With the digital première of Suriya’s ‘Soorarai Pottru’ and the evolution of the OTT-Tamil cinema dynamic, the question is: will more films featuring big stars follow suit?
In the space of four months, Tamil cinema has had markedly different responses to two separate instances of films opting for a digital première.
Jyotika’s Ponmagal Vandhal, which released on Amazon Prime Video on May 29, kicked off the trend and also caused much consternation in the theatre-distributor chain.
Amid backlash, industry veterans came forward and spoke in favour of actor Suriya (who is also Ponmagal Vandhal’s producer), reassuring key stakeholders that films featuring big stars would not be sold to over-the-top (OTT) streaming service providers.
Suriya himself said as much when interacting with his fans online in June, insisting he was eager to watch Soorarai Pottru on the big screen.
If you did not know already, Soorarai Pottru will also have a digital première (October 30) via Amazon Prime Video; theatres are unlikely to re-open with COVID-19 cases still rising.
However, there was no backlash. Suriya’s decision (which he announced via Twitter on August 22) has been grudgingly taken on the chin.
Perhaps, optimism is slowly making way for realism in Tamil cinema, though the burning question is: will more big star films follow suit?
One need not read between the lines to gather that the only word this question is bound to raise on everyone’s lips is Master.
Vijay with director Lokesh Kanagaraj (L) on the set of ‘Master’
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Industry observers speculate that the Vijay-starrer cost its co-producer (SS Lalit Kumar of Seven Screen Studio) around ₹200 crore to purchase from Xavier Britto of XB Film Creators, which, on face value, makes Master’s production budget at least four or five times dearer than Soorarai Pottru.
There are other films headlined by heroes with a defined market value like Dhanush’s Jagame Thandhiram or Jayam Ravi’s Bhoomi that are also pending release.
Filmmaker Lakshman, director of Bhoomi, is of the opinion that Soorarai Pottru going the digital way would not necessarily influence or compel other producers to push their content to OTT platforms.
“But the fact remains that there is no other way [to release a film] now. With more days gone, the producer’s mindset may change,” he says, when quizzed about Bhoomi’s prospects of an OTT release.
It is a recurring theme at the moment: producers insisting that their high value films are not up for OTT release.
S Sashikanth of Y NOT Studios, the producer of Jagame Thandhiram, wrote this tongue-in-cheek response on Twitter to speculations that Netflix was courting his film: “Jagam (world) is still healing and not back to normal. Until then, be patient for the theatres to open and don’t believe in rumours.”
Producer G Dhananjayan adds that “a lot of films are negotiating” with OTT platforms at the moment, but the problem seems to be the money these platforms are willing to front.
Suriya in a still from ‘Soorarai Pottru’
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Tamil cinema, unlike Bollywood films, has a limited audience reach (which reflects on the number of subscriptions an OTT service may project to gain). “I hear the difference in figures is as big as 50%,” he says.
For instance, trade circles speculate that Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb was sold to Disney+ Hotstar for ₹125 crore.
“That was satellite and digital rights put together. Will Lalit sell if he is offered the same ₹125 crore as Laxmmi Bomb? Of course not,” says Dhananjayan, adding, “The issue is no OTT player (with a TV channel link) is willing to front the fee for satellite and digital rights of Master. Also, assuming around 10% of Tamil population subscribes to OTTs to watch films, it is still only about 50-60 lakh people. Comparatively, 10% of the Hindi speaking population would mean around eight crore people. Bollywood has a significant numbers advantage.”
Vijay in a still from ‘Master’
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What of the financial strain placed on a producer due to long delays, considering how nearly every Tamil film, as Ravinder Chandrasekaran of Libra Productions remarks, is funded by private financiers?
“Do you think Sashi can hold onto Jagame Thandhiram for long? I doubt it. Maybe, now is not the right time to discuss, but it (OTT release) will happen,” says Ravinder, adding that the muted response to Suriya’s decision to go digital could be because producers are waiting to see how Soorarai Pottru’s release impacts Amazon Prime’s business.
“Because there are many producers who want to do business without being caught in the nexus of so-called ‘producer-distributor mafia’,” he says.
- In his statement, Suriya insisted his decision was one he made as a producer and not the star. “If the long wait continues, anticipation on the film may get drastically diluted. This will not only affect me but also the people associated with my ongoing productions and their families,” he reasoned. Filmmaker Lakshman insists that without a COVID-19 vaccine, people will not return to theatres due to fear. But he is optimistic. Should theatres have no choice but operate at 35-50% occupancy for a period of time, Lakshman believes simultaneous OTT and theatre premières could emerge as a business model. “We have always had that 30-40% of the audience who wouldn’t go to theatres even in normal circumstances. Such a model could then be beneficial for customers as well as the producer,” he adds.
Working in Suriya’s favour is the release model his production firm 2D Entertainment adopts: they distribute their own films.
Meaning, there was no need for complicated negotiations with third parties before deciding on a digital release, something Lalit Kumar cannot avoid since he has already sold his content to distributors/theatres across the globe.
“Master is that one movie, which, when theatres re-open, can single-handedly bring audiences back. Lalit may be mindful of the time he can hold onto the film. At the same time, Vijay, too, can say that he would do another film for Lalit in case he incurs a loss on Master, if it releases on OTT,” Ravinder remarks.
If not OTT, can network televisions with their wider reach step up and bring back satellite TV premières?
Lack of advertising revenue (a knock-on effect of COVID-19) is a deterrent, says Siju Prabhakaran, executive vice president and cluster head – South business, ZEEL. He estimates that most TV networks suffered a 70-75% revenue drop during lockdown.
“Advertising is still a large part of how the TV ecosystem survives. Maybe, smaller films could have satellite premières. Even so, for a TV première to be profitable, we will need a pay-per-view model backed by advertising. It is the same as how OTT’s put their premium content behind a paywall. A blended model could emerge eventually,” he adds.
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