The Sunday Deep Dive

Kollywood’s new custodians face complex challenges

Passing the baton:  Vishal, the Producers’ Council president, with his predecessor Kalaipuli S. Thanu (right).  R. Ravindran

Passing the baton: Vishal, the Producers’ Council president, with his predecessor Kalaipuli S. Thanu (right). R. Ravindran

The Tamil New Year’s Day on April 14 saw the release of three films — Dhanush’s directorial debut Pa Pandi , Raghava Lawrence’s Sivalinga and Arya-starrer Kadamban . These films hit the screens close on the heels of four new releases the week before, including the much-hyped Kaatru Veliyidai , directed by Mani Ratnam.

Amid the already crowded film space, seven Tamil films are lined up for release over the next few weeks. What’s more, they will be jostling for space with big-budget film Baahubali 2, which releases nationwide on April 27.

It is against this backdrop that the newly-elected members of the Tamil Film Producers Council (TFPC) have to deal with an array of complex issues that have a bearing on the growth and success of the Tamil film industry.

The council’s new president, actor-producer Vishal, who also runs the Vishal Film Factory, has been a vocal critic of the way the organisation has dealt with issues such as piracy and ticket pricing in the past. Among the issues that the council is attempting to address are the need to adopt best practices in the industry, streamlining of movie releases and legalising and exploring new revenue streams.

“The primary agenda of the council as of now is to bring in more transparency in the film business and the film-making process. There is still a void among the producers when it comes to understanding best practices that can be adopted. Producers shouldn’t just be investors; they should understand the process of film-making as a whole,” says S.R. Prabhu, the newly-elected treasurer of the council.

Piracy predicament

Piracy figures prominently among the main concerns facing the new team of office-bearers. A committee headed by noted director and producer Mysskin has been tasked with tackling this issue. While some in the film industry have in the past joined hands with the police department to resolve this pressing problem, the answer, perhaps, lies in pursuing a more comprehensive approach and embracing start-ups that facilitate movie streaming services.

Aathitiyan, founder of the film streaming website Herotalkies , contends that producers would gain more by being more dynamic rather than traditional in their approach to the film business. “Two years ago, there was no revenue to be made in the internet streaming business. Today, there is, especially for small-budget films overseas, which can be tapped if the producers are willing to be flexible," he says.

Elaborating on his suggestion, he adds, “If a film is doing well in theatres, they (film-makers) can wait for it to run its course on the big screen and then release it online for audiences abroad. However, if the film isn't doing as well as expected, they should come forward and release it quickly (online).”

He also emphasises that the film's rights should ideally not be sold to a single player.

“What happens when a film’s rights are given away to a television channel is that the content remains in its hands without getting monetised even in times of high demand. Once the film completes its life cycle, which these days is three weeks from the day of release, it is very difficult to make money off it. However, people continue to download pirated copies of the film in the meantime, because there is demand and the producers are not giving them what they want,” he points out.

“Akin to how buying the rights for a big-budget movie is a brand-building exercise for major television channels, the same applies to firms like ours. We are ready to host movies as long as they cover our operational costs. Such revenue-sharing deals can be worked out,” he suggests.

Disagreeing with the dominant view that piracy happens in local theatres, film distributor Tiruppur Subramaniam singles out overseas release of films as the major reason for piracy of Tamil cinema.

"Much of the piracy takes place in theatres in foreign countries," he argues, and puts forth the suggestion that overseas releases be delayed to ensure that pirated copies of films don't reach the internet and DVD shops.

When asked whether it is fair on the producers to expect them to let go of overseas revenue in order to fight piracy, he says, “The producers have to decide what is important to them. The overseas markets account for just 10 per cent of total revenue. Given that 90 per cent of the revenue is affected massively as a result of this 10 per cent, why shouldn't they postpone the release (overseas)?” he asks, adding, “We will fully cooperate with the Producers Council's decision to ban theatres in Tamil Nadu that harbour piracy.”

Stating that small steps could go a long way in solving the financial issues facing the film industry, he says, “The producers need to find a way to share profits with big stars instead of paying them exorbitant salaries. The effects of the salaries that they pay big stars are actually passed on to us when we buy films. This is why you see distributors protesting when movies don't do well. Secondly, we need to streamline release dates of films so that we can anticipate and plan the year better.”

Stalling revenue

While piracy, compounded by the unavailability of screens owing to several films releasing at the same time, have created a dent in the producers’ revenue, they are also having to deal with film budgets spiralling out of control.

“When a star, whose salary is ₹2 crore for a successful small-budget film, suddenly decides to hike his price to anywhere between ₹6 crore to ₹8 crore, and still finds producers who are willing to sign him on for that price, other producers need to be a bit more mindful of the market and see how a few more of his films are doing before they make movies with such exorbitant budgets, as the industry is already going through a slow phase,” says an industry source.

G. Dhananjayan, producer and founder of BOFTA Film School, stresses that planning and execution need to improve in the industry. “Apart from Bollywood, the Malayalam film industry too locks its release dates at least six months in advance. With nearly four to five films releasing every other week here, it is impossible for any movie to make solid revenue, and small films which have got good reviews find it tough to get screens in the second week as they have to make space for new releases,” he explains.

The State government used to offer subsidies for films which release in less than 100 screens. But this seems to have been discontinued since2008. When Vishal brought this up during the induction of the new office-bearers of the Producers Council, he claimed that 500 films were waiting for government subsidy.

In his speech, the new president of the council had stated that it was imperative for the organisation to unite and for decisions to be taken collectively following discussions. The council has already begun to work towards organising a concert to honour musical maestro Ilaiyaraaja later this year, titled ‘Isaivom’, the planning for which is being helmed by actor and producer R. Parthiepan.

Speaking about the concert, Vishal said that it would be a tribute from the Indian film industry to the musician. “Apart from the concert, we are also planning to host a grand awards ceremony for the industry as a public event. Both these events will hopefully bring in the necessary revenue for the smooth functioning of the council,” he said. As regards the existing members of the council, Vishal set out plans to pay them a pension of ₹12,500.

Sashikanth of YNot Studios, who has been urging the Producers Council to put necessary reforms in place, says the team headed by Vishal has a unique advantage. “All the elected members are active producers, who are making movies right now,” he says. "We need to make producers aware of Intellectual Property Rights, tap new revenue models and the technique of ‘unbundling’ the film’s rights at the time of sale. That's our primary concern right now,” he adds.

Producers must be given a prescriptive road map without being forced to adopt business practices imposed by the producers council, he says.

"Ultimately, producers should be free to conduct business the way they want to. If we attempt to regulate it too much, it would be a problem. For instance, there have been healthy debates on how to reduce the cost of acquiring capital to produce movies and how best to exploit various rights at the time of sale. Again, we can only show the way. We cannot force a producer not to sell all the rights together if he/she wishes to do so,” he says.

Ticket pricing

While producers and distributors have often been at loggerheads with each other when it comes to addressing the vexatious issue of promoting transparency in accounting for revenue, Mr. Tiruppur Subramanian opines that the problem can largely be solved by making computerised ticketing compulsory. “This would mean that no theatre will be able to charge more money than it should. It will also give us exact revenue details, which could be useful for the producers,” he says.

As regards the Tamil Nadu Cinemas (Regulation) Rules, 1957, a revision of ticket prices for cinemas was brought into effect on January 1, 2007, although little has changed since then. In Tamil Nadu, tickets can be priced at a maximum of ₹120, be it a multiplex or a single screen.

“The industry is not looking at high ticket prices but the concept of ‘flexi-pricing’. Big-budget movies targeting the multiplex audience and relatively small-budget films meant for single screen audience can be priced accordingly if they have the flexibility. But this should be implemented with a cap on the maximum price, say ₹200,” says Mr. Dhananjayan.

Tax exemption

Currently, films with a ‘U’ certificate and a Tamil title are reviewed by a government-appointed committee for tax exemption. In the past, producer and actor Udhayanidhi Stalin has questioned the process and taken up the issue legally after a few of his films, including the 2016 flick Manithan , were denied tax exemption on several grounds.

S. Ve. Shekher, regional chairman of CBFC in Tamil Nadu, singles out the practice of the State government handing out tax exemption to movies based on their certification. However, he says the scenario will change once the Goods and Services Tax (GST) kicks in.

“First of all, the idea of giving out tax exemption to movies is being misused. Tax exemption is given to films to enable more people see the films. So, the benefits should be passed on to the paying public,” he says.

Stating that these benefits go to the producers and distributors, Mr. Shekher says, “The committee which gives out these exemptions is picked on the basis of political affiliations,” adding, “Since a huge amount of money is involved, producers also try to influence the process of certification in order to get the tax exemption from the government.”

Asserting that the GST would largely rid the system of corruption, he says, “The tax money would go directly to the Centre, and therefore, if at all the government wants to give exemption, it has to compensate for it.”

With the Producers Council embarking on such a mammoth task, does the new team think it can achieve what it has set out to do?

Says S.R. Prabhu, “We are not a government body and we have our limitations. We also don’t want to dictate what our members should be doing. What we are trying to do is regulate, streamline the industry so that everybody has a piece of the cake that belongs to them. The industry must thrive.”


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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 1:55:35 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/complex-challenges-beckon-kollywoods-new-custodians/article61857508.ece