Pirates of Kollywood: Are theatres enabling piracy of Tamil movies?

In the Tamil film industry’s never-ending duel with piracy, theatres now face the music, with the producers council turning up the heat on some for being in cahoots with video pirates. Many theatres have denied complicity, claiming the audience does not need their cooperation to shoot clandestinely.

October 21, 2018 12:21 am | Updated 11:27 am IST

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

For many years, the narrative around illegal prints of Tamil movies making their way online has revolved around how theatres abroad have been enabling piracy, eating into the revenue of producers.

However, this narrative has shifted: producers believe that it is the theatres in South India that are enabling piracy of Tamil movies by either working hand-in-glove with pirates or not doing enough to stem the rot.

A trade report released by EY in March 2018 pegs the losses due to piracy at around 10% to 30%. The Tamil and Telugu film industries are two of the most of prolific film industries in India, if not in the world, and contribute 34% of the total revenue from movies in India.

The Tamil Film Producers Council (TFPC), which has been vocal about ‘isolating’ theatres that routinely enable piracy, released a list of nine theatres — mainly in Tamil Nadu, with and some in neighbouring states — last week. While urging Qube Cinema Technologies, one of most well-networked digital distribution companies in South India, to not supply equipment such as projectors to these theatres, TFPC also asked its members to not release new movies in these theatres.

S.R. Prabhu, treasurer, TFPC, said that theatres were culpable and could not pass the buck. “The theatres that are found to be enabling piracy should not be able to play movies anymore. We are meeting the theatre owners association on Tuesday to demand some concrete steps,” he added.

At the meeting on October 23, Mr. Prabhu said that they would also be urging theatre owners to do their bit to control piracy. “We have been urging them to take a number of measures including employing people just to prevent piracy. We hope that we can come up with a robust set of methods to prevent pirates capturing movies from theatres,” he said.

In a response to a letter sent by TFPC, Qube said in a statement that the company does not have any authority to ‘not’ issue playback licences (also known as key delivery messages or KDMs) for any movie. “Such authority is given to us only through a chain of authorizations that comes from the producers or their authorized distributors,” said Senthil Kumar, co-founder, Qube Cinema Technologies.

Stating that they follow a stringent process and cannot deny KDMs unilaterally, Qube further clarified in its statement that it would be obligated to comply with a request from a producer or distributor to screen a particular movie on a screen unless the theatre had been restrained from doing so on the basis of any written orders of judicial, police or regulatory bodies.

Who is responsible?

“We get at least two detection requests from producers every week and there are theatres that routinely get caught. But from what we’ve seen analysed, a majority of the cases where piracy has been detected has been from someone in the audience,” said Mr. Senthil.

“When members of the audience are able to smuggle in tiny cameras during regular shows, it is unfair to hold the management totally responsible. From their side, many theatre managements have installed CCTV cameras in their projection rooms to ensure that filming doesn’t take place there,” he said, adding, “since we are of the strong opinion that it happens from the audience, why should we go after the wrong targets and blame theatres entirely? In many of the cases, we were even able to detect from which place the movie could have been illegally recorded, based on the angle it seemed to have been shot from and we should be following this evidence to do our best to curb the menace.”

Despite a number of complaints to the police, the producers haven’t been able to clamp down on theatres that are identified as being problematic.

Therefore, industry insiders are hoping that the issue is resolved within the industry — by way of having talks with the theatre owners association over how to tackle the menace.


Taking on piracy

Casual conversations with industry insiders reveal that piracy control has to be done in two stages: during production/post-production and after release.

There are a few companies which are already employed by production houses to fight piracy after films have been released. This effort, producers admit, is most challenging given the increasing impact of piracy on the Tamil film industry.

Sudarsan, founder and CEO of Copyright Media, which offers anti-piracy services for the music and film industry, said that they primarily focus on taking down torrent links from search engines and working with video-sharing sites such as Youtube/DailyMotion and even Facebook and Twitter.

“As soon as the pirated torrents make their way to the internet search engines, we bump up fake torrents and keep removing actual, good quality torrents using a software to parse through the Google search — and remove the links one by one by flagging Google. Such links are taken down immediately and only the fake torrents remain,” he explained.

Speaking about ‘leaks’ of trailers or teasers (like in the case of Kaala and 2.0 ) before their official release, Sudarsan said, “Tamil cinema still has to go a long way in introducing digital security. While films are copied on hard disks and passed around during post-production, Hollywood producers share content only through highly secured networks, protected by passwords.”

Miles to go

Arun Rajagopalan, who has closely worked on action film Adho Andha Paravai Pola , with Amala Paul in the lead, as a writer as well as in its production, agrees that Tamil cinema is still miles away from implementing robust digital security systems to protect intellectual property. He points out that this shouldn’t be surprising given the lack of awareness about digital security and the expenses involved in setting up a foolproof end-to-end digital set-up.

"The ideal way forward is to fully automate and digitise the entire workflow and put it on a cloud platform. All the technicians involved in post-production can work on the cloud platform, where everyone's access is logged and tracked. However, it is difficult to implement such a system and make people buy into it because there is a lack of trust in these systems at the moment," said Mr. Rajagopalan.

“Also, every producer would want to spend money on actors and music that can directly affect the audience's perception about the film. Setting up digital infrastructure for security may not be something they might want to spend on, especially for a small/medium budget film. But, big budget films ought to incorporate such robust systems so as to avoid any sort of leakage,” he added.


Halls need to step up

In Krishnagiri, Murugan theatre faced the heat after the owner and a few other staff members were arrested on the charge that critically acclaimed movie Manusana Nee was copied off the projector. The theatre was among those on TFPC’s list.

M.S.Balaji, owner of Murugan theatre, calls it a “cooked up allegation for a flop movie”.

“Two weeks after we had been compelled to screen this movie for just a day, the police came and arrested everyone including me and seized the projector. It was alleged that the pirated video had originated from the projector but later it was found that it was mobile-recorded and anyone could have done that,” he said.

“Had it been from the projector, then we are responsible. But that did not happen, and the truth never came out,” said Mr. Balaji, who believes that this was an internal conflict between the distributor and the TFPC and that the theatre got caught in the crossfire.

While video-sharing sites such as DailyMotion, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram remove links within minutes, enthusiastic fans often upload and share crucial scenes from the movie in the form of small recorded clips on WhatsApp. This has increasingly put the spotlight on the need for theatres to be more vigilant.

“Keeping a check in the age of social media and smart phones is extremely tough but it has to be done. Being producers as well, we take the issue very seriously as it majorly impacts both producers and distributors,” said Archana Kalpathi, CEO of AGS Cinemas. She said that their theatres have cameras installed, facing patrons.

“We have a team of ushers and if they spot any recording happening, we encourage them to check the phone and urge the patrons to delete it,” she added.

Asmathullah Khan, owner of Nayanthara theatre in Krishnagiri, which has also been ‘blacklisted’ by TFPC, said that Goli Soda 2 was shot by an audience member.

“We use the Qube projector. They can find out how and where the movie was recorded. They have now issued a certificate stating that the movie was recorded off the screen and not from the projector.

“In a movie hall, it is difficult to monitor,” he said, adding, “there is no proof of our guilt. In future, we need to do manual monitoring or place cameras inside the hall.”

Incidentally, Dhanush’s Vada Chennai has been released in theatres flagged by TFPC.

TFPC’s anti-piracy cell tweeted on Saturday that it had taken down several domains for illegally hosting Vada Chennai and Sandakozhi 2, which released a few days ago.

A producer, who didn't want to be named out of fear of being 'cornered' by theatre owners, said that a majority of the latter routinely continued to come up with some excuse or the other to deflect their culpability.

“Most of these theatres are leased out by someone else. And when the ones who they have have been leased out to are questioned, they point fingers at their managers who run these establishments. They blame pirates. So, the blame is constantly passed around. But, the buck stops with the owner and he/she should create robust systems to prevent piracy from taking place," he said.

Making a case for security inside theatres to be improved, he said that all theatres should have employees carrying out regular checks when a show is on. “This is not something that most theatres are going to find hard to carry out, and is probably the best solution for the producers who continue to take a hit as piracy continues,” he stated.

(With inputs fromP.V. Srividya)

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