As the Telugu film industry battles a crisis of riches it is easy to point out a known evil, what about the known unknowns?

The plot is thickening for the discovery of the villain who is pulling down the Telugu film industry into a debt trap, pedestrian formulaic flicks and déjà vu. Is it the remuneration of superstars, greed of successful directors, wasteful art directors, script-writers losing the script as is being made out to be, or is it something as mundane as a small cinema hall owner who wants a regular stream of income?

“When we released a Tamil cinema dubbed into Telugu we came to know that it takes only Rs 1 lakh to release a film in Tamil Nadu, whereas we had to spend Rs. 60 lakh to release the movie in Andhra Pradesh,” says a distributor from Nizam region. “This high price for releasing a film in Telugu is shutting down the avenues for small time producers and directors. There is no dearth of talent in Andhra Pradesh but as the cost of making and releasing a Telugu film is very high, everyone looks for a safe bet: a director who has had a big hit, or an actor who promises the goods. People forget that plot is the hero,” says another well-known distributor of movies.

A look at the fundamentals shows how the screw is turning against small-time directors and producers. “A few people control the cinema halls by hiring them for Rs. 2,25,000 per week. If a distributor wants to release the movie he has to shell out Rs. 3,25,000. Out of 115 cinema halls in Hyderabad, about 75 have been leased out and the slots are booked. But before that the producer has to make at least 100 prints which would cost about Rs. 60 lakh. Not just that, the few families controlling the industry also have a few stars and when their movie releases, all the other movie makers are elbowed out,” says a two-movie director (nobody was willing to go on record with their name). The effect of this monopoly can be seen when a movie releases in 60 cinema halls and in other weeks eight movies release in a few cinema halls. The movie in 60 cinemas will be called a hit whatever the response while the movies in a few cinema halls will be flops whatever the response.

It is a no-brainer that to release a film, a producer has to shell out Rs. 60 lakh for 100 prints when the same can be done for Rs. 1 lakh with digitalised cinema halls. “More than 92 per cent of the cinema halls in Tamil Nadu are digitalised whereas in Andhra Pradesh only two per cent of the halls are digitalised. It is not that the big-wigs don't know how it works. For some cinemas which are un-remunerative, the lease rates are not just lower they have been digitalised. Some of the digitalised cinemas in Hyderabad are in Langar Houz, Balanagar, Jahanuma and Suraram.

A few years back when cinema halls across the country were getting digitalised, one company tried to get the cinema owners in Andhra Pradesh to make the switchover but without success. If the cinema halls were digitalised, it would not only lowered the cost of releasing a cinema but also helped the industry take a shot at piracy. The piracy factor hobbling Telugu cinema is a hydra-headed technological monster. It can be fought only with technology. A recording of a film screened in a cinema from a film cannot be detected. While a pirated copy of a digital movie can be easily traced back to the delinquent cinema.

The story boils down to this.

A few families have heroes, they produce movies, they control a majority of theatres through lease arrangements, they own labs to process the films. At every stage of value chain if a few families play a role, the industry loses out. Now is the time for the industry to take a call:

Whether it will let a few families control the industry limiting creativity or whether it will let dozens of creative folks come into their own.

Keywords: Telugu cinema