While the refusal of a mammoth industry to change its business model is indeed not as grievous a charge as choking freedom of expression, it assumes even greater significance in the context of the recent ban.

With all this talk of Viswaroopam, where truly drama has preceded the film’s release, it would be easy to write a post railing out against the clamp on freedom of speech. It would be even easier to write of the venal ‘culture of outrage’ that is so apparent and characteristic of today’s time.

But alas, there has been much written on this in the last two weeks – and adding another post to that would just be contributing to the noise.

Where debate is absent and has more or less washed away after taking into account the events of the last few weeks is —Viswaroopam on DTH (direct-to-home). While the refusal of a mammoth industry to change its business model is indeed not as grievous a charge as choking freedom of expression, it assumes even greater significance in the context of the recent ban.

It is important to understand that the outrage against a DTH release can only be read as a blow against the paying consumer and any collective bargaining we had against the movie industry.

Strawmen galore!

While Kamal’s decision to release over DTH may still go through and indeed maybe even on the same day as theatre release (whenever that happens in Tamil Nadu), there are a few misconceptions that are currently masquerading as arguments against DTH release.

Number 1 – it will cause more piracy. Wrong. The strongest way to fight piracy is to compete with it. Kollywood needs to take a leaf out of the ridiculously successful bottled water industry. By creating a better product than what is essentially “free” – Aquafina and Bisleri were available to provide a level of convenience and support that normal water just doesn’t come with. While in India there is the added benefit of supposed safety, this does not hold true in western nations.

What the bottled water giants really did is create a market in which their paid product became the standard, and the free counterpart (tap water) inferior.

What movie producers need to understand that there is no free lunch. Nothing in life is “free” – even piracy comes with a form of investment, be it wasting time to find an appropriate torrent or working to figure out what codec the pirated movie plays on.

Essentially, with the refusal to adopt content delivery over DTH, Kollywood is telling movie-watchers that they couldn’t care less about your convenience. That it’s either storming the crowded movie theatres or waiting long periods of time for a DVD (and sometimes no DVD at all).

At this point, it is mandatory to interject that yes, in a free market such as ours, it is up to movie producers to decide how they want to combat piracy and how they want to release their products. And also that there are a great many people who do love the opening-weekend theatre rush.

What is not said that is crystal clear between the lines, however, is this indirectly leads to price-gouging and provides incentives for movie producers to not really create the best movie – instead banking on hype to recover most costs.

As a recent story in The Hindu put it, quoting a movie producer – ““Hindi films make crores because of the high number of screens multiplied by the high average ticket price in the first three days of demand. The demand is created by hype,” the producer says.”

True demand can only be ascertained through the process of price discovery – when there is enough information on the movie in the form of accessible reviews— how friends and family liked it and so on.

Jacking up the prices – in places like Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi – for the opening weekend (sometimes movie ticket prices range from Rs. 350- 550 on the first weekend) is not “demand-based pricing”. It is a simple exploitation of a monopoly that theatre owners and distributors possess combined with the multi-crore advertising and hype machine. (This is something newspapers are complicit in – read the “short-cuts or movie tidbits that often appear in supplements and the language they use.)

Releasing movies on DTH, sometimes even before theatre-release, aids the processes of price discovery – more people are able to see it and spread the word on whether the movie is worth seeing. It would be an interesting experiment to see whether if the majority of movies (Tamil, Kannada, Malyalam, English) when released on DTH on the same day or before theatre release would result in the average price of a movie ticket heading downwards in Bangalore and settling somewhere near the range of Rs. 120 – 150.

Barbra Streisand

Coming back to the ban – the last two weeks have also seen Viswaroopam hit with what is known as the ‘Streisand effect’. It is the name for the phenomenon by which attempting to hide or ban a piece of information (in this case a whole movie) results in publicizing the information much more widely.

The calls for a ban of Viswaroopam have only resulted in more people wanting to see it (perhaps Kamal’s intended effect?) – the movie has leaked online and is widely being pirated at this moment. The World Wide Web facilitates this in an astonishing manner – and further releases on DTH and perhaps even an Internet-download release one day will only diminish the ability of the Government to have any sort of power over banning any form of media. Where will outraged parties protest? The Tata Sky and Airtel DTH offices?

So we are left at a crossroads at this point – before the ban— watching Viswaroopam on DTH should have been the moral choice for all paying consumers. After the last two weeks, people are more determined than over to show the fringe radicals they are wrong and are determined to watch it in theatres.

The only clear moral choice at this point? Pirate it (before the Halal-edits take place) to prove the fringe fundamentalists wrong and watch it on DTH to break the theatre monopoly!