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Updated: February 20, 2014 17:26 IST

Whose right is it, anyway?

Vijay George
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Satellite rights is the amount given by television channels to producers for broadcasting their films. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar
The Hindu Satellite rights is the amount given by television channels to producers for broadcasting their films. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Mollywood is facing a crisis thanks to a standoff between the industry and television channels over rocketing satellite rights.

Ever wondered how some big names in Malayalam cinema continue to reign supreme, despite not having a hit in theatres for months now? Welcome to a world where satellite rights decide the fate of Malayalam movies – and its stars.

For the uninitiated, satellite rights is the amount given by television channels to producers for broadcasting their films. In Malayalam, the contracts are ‘perpetual’, which are generally means they are valid for 99 years. Of late, though, satellite rights have been so through the roof that some films are breaking even or, at times, making profits, even before they hit the theatres!

“As the channels are looking for repeat screenings for many years to come, popular stars get a preference. But nowadays even the main technicians involved, the production banner and their recent track record are also being analysed,” says John Brittas, managing director, Kairali TV.

Vijay Babu, a former channel head, who has now found success as an actor and producer, says the film industry has virtually no role in deciding the satellite rights. “Satellite rights have gone sky high mainly as a result of the competition between the channels. New buyers have emerged during recent years. In business terms, if a super star’s film fetched around Rs. one crore in satellite rights in, say, 2009, it has now become Rs. 4 to 4.5 crores!

“Around 80 new directors made their debut last year and the focus shifted from four or five lead artistes to almost a dozen. This has mainly benefitted the younger generation of actors, thanks to their satellite value. If Malayalam cinema had used this phenomenon more intelligently, the industry would have benefitted spectacularly from it. It became a problem when many started misusing it blatantly,” opines Vijay.

Things apparently took a turn for the worse when filmmakers started producing their films themselves, as satellite rights became an easy way to make money.

The economics behind the deal is quite simple. A project only has to have some well-known people in the cast and crew, and an attractive storyline when it is presented to TV channel honchos. Once the contract is approved, the filmmaker tries to complete the film on a tight budget, as every paisa saved adds to the profit. “This has also resulted in the emergence of some fly-by-night producers whose interest is only in making a quick buck and not in the quality of the movies or its acceptance by the viewers,” feels Brittas.

Hit filmmaker Jeethu Joseph agrees and adds: “The current system of deciding satellite rights has both pluses and minuses. But what concerns me more is the way it is being exploited by some because this does not augur well for the industry in the long run.”

The call of such easy money may be the reason why there has been an unprecedented hike in the number of films being made during the last two years. In 2013, for instance, the number of Malayalam releases was 158 – a significant jump from around 127 in 2012. In 2011, meanwhile, the number was ‘only’ 88.

It is estimated that all the TV channels combined need around 70 to 90 films every year and that too after the films are categorised according to their own preferences. As almost everyone in the industry tried to cash in on the boom, and that too with scant regard for the merits of their films, the film industry seems to have landed itself in a bit of a soup with lots of films remaining in cans or being stopped at various stages of production.

However, lately, after some TV channels burnt their fingers, as a result of having been taken for a ride by certain wily wheeler-dealers from the film industry, they’ve almost stopped purchase of satellite rights en masse. And even if they do purchase films, it’s without doling out large sums of money. This has come like a bolt from the blue for the industry.

The extent of the crisis is being seen in theatres now. A month and a half into 2014, less than 15 Malayalam films have been released, of which some were originally scheduled for release late last year but were postponed due to various reasons. Also, there have only been a handful of new project announcements as well, during the last few months.

“The over production of films last year, done without any logic, has created this situation,” says director B. Unnikrishnan, who is also the general secretary of the film technicians’ federation, FEFKA.

“Hopefully, the industry will put in some corrective measures. My feeling is that genuine producers and filmmakers will actually benefit from the current scenario,” he adds.

Brittas too opines that there is a “crisis” only for those who have been taking undue advantage of this phenomenon.

2014 could well be a crucial year for the Malayalam film industry. Those who benefitted from the situation during the last few years will have to prove themselves again if they want to survive in the industry. However, it remains to be seen if the industry as a whole will finally sit up and take notice of the writing on the wall.

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