The OTT platforms v Theatres duel which threatened to blow up big in Tamil cinema has ‘been laid to rest’ for the time-being, with producers and theatre owners reportedly agreeing to work on guidelines and modalities after the lockdown ends.
The issue began a few days ago when Jyothika’s Ponmagal Vanthal announced a direct release on Amazon Prime Video instead of theatres due to the lockdown. The state’s theatre owners opposed the decision, even threatening to ‘ban’ films of producers 2d Entertainment and Suriya, Jyothika’s husband.
Members of Tamil Nadu Film Producers Council (TFPC) issued a joint statement supporting Suriya’s decision given the uncertainty around the reopening of theatres. Producers and theatre owners have for long had issues, especially surrounding the lack of screens for small budget films. Producers contend that a film is ‘their property’, while theatre owners say they too have rights to decide which films to screen.
Since then, theatre owners and producers have come to a truce, with the latter agreeing not to give big budget movies like Vijay’s Master or Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru for direct OTT release, even as a few other small to medium budget movies have already signed up with online platforms.
“We had a chat with theatre owners, and we requested them saying let’s all sit together after the lockdown and come to an understanding on how to allow OTT without disturbing theatrical business model,” G Dhananjayan, producer and founder-dean of BOFTA Film Institute, tells News18.
“Right now what has gone is gone, four-five films have already gone to OTT. But the industry will not be affected because of that because their contribution to the cinema industry will be miniscule. A film like Ponmagal Vathal would have collected at best Rs 8 to 10 crore in Tamil Nadu. In an industry of 2000 crore, 8 crore is nothing. It’s not like a film like Master or Soorarai Pottru are given for us to be panicking. Let’s not make a hue and cry about it. Theatre owners have understood it. Until then no premier films should be given to OTT. Big films like Master and Soorarai Potru have also agreed. The issue is completely laid to rest for the time being till we sit together,” he says.
The issue isn’t exactly new to Tamil cinema; in 2013, Kamal Haasan’s Viswaroopam had planned for a release on DTH (Direct to Home) TVs, before backtracking owing to opposition from theatre owners. The theatre owners’ contention is straightforward: ‘We bring in the big money, so we have the first rights over big films’. It can be seen from the fact that even amid the current controversy, another movie called RK Nagar releasing on Netflix directly without much noise.
The theatre owners too understand the problems of the small films’ producers, but want the bigger ones to show some patience and support to theatres.
“From a producer’s perspective, the film is ready for release, but god only knows when the theatres will be open,” says Abirami Ramanathan, President of Chennai Theatre Owners Association and the Multiplex Association of Tamil Nadu. “The producer has made the film out of borrowed money, and has to keep paying interest. For how long can he keep paying interest? There are two doubts – when the theatres will open, and secondly, even after opening, how many will come immediately? People have now got into the practise of watching films in OTT. There will also be fear of the virus for a long time. It’s also costlier to go to theatres; a family pays Rs 2000 to watch a film in a theatre. You can subscribe to all the OTT platforms for Rs 1000 a month, and can also watch movies at your own comfort. So producers have no other choice go than to go to OTT now.”
“Of course as a theatre owner, I will be selfish. I don’t want my product to go away somewhere. If I’m open and running today and the producer goes to OTT, I have every right to claim it. Now, I don’t know when I will open, so how can I stop him from going somewhere else?
“In principle, we are opposing. It’s our right that films should not go anywhere else. How are colossal productions being made? Because the money is given by us. Only theatres can draw Rs 100-150 crores within a week or 10 days. The cost of production has gone up so high only because theatres can collect it. There will be no OTT platform willing to pay 40 crore or 100 crore for every film. Maybe they will buy one big film and use it as a flagship to get more members, but they can’t keep doing it.
“Can’t you wait for two-three months? I have every right to argue. Some artists are getting Rs 50 to 70 crore as salary. Where is this money coming from? From the theatres. It’s understandable if you’re ordinary, small producers. But big or wealthy producers going to OTT, can’t they wait? If there is no OTT, you have no option to wait for us, right? As a theatre owner, I feel what they do is wrong. They are saying they don’t know how long they can wait.
“I said – if you’re engaged to a girl and they want the marriage after one year, can you argue saying you can’t wait and go to another girl? Similarly, this theatre is waiting for you. Of course, OTT does not have so much money to buy all movies. Even if it’s a very big company, they can’t buy everything. In Tamil Nadu alone, 170 films are being censored every year.”
Ramanathan points out that the situation of theatre owners is becoming increasingly bad, explaining that maintenance is a tough task even when closed.
“Whether theatres are open or not, you have to keep maintaining it. A big theatre in Chennai opened their auditorium after a month and saw that it was entirely damaged by rats. Apart from all this, we’ll have to pay them minimum electricity bill,” he says. “Theatre owners’ situation is very bad, all of them are paying out of their pockets to maintain staff. It’s very difficult to get trained staff; for example, a guy who checks tickets and sends people in, has to send in 500 people within 10 minutes. It’s practise and training, not that easy. We can’t afford to lose staff.”
Urging producers to be patient, Ramanathan expects theatres to reopen by September 1 latest. He understands fear of the virus will persist for longer and hamper their business, but counts on ‘experience’ of watching movies in theatres to revive the industry. “I expect theatres across all zones to open by September 1 latest. So theatre owners have every right to say please keep it (movies) for us, consider us. You’re there because of us, please don’t leave us.”
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