‘Soorarai Pottru’s OTT release to ‘Master’s theatrical release: What has changed in Tamil cinema in 2020?

How Tamil films warmed up to OTT in 2020, and what their future tryst with cinema halls will be like

The pandemic had a big impact on the film industry across the country. According to a rating agency, the ₹23,600 crore-worth film business in India is likely to shrink to around ₹12,500 crore. During lockdown, when theatres were shut for months, audiences moved to streaming platforms, which meant a paradigm shift for the movie business. The Indian dream factory where stars ruled changed in 2020.

The biggest players to gain were OTT services, which now virtually dictates terms to the industry. Seventeen Tamil films had a direct release on streaming platforms, the biggest of them being Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru.

Though theatres are open now, Kollywood is still facing a challenge since the overall capacity has been brought down to 50% of the 1,200-plus screens across the State, out of which only 30-35% gets filled up. The up-and-running cinema halls have limited shows and mostly operate only during the weekend when occupancy barely manages to touch double digits. All that might probably change on Pongal 2021, when Vijay’s Master arrives on the big screen. As leading theatre owner Tiruppur Subramaniam says, “There has been a huge shortage of star-driven Tamil content to feed the theatres. But, we are sure Master will kickstart the revival.”

Where’s the money, honey?

Caught in an unprecedented situation, the Tamil film industry tried its best to salvage with the content it had. Film financiers, once the backbone of the industry, are trying hard to recover dues. All of them had taken a loan when theatres were operational, but are now at wits’ end with some smart producers bypassing the route,heading to OTT platforms. Almost all financiers have tentatively stopped funding new films. Shooting is on for a couple of projects, with little clarity over possible release dates. Meanwhile, over 40 to 50 films, including those with well-known stars, are ready for theatrical release, but their way forward seems blurry.

Disappearing distributors

Once upon a time, Tamil Nadu had the best film distribution network in India. However, that has been in decline in the past few years. In 2020, producers are directly engaging with theatre owners to get screens. Gone are the days of Minimum Guarantee (MG) or even advances, which were once a norm. The only silver lining among all this setback was that producers managed to reduce the Virtual Print Fee (VPF) by almost 60% (theatres screen films via Digital Service Providers (DSP) who charge VPF). This fee has long been a bone of contention between producers and exhibitors as to who would cough it up. Senthil Kumar of Qube Cinemas says, “2020 has been the worst for the film industry, and now we are on the road to recovery.”

HITS (Based on theatrical collections pre-lockdown and streaming platforms)

  • Oh My Kadavule
  • Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal
  • Draupathi
  • Soorarai Pottru
  • Mookuthi Amman

‘Adapt and reinvent’

Despite theatres re-opening, there were little to no audiences and a few cinema halls were shut during weekdays. The biggest irony was that mass films like Soorarai Pottru and Mookuthi Amman were released on OTT platforms when theatres had re-opened. The future looks bleak, though single-screen owners feel the way forward is to ‘adapt and reinvent’, and convert the theatre into two or three 100-seater screens. Coimbatore’s veteran exhibitor Balasubramaniam of Baba Complex explains, “There is lack of fresh star-driven Tamil content, so occupancy remains very low. I’m running it more for prestige and for my employees’ sake. Once more star films release, I’m sure audiences will start coming for the big screen experience.”

The OTT storm

COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown has totally changed the way a film is consumed. In Tamil cinema, though only 17 films released directly on streaming platforms, the impact it created was much bigger than the other 81 films that released in theatres. As SR Prabhu, leading Tamil film producer, says, “OTT is a game changer, and another medium and a new revenue stream for Tamil cinema. The release of Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru directly on OTT and becoming one of the top five hits of the year among Indian language films, is a clear indication of which way the wind is blowing. However, you cannot get the kind of movie experience of the big screen on OTT. I feel both have to co-exist with each other; theatrical viewing will still remain popular as outdoor entertainment while OTT will be home watching-like television.”

In the pre-COVID world, the Tamil industry used to churn out nearly 200 films a year, and all of them took the same route: theatrical release, digital and television premiere. The current scenario has made things complicated, because the streaming platforms prefer to “cherry pick” their releases. In the first quarter of 2021, theatres are heavily depending on Master to revive their business while OTTs have Bhoomi, Chakra, Teddy and probably Sultan.

Tremors in the star system

Streaming platforms are changing the way creators are thinking. Earlier, A-list directors would try getting dates of the stars , but now, they are looking at doing projects for streaming majors. The response to the recent Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal and earlier Amazon Prime’s Putham Pudhu Kaalai seems to have pushed filmmakers to think of newer subjects. A spokesperson of a leading OTT platform, requesting anonymity, says, “We sometimes opt for star films because of the actor’s loyal fan base and the need to expand our subscriber base. 2021 is going to be a defining year for streaming platforms in regional markets.”

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