The fracas and the eventual reconciliation that actor-film-maker Kamal Haasan had with theatre and distributor lobby over the release of his movie ‘Vishwaroopam’ is not just restricted to big budget movies.

Small budget films, despite their growing patronage among audiences, often face insurmountable odds. While Kamal Haasan’s Rs.95-crore-budget blockbuster might open at over 500 theatres on January 25 here, the very open fight over negotiating the release of the movie on DTH platform is a reminder that several small films hardly find a space in the 1,260-plus movie screens in the State.

There are plenty of movies languishing in the cans for want of screens. Even the lucky few that still manage to get released face mountains to climb to try and even recover its production budget, let alone garner a profit.

Producer and singer S.P.B. Charan, who has produced offbeat cinema in ‘Chennai 600028,’ ‘Aaranya Kaandam’ and ‘Kungumapoovum Konjum Puravum,’ says most small films get caught in what is an “up-to” clause with distributors and theatre owners that gives a last day for screening, preventing any extended run at the theatres. “There is a big brotherly attitude to small films. No one is willing to bet on a new horse. Once the theatres reach 60 per cent occupancy, the films are yanked out.”

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, who directed the much-acclaimed ‘Aarohanam,’ laments this approach as well. “Multiplex audiences are open to parallel cinema. But, theatres owners are not ready to follow the trend,” she recounts her experience. “We were running to 90 per cent occupancy on the last day of our theatrical run. The movie had to be removed because we could not manage 100 per cent occupancy. This is a bit unfair because a small budget movie often builds on good word of mouth.”

Despite abundant talent in the industry, Charan feels that the industry is stuck in a rut as it is dependent on a star and formula system, one that seems to fire and misfire at equal intervals. He says the plight of small budget film-makers turns pathetic at the hands of the theatre clique. “Once you have committed the terms of release, you may have to stop short of selling your right arm and your first born. Nothing will work.”

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan says she would never forget the differential treatment some big budget films receive because of the mindsets of distributors and theatre owners. “We were running to 90 per cent occupancy, but had to end our theatrical run. But when I went to the next screen to see just how well the big budget movie others were backing was, I could count all of seven people in the hall. That movie ran for a few more weeks.”

One of the more successful small budget film producers S.Sashikant of Y Not Studios, which produced the successful ‘Kaadhalil Sothappuvathu Yeppadi,’ says some of the onus on ensuring a good theatrical run also falls on film-makers. He says it is important to create a pre-release buzz about the project to get distributors and theatre owners enthusiastic about the movie. They managed to do that with KSY by promoting the movie heavily through social networks and YouTube.

Theatre owners, meanwhile, point at a rather disproportionate trend between movies being produced in the State vis-à-vis the number of screens available. R. Panneerselvam, secretary, Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners’ Association, says the number of cinema screens in Tamil Nadu have halved over the past decade - from over 2,600 to 1,260 now. Several cinema halls have been converted to marriage halls, and not every theatre owner has the capital investment riding on them to convert theatres into multiplexes. He says the “up-to” clause or any other requirement called for by theatre owners has more to do with survival than favouritism. “The overheads of running a theatre remain constant irrespective of whether it is running house full or empty. Producers need to understand theatre owners’ concerns.”

Apart from that, there is the more obvious mismatch. Last year, there were 184 Tamil films that were awarded censor certification. “Do the math. There simply are not enough screens or even enough weeks in a year to release them all.”

‘Unfair practice’

Kamal Haasan’s case with the Competition Commission of India on the ‘unfair trade practices’ of theatre and distributor associations has generated some interest among small budget film producers. They are waiting to see the outcome of the case, whether it would pave the way for a level-playing field for all film-makers.