The numbers don't decide. The system is a lie.

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The Tamil Film industry is floating around on a sea of illicit statistics and false hype. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation is all you need to disprove the numbers touted.

Numbers do lie. And this is one of the biggest secrets of the Tamil film industry.

Such a statement would actually hold good for the Hindi film too. But it has to be said that Bollywood has, by and large, cleaned up their act with respect to statistics — especially the financing of the industry. Many stakeholders have taken a stance against the underworld connection over the last two decades, and Bollywood has moved towards a relatively transparent system, where at least some numbers are transparent and accounted for.

But when it comes to Tamil film industry, though, there are several dark areas — especially with regards to financing and returns. This scenario has led to a massive manipulation of numbers. Over the past few years, during various “off-the-record” candid coffee conversations, many members of the industry have pointed out that most of the numbers floated about are actually well-constructed lies. A cottage industry full of fly-by-night websites and arm-chair experts feed these cooked-up numbers to legions of fans, who amplify the message.

The numbers — be it the first-weekend collections, or the remuneration earned by the stars, or even the seemingly more tangible metrics like YouTube hits or music chart positions — are all part of a well-orchestrated marketing campaign. Some of these lies are also survival tactics in an industry where the odds are heavily stacked against all the players. One industry insider morbidly sums up the scene: “Almost every stakeholder is bleeding but putting up a brave front”.

At the centre of all of this is the one topic that almost no one will take up openly: >the State government’s Rs. 120 cap on ticket prices at theatres for multiplex screens that boast a stipulated set of facilities, Rs.95 for theatre complexes with two or more screens, and so on. These fares were fixed in 2007. And even a very cursory examination of these numbers will be enough to call the bluff on some of the advertised first-weekend collection numbers.

There are approximately 1,400 screens in Tamil Nadu and a single show across as many screens approximately caters to 8,50,000 audience members. Less than 15 per cent of these screens belong to multiplexes that are legally allowed to collect Rs.120 per ticket.

You might have noticed that the “opening-weekend” collections of the top stars, no matter how horrendous the film or the word-of-mouth backlash, seems to only grow from film to film.
This is done just to create an aura around the “star” — to build their image and cultivate their fanbase.

A majority of the screens in the smaller cities and towns are mandated by law to collect a maximum of only Rs.95 or Rs.85, and the theatres in the smaller villages — usually single-screen setups — are mandated to price their higher-class ticket at just Rs.50 (for air-conditioned halls) and Rs.30 (for non-air-conditioned halls).

Now, even if, for the sake of argument, we assume every theatre in the State can charge Rs.120 for the tickets to an opening-weekend show, here’s how a ballpark calculation might look (movies starring big names get anything between 250 to 300 screens during the opening weekend).

Let us consider a movie that releases in 300 screens, and let us, for the sake of argument, say all screens collect Rs.120 per seat (even though the law does not allow this). So, the number of seats occupied on an opening weekend is approximately 1,83,000 (8,50,000 x 300/1400).


1,83,000 tickets per show (8,50,000 x 300/1,400)

x 4 shows per day

x 3 opening weekend days

x Rs.120


Rs. 23.6 crore

Of course, overseas collections too contribute to the figures touted. But besides the rare maven like Rajinikanth, most Tamil film actors do not command sufficient international fanbases for the overseas collections to be of much significance. Besides, it is the domestic market that contributes 75-80% of the revenue, according to industry insiders.

Moreover, this calculation needs to be adjusted for ground realities, which might include some shows — Matinees or Night shows — that do not have 100-per-cent occupancy even in the opening weekend. In the case of movies that get an exceptional release (with early morning shows and so forth) this number might require a higher degree of incremental adjustment.

But whatever be the case, the odds are stacked against any Tamil film — even the ones that do well — collecting more than Rs.50 crore in its theatrical run (which is two to three weeks even for the big hits these days). The average occupancy in Tamil Nadu theatres, factoring in the lull during the weekdays, hovers between 40 to 50 per cent.

Let us now address the number that gets bandied about by way of marketing and try to figure out the reasons for those: the opening-weekend collection or what becomes more specifically a star’s “opening” at the box office. You might have noticed that the “opening-weekend” collections of the top stars, no matter how horrendous the film or the word-of-mouth backlash, seems to only grow from film to film.

This is done just to create an aura around the “star” — to build their image and cultivate their fanbase.

As a norm, many Tamil film producers have now started hyping the film with “success” parties — either by way of a hotel bash or a press release — within the first three to four days of the film’s release.

Most producers hold exact details concerning the collections of the films close to their chest. A large number of films in Tamil are also financed by unorthodox methods and, at times, “speed loans” that can accrue interest rates of up to 36 per cent. While the opening-weekend collection numbers find their way into the film-related advertisements and media campaigns, many filmmakers and producers have gone out of business real fast despite such “successes”.

An industry insider says a flat price of Rs.4.5 lakh is enough to fetch one million views on YouTube. This “gaming of the system” is a well-recongised marketing tool.

This complicated situation has simultaneously given birth to a large number of specialised web-based entertainment websites that work insiduously to further amplify the false numbers and create hype — largely among the youth.

The networking capabilities of the social media are carefully exploited to broadcast these numbers. Actor’s fan clubs further ensure that the “aura” of their hero is constantly celebrated and maintained.

An entire gamut of “experts” are engaged in dissecting these fallacious box-office numbers. Which is why honest reviews are hard to come by on many websites, while click-baity material — exclusive images or galleries of actors/actresses — are a dime a dozen. There are allegations that those with serious social-media presence even charge a fee for putting out tweets praising a film.

Industry insiders also confide that the Tamil film industry probably has the highest percentage of under-declared ticket sales, simply because the business model itself is too unsustainable to keep revolving around the ticket price of Rs.120. Even the theatres that are listed on popular ticket-booking websites release hardly three or four rows during the opening weekend, especially if the marketing around the film has generated substantial audience interest.

Roundabout ways are invented to price the ticket beyond the government regulated price. Some shows are handed over to “fan clubs” or “third-party organisers” at the government-mandated price of Rs.120 per ticket. These tickets are then re-sold at much higher prices.

Celebrity image-management is now a widely-recognised and lucrative field. The marketing whizkids who know well how to manipulate the online ratings charts and trends are beginning to look at the film industry to leverage the dynamics.

A video or a song can be made to trend on top of the charts through a series of well-engineered marketing campaigns. Streaming services like YouTube or iTunes offer creators paid options to promote their stuff as “featured content”. This naturally improves the chances of a song or a video getting a spot at the top of the charts.

Apart from this, third-party marketing agents offer hacks to climb the the charts by gaming the system. You can buy a number of “views” or “likes” for a price. An industry insider says a flat price of Rs.4.5 lakh is enough to fetch one million views on YouTube. This “gaming of the system” is a well-recognised marketing tool. He cites the example of two new Tamil film music directors — who have both garnered a million-plus views for almost all their songs in their debut features.

Next time, don’t be surprised if some foot-tapping song suddenly climbs the charts so fast that it leaves you flabbergasted.

The answer is simple: there is a hidden cost.

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