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Will the ‘success’ of ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ prompt an OTT release for Vijay’s ‘Master’?

A still from ‘Master’ starring Vijay, directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What is the measure of success when it comes to movies, especially Tamil cinema?

There are a few — hashtags on Twitter that deify screen idols and heap glory on their films, positive reviews by critics, sold-out theatres on the opening day and week, and the subsequent commerce that this generates. Go back a few years and this list will also include 90-feet-tall cutouts that fans would then douse in several gallons of milk.

Gone are those days. Thanks to COVID-19, the grapevine in Tamil cinema is that film producers, even those who bankrolled the big-budget projects featuring stars that did not make it to the theatres before lockdown, have started to weigh up their options in favour of OTT platforms.

A direct-to-digital release, as it stands, is the only feasible option, as Chennai continues to grapple with a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down.

There, however, is a problem. For a generation that grew up debating the success metrics of a movie post its release, how does one gauge whether or not a film amped up the star’s market potential without the backing of numbers to corroborate?

OTT platforms are the only avenue available for film producers to release their content on during COVID-19 lockdown

OTT platforms are the only avenue available for film producers to release their content on during COVID-19 lockdown   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

User data is the answer, but OTT players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar and Zee5, among others, are not known to voluntarily disclose this information.

Prominent film distributor-producer, KE Gnanavel Raja of Studio Green production company, uses a comparison to explain his dilemma. “Like TRPs for TV channels, there ought to be a yardstick for OTT platforms. They don’t want to disclose and it is okay with producers now because we need the money. In the long run, we will have to figure out something,” he says.

The truth in numbers

Take the instance of Ponmagal Vandhal, the Jyotika-starrer that had its digital première on Amazon Prime Video last month.

All director JJ Fredrick is willing to state is that he was told “the Amazon representatives are happy with the response” his film generated.

Jyotika in a still from ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’

Jyotika in a still from ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The reluctance to part with user data lies in the fact that it helps drive various monetisation models for OTT platforms. Besides it is “confidential business information”, as Rahul Maroli, Senior Vice President and Head SVOD, Zee5 India, puts it. “Since this business is evolving, we restrict the data to ourselves and not make it available for our competitors to use,” he says.

The streaming services, however, conduct extensive internal research on their users. A source in the video-on-demand industry, who did not wish to be named, explains that companies study data like time spent watching a video, where a user paused/exited, whether an episode was fully viewed and what core plot in a film or web series drove a user to completely view the content, etc.

These and more are also split into demography categories which help an OTT platform to study what genre a viewer likes to watch. “It helps us create a preference arc for each user and determine what type of content to buy or commission,” the source adds.

Rahul Maroli, Senior Vice President and Head SVOD, Zee5 India

Rahul Maroli, Senior Vice President and Head SVOD, Zee5 India   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

This data, according to Rahul, also helps them understand behaviour of both existing and future subscribers. “OTTs operate on the S-O-R [business] model. Also, our revenue model is solely dependent on subscription,”

Dependence on subscription for revenue is what is driving OTT players to adopt a different approach to the Indian market. “Films are the major acquisition drivers,” says Rahul, of what makes the average Indian user sign up for an OTT subscription.

And with theatres effectively out of business for a while, this may be the time for digital players to capitalise on the market vacuum. Says producer Sameer Bharat Ram, “OTTs are choosy. Their selection process [for films] is quite stringent. For example, OTT platforms also associated with a television brand might hesitate before acquiring a film like Uriyadi, which features violent content.”

Splitting revenue

That casts light on the importance of a revenue share model, a key concept in theatrical business, in OTT deals.

Sameer Bharat Ram, film producer

Sameer Bharat Ram, film producer   | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

Sameer adds that most OTT platforms, with the exception of Amazon Prime Video, do not work on a revenue share model. Instead, they make outright purchases which nets the producer a well-defined return on his investment.

“But it works both ways. If the film I release tanks at the box office, then I may not even end up getting the price I expected when I sell the satellite and OTT rights,” Sameer says.

Outright purchases in today’s market (without theatres) also mean producers are expected to take a “loss in their profits”, as producer J Satish Kumar of JSK Film Corporation puts it, but a direct-to-digital release saves them the cost of publicity.

“I don’t have to spend on print or publicity. OTTs take care of it, and their app takes my content to higher and middle-income groups directly,” says Gnanavel Raja, who points out that digital platforms emerging as “an alternative to piracy” is encouraging. “OTTs are not an alternative to theatres. But when the user finds quality content on a legal platform, then, in time, they won’t search for it online,” he adds.

PPV vs OTT
  • J Satish Kumar sees a familiar pattern in the new normal that COVID-19 has helped create. Monopoly over content created by a single player growing beyond size is something he is wary about. “It was the same when Sun TV was making their initial stride in the market. They chased every producer for rights to their films. After a point of time, it became tough for producers to even get appointments with their executives,” he says. As a counter, he suggests that the pay-per-view (PPV) model, prevalent in the West, be attempted here. “There are more cable TV subscribers and this model helps us deliver content straight to people’s homes. This can be regulated and taxed as well by the government. The content can also be shared with DTH services, satellite TV and OTT platforms,” he adds.

If the number of new subscriptions is considered one of the barometers of success, then, according to the source, Ponmagal Vandhal gave Amazon Prime Video an above average return on its investment.

And generally, new users who sign up for a particular content tend to stay. “40-60% conversion rate from trial to paid subscription happens in regional markets,” the source adds.

Whether this prompts more producers like Xavier Britto and Lalit Kumar (who bankrolled Vijay’s Master) to take their content towards OTT remains to be seen. Such films command a premium fee for an outright purchase and a revenue share model would depend on views — a risk for the producer unless OTTs come clean with their data.

As Satish Kumar puts it, “The main aim for a producer now is to recover whatever they have invested and a little more because nothing exists today. There are no satellite TV rights, no overseas [market], no Telugu market, no other language dubbing rights. There is only OTT.”

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 6:01:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/will-the-success-of-ponmagal-vandhal-prompt-an-ott-release-for-vijays-master/article31820345.ece

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