mantra: If you can’t enter a hall, let the home double as a mini theatre.

With no new films and footfall in movie halls, theatre owners are looking at a new avenue for launching their projects — over-the-top (OTT) platforms such Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other international and regional counterparts.

“Over the last two years, Prime Video has become the destination of choice for our customers to watch new releases, across the languages, within weeks of their theatrical release. Now we’re taking this one step further, with seven of India’s most-anticipated films premiering exclusively on Prime Video, bringing the cinematic experience to their doorstep,” Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video, India, said in a recent statement.

Jyothika’s Tamil movie Ponmagal Vandhal, a legal drama directed by debutant JJ Fredrick, was released on Amazon Prime on May 29. The long-delayed Tamil film RK Nagar, bankrolled by director Venkat Prabhu, was recently released through Netflix.

First to small screen: Actor Jyothika in the Tamil film Ponmagal Vandhal, which was released on Amazon Prime on May 29 amid protests from theatre owners

 

Industry experts point out that producers caught in a bind benefit from OTTs. A film released on an online platform means the producer is not just paid for it but also need not worry about distributors and expenses for theatrical exhibitions. The OTT platform gains because a new film premiered means more subscriptions for the platform, thereby leading to a revenue surge for streaming services.

Some producers, indeed, have made the most of OTT platforms in this period. Take Dharala Prabhu, the Tamil remake of Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor. Its theatre release was received well — with booked shows and rave reviews — but within two days of the release, theatres shut down on March 15 in Tamil Nadu. The film was then released on Amazon Prime.

Likewise, there were Malayalam releases that had a good run at the box office and then premiered on OTT platforms after theatres were shut; these included Ayyappanum Koshiyum, Trance, Anjam Paathira, Varane Aavasyam Und and Forensic (to be premiered on June 7 on Netflix).

Not surprisingly, there has been an increase in app downloads of streaming platforms, with people confined to their homes looking for entertainment on their TV sets or hand-held devices. Boredom during the lockdown period has led most people to explore OTT platforms where movies are being premiered,” a Chennai-based social media professional working with OTT platforms says.

PricewaterhouseCoopers India states in a report that India will be the tenth-largest market for OTT in terms of revenue in 2022, with the number of mobile internet subscribers increasing to an estimated 805 million from 406 million in 2017.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar were once the favourite online streaming services available in India. But now homegrown brands such as MX Player, ZEE5, SunNXT, Manorama Max and Jio Cinema are gaining ground. “With just a click, people can easily keep themselves entertained at any time with their favourite shows. And people have started to adapt to this lifestyle,” says Anu Maggie, a Chennai-based media professional.

The plot thickens

But the OTT route is not an easy one. When actor Suriya, the producer of Ponmagal Vandal (starring his wife Jyothika), decided to release the film through an OTT platform, the theatre owners’ body in Tamil Nadu warned him that it would not allow the theatre release of his film Soorarai Pottru (based on the life of budget airline Air Deccan founder GR Gopinath) after the lockdown ended. Following discussions, Tamil film bodies finally decided they would only release small-budget films through OTT platforms, reserving the big-budgeted ones for theatres.

Similar protests have been voiced in Kerala. MC Bobby, general secretary, Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK), says producers in the state have confirmed that they will not release new films on digital platforms. “We won’t screen those movies which are released online,” Bobby says. Many producers have said they will not go for an OTT release, though actor Jayasurya recently announced that his new film Soofiyum Sujathayum would soon be premiered on Amazon Prime.

The Multiplex Association of India (MAI), a nationwide group of cinema operators, has also urged film-makers to release their projects in theatres once the halls reopen.

“When this crisis passes, the combination of the pent-up demand and the promise of new movies will boost film business and contribute massively in reviving the industry. The collective, social experience of watching films on the big screen needs to be preserved and it can be done so only with the collective support of all stakeholders,” the MAI says in a statement.

Theatre owners fear that online releases will sound the death knell for the estimated 10,000 movie halls and their thousands of employees across the country. Saju, owner of Kavita Theatre in Kochi, is sceptical about the future of theatres.

According to him, about nine films, in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English, were slated to be released during the Vishu festive season in April in Kerala. But the lockdown has brought the industry to its knees. “We expect the theatres to open by June or July as of now,” Saju says.

Several Malayalam films have suspended their shoots. Among them are Jeethu Joseph’s Ram starring Mohanlal, debutant Jofin T Chacko’s The Priest with Mammootty and Padavettu starring Nivin Pauly.

Pack up: Malayalam films such as The Priest (centre) have suspended shooting, while others such as Varane Aavasyam Und (left) and Ayyappanum Koshiyum ran well in theatres and moved to OTT platforms after the lockdown

 

Many in the industry complain that the government has anyway done little to help it — and the online launches will only add to their woes.

“Despite the fact that the film industry contributes a lion’s share of taxes collected in the country, it has not been properly recognised as an industry. The entertainment industry in general and films, in particular, receive no significant incentives from the government. This is going to make matters worse during Covid-19, when productions have stalled and producers are staring at giant losses,” says CV Sarathi of E4 Entertainment, a leading production and distribution house in Kerala.

But is there a genuine cause for concern? After all, those who like to watch a film in a hall far outnumber OTT viewers. According to the Ernst & Young-FICCI 2020 report on media and entertainment, the paid OTT subscriber base is around 10 million in India now, while the theatre-going audience numbers 100 million. The report also states that while the overall number of movie-goers has remained constant over the years, a solid content pipeline coupled with multiple initiatives by film exhibitors led to an 11.6 per cent rise in footfalls in 2019.

Battle royal

Sarathi believes that OTT platforms will garner more eyeballs — but only over time. He points out that while OTT platforms have gained popularity in the lockdown period, major projects will always look for theatre launches.

“It is impossible for big-budget films to be released on OTT platforms in India, as things stand now,” he says, implying that producers will not recover their investment without theatre releases. “OTTs also face infrastructural issues in many markets in India, especially rural markets, where broadband accessibility is low and quality streaming becomes an issue.”

But for small films, he adds, OTTs may turn out to be a good platform. “OTT players offer them [small or independent producers] half the margin. In some cases where OTT players are co-producers, such movies may be released online. But the general trend will continue to swing towards theatres and mass releases,” Sarathi says. “In sum, most of the film enthusiasts will still be relying on the traditional theatre-going culture.”

Others, too, believe that OTT releases will not greatly affect the cinema industry. “People will definitely come back to theatres because they are already fed up of watching the small screen,” says writer-turned-actor-director Renji Panicker, who is also the president of Directors Union of Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA).

People’s fondness for watching a film on the large screen is what fuels the industry, stresses Siyad Koker of Kokers Films, a production house in Kerala. It’s just a matter of time before theatres bounce back, adds Koker, who is also an office-bearer of the Kerala Producers’ Association.

The OTT launches, Panicker adds, are a temporary phenomenon. “Digital platforms are keeping people hooked to cinema while the theatres are closed. It has become the only, or limited option for people during the lockdown. But once that is over, people will want to come out of their house,” Panicker asserts.

In fact, some believe that cinema-watching is like a festival in India. “Movie-watching is a part of social gathering for Indians,” affirms Anoop Naroor, managing partner at Aura Cinemas, a movie theatre company with a presence in Karnataka and Kerala. “The young, especially, are always eager to watch their favourites, and will not be willing to wait for a month or so for a digital release.”

Future tense

But even if the theatres open up, will audiences feel safe to sit in a closed auditorium?

“I think most people will refrain from going to theatres as there are higher chances of catching the infection there. Although I would miss the theatre experience, I would rather watch movies online until I feel it’s safe to visit a theatre,” says Heeba Ahamed, a Delhi-based journalist.

Renjith VP, a Bengaluru-based content specialist, says he loves watching films in theatres for it gives him a “cinematic experience” and an occasion to socialise with friends and family, but he would rather be prudent, too. “Given the current situation, even if theatres open, I would rather wait till it’s deemed safe,” he says.

Road ahead

Is there a way out?

“The fear of infection will always be there, but I am sure theatre owners and the administration will come out with a proper mechanism to ensure social distancing can be maintained,” says Himanshu Singh, an alumnus of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India.

Viju Cherukunnu, a research scholar in film studies at IIT Madras, also holds that theatres will have to make sure that the premises are sanitised and audiences wear a mask.

“People will always want to go to the theatre to watch films because it’s not just the story or the film that people look forward to but also the experience. And that cinematic experience can’t be enjoyed on an 8-inch screen,” Singh adds, referring to hand-held devices.

PVR Cinemas — which operates a chain of multiplexes — has said it will sanitise all its theatres and train the staff to execute social distancing and other norms.

The government, many believe, has to step in, too. Ajay Bijli, chairman of PVR, has been urging the government to support the industry by deferring GST payment.

Suresh Kumar of Kerala-based Revathy Kalamandir Productions had in a recent TV discussion suggested that films be sold to OTT platforms only 60 days after being released in a theatre. Typically, a blockbuster movie runs for at least two months in major centres and multiplexes in a state like Kerala.

Sarathi of E4 Entertainment foresees hard times ahead. According to him, the next few months will prove crucial for the film industry. “Even when public viewing resumes, only small films will be able to make it to the theatres as big-budget releases will be difficult under a restrictive environment,” he says. But it is also likely, he adds, that one or two of the released films will turn out to be a blockbuster for the industry. “Film lovers may have to wait longer for big-budget films,” he reasons.

There will be a time when OTTs and theatres will go hand-in-hand. But that ending may not happen yet.

Arjun Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kerala

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Published on June 05, 2020
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