A script with no takers

DVD players are now available for the price of DVDs and DVDs for the price you usually rent them! SUDHISH KAMATH on the grey market that's turning the industry grim

IT COULD be the script for Bala's next tragedy. The death of an industry. We all know that pirates have been the termites that have had the already weak Tamil film industry crumbling.

Vital Stat. 1: In the last five years, about Rs. 1,000 crores spent by the industry has gone to dust. The audiences attribute it to bad films. Critics attribute it to cable TV. But the industry says it's all because of video piracy. If we do not want to believe that it is the complete truth, even just 20 per cent makes piracy accountable for over Rs. 200 crores lost. And many crores lost for the State every year by way of entertainment tax.

A script with no takers

We all know that the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce, the Producer's Council, the Nadigar Sangam led by `Captain' Vijayakant and other bodies have had unlimited retakes with the Government, pleading for help.

Vital Stat. 2: There is still no law that makes piracy a non-bailable offence. There has hardly been a case where offenders have remained behind bars for long and then turned over a new leaf.

Vijayakant alleges that the law enforcers concerned are corrupt. "If they are not corrupt, how is piracy still thriving? Surely, it cannot happen without their support," he said during an interview.

How true is his statement? We step into Ritchie Street to validate his accusations. All around are boards with letters: VCD, MP3, DVD. A quick walk-through indicates that many VCD sellers had now changed their business after `harassment from police.' Good news? Wrong. Bad news. And worse. What are they doing now?

"We now sell DVD players. We import them, sir. What brand you want? For Rs. 2,500, I can give you top brands," says our pirate.

"We have VCD players from Rs. 990 upward."

"Is it fast moving?"

"Every day, we sell at least 10 of these," he says, fishing out a fake label and sticking it on the player with Fevicol.

Vital Stat. 3: A quick calculation. About 300 VCD players a month. And about 200 DVD players. Just from one shop. There were at least 10 such shops. More calculation: Ten times 500 players (VCD and DVD) mean that about 5,000 players are being sold every month just from the electronics capital alone. In the past year alone, about 60,000 players went off the shelves. By the end of the year, there will probably be more houses with pirated VCD/DVD players than houses with set-top boxes. One out of 10 cable TV homes will have a pirated player.

With the price of cable TV going up, experts say that people might soon pull the plug off cable TV just like they gave up on cinemas because VCDs were cheaper. "Until a year ago, a latest Tamil film VCD was priced at Rs. 120 in the grey market. Today, it costs Rs.40 to buy. To hire out, it was Rs. 20 a year ago. Now, it's Rs.15. DVDs today cost Rs.90 in the grey market," a producer points out.

A script with no takers

In a city where DVD rental stores charge between Rs. 70 and Rs. 90, many prefer to buy a poor print instead of hiring out an original because their players might not play an original DVD.

Vital Stat. 4: Piracy has forced even brands such as Philips to slash prices by 40 per cent. The Philips DVD player that was priced at Rs. 6,990 until last year, today, is sold for Rs. 3,000 less. Most branded DVD players are region-sensitive. They are built to play only discs made in this region. It is one of the measures manufacturers take to prevent piracy. But that is now working against them. Pirates now produce and assemble DVD players. You can choose any brand, the pirates have all the logos and letters. If you like, you can even brand your player PINKY.

Labels have become as easy as dog tags, at the pirate's store. On your fake/pirated DVD player, you can play any disc from any region. But very few buyers actually realise that the image quality on such a DVD is not even half as good as a genuine VCD copy. Sometimes, there are three films on a DVD, sometimes even seven!

Vital Stat. 5: Shops in Burma Bazaar and on Ritchie Street together sell over 5,000 VCDs and DVDs everyday. That means 1,50,000 discs go off the racks in a month. The police seize a few thousand discs every month. But over 95 per cent of the business gets away scot-free, industry sources say.

What is the solution? Actor Suriya believes that there has to be initiative from several fronts. "The Government has to make sure that these people don't get to come out easily after they are arrested. It has to be made a non-bailable offence. Law enforcement should be tough. And if the crowds have to return to cinemas, we need to look towards multiplexes. People love to go to Sathyam theatre, Mayajaal and Abhirami complex because there are good seats, ample parking, clean ambience, good popcorn, etc. More cinemas should take the initiative to attract more people for the experience of movie-watching."

The solutions aren't new. The South India Film Chamber of Commerce has made written representations and joint representations with other bodies asking for a tax holiday for cinemas interested in undertaking renovation work.

A script full of solutions has been ready for long. But there is nobody for the `take' yet. People who can call the shots haven't yet yelled "Action." For many producers, theatre-owners and distributors, it's time to pack-up.

And that is the tragedy.

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