The Tamil film industry has finally resurrected itself after 48 days of silence. Both the production and the release of films will resume in full swing from this weekend, in what is now a big relief for the artistes and the audience together. This is the first time in history that such a phenomenon has taken place in an industry which is best known for delivering a minimum of two films a week.
The amicable solution was a result of a long and loud tripartite meeting organised by the state government on Wednesday, between the Tamil Film Producers Council (TFPC), the exhibitors and the digital service providers.
When producer, entrepreneur and industry expert G. Dhananjayan was asked whether such a period of emptiness was necessary, pat came the reply - “It was a collective stand initiated by the Producers’ Council to revamp the industry. There are a lot of wrong connotations going around that the intent of the strike is to overthrow some digital service providers. Nothing like that. When Vishal started this whole initiative, his idea was to attend to all the problems at once, rather than doing it on a piece-meal basis. The major problem what we were facing were the exhibition charges, which were raised uncontrollably. Everybody talks about the big films, but 80 percent of the industry thrives on the small and medium-budgeted films – the average cost of the digital distribution expenses are 8 to 10 percent for a small film as opposed to 1 percent for a biggie. We had to bring it down.”
Dhananjayan acknowledges that the problem with the DSPs was not something that had come out of the blue, but was a topic of debate and negotiation for more than two years. “In order to make do with this cost, we looked at other ideas to reduce expenditures in our business models. After the FEFSI strike, some of the artistes were kind enough to come forward and take over their assistant payrolls. Many camerapersons and crew members too, revised their salaries.”
Flexible ticket prices
It was only then that the TFPC think-tank proposed the idea of flexible ticket pricing, which was also accepted by the theatre owners. Just like how it is done in the north, producers and exhibitors would sit down together and agree at a ticket price which is best suitable for their film.
“Each producer knows the range of his film. If the ticket of a Vijay/Ajith film is sold at 200 rupees, people would be ready to spend. But the same will not happen for a small film with new faces. Let them buy a ticket for 80 rupees and see the film. The income decreases, but people will not think too much before coming,” Dhananjayan said.
Online booking charges
Another result of the strike has been the proposed reduction in online booking charges.
“Online ticket booking charges were the next hurdle. Even for a flight booking, you have a booking charge which is added to each transaction only, regardless the number of seats. But for film tickets, it was an additional rise of 30 rupees per ticket. With GST added, the total price of a single ticket suddenly jumped from 120 to 200 rupees, which is not acceptable to the audience in any way. These were all substantial reasons to trigger the strike. But honestly, nobody expected it to extend this long," Dhananjayan explains.
Opposition to the strike
Of course, there was opposition to the strike. A few celebrities came forward saying that there was no development, and took to social media to talk about how the industry had lost a big chunk of its revenue by walking over the important Tamil New Year weekend.
When asked about why the strike had taken over a month and a half to settle, Dhananjayan said “Everybody took a hard stand. A huge war of words had taken place. Theatres had a problem with the interference in their ticketing strategy, the DSPs pleaded about going bankrupt, the producers kept complaining about the orbital expenses. When the discussions and negotiations aren’t coming to any common ground, the strike has to continue. We cannot finish without a solution, we have to please everybody.”
So does this result benefit the audience? Dhananjayan has a positive answer, “The value chain begins with the audience. When it comes to ticket bookings, the portals of the theatres will remain the same, but TFPC will have a website of their own where tickets can be booked with lower service charges. Flexible ticket pricing too, will be implemented within a few weeks. The ultimate aim of the strike is to bring in more footfalls to the theatres.”
“Not only the audience, the strike has done good things to the theatre owners and the producers as well,” he continues. “The theatre maintenance charges (TMC) which were fixed at 1 rupee per ticket for the past 12 years, will be raised to 3 rupees. GST too, will not be a fixed amount, and would be charged accordingly. And as for the producers who are suffering from wrong data being circulated, the government has stressed on computerized ticketing. This brings in a lot of transparency. Box office numbers will be openly published every week on the website and on social media. It will be a Rentrak for Tamil cinema. In turn, the artist knows the collection of his film, and can flight his salary on variables," Dhananjayan points out.
Bringing the audience back
We could not help but ask Dhananjayan on the intrusion of OTT platforms during the dry period in Tamil cinema. With people failing to find interesting content playing in theatres, the amount of subscriptions for online VOD services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have gone up.
But the National Award winner clearly says that there is still an exclusivity for a theatre watching experience, which cannot match up to that of an OTT platform.
“There are a lot of factors such as funding, asset creation and personal connections that affect a VOD product. The whole revenue model itself is different. What if a producer makes an 8 episode web series and pitches it to Amazon, who in turn are not satisfied with the output? He will have to port it onto YouTube and be happy with it. Therefore, producers will not immediately queue up to bankroll a web series, unless they are completely aware of the mechanism and have the support and finance from an OTT platform,” he says.
“The growth of technology does bring more people to such platforms. It is inevitable. But even a quality series like Breathe couldn’t stop Baaghi-2 from making 150 crores. Instead of watching DVDs or pirated content, people are resorting to such mediums because it is easier. It is a different kind of a paradigm shift inside home entertainment, and not a shift away from theatres. Even when IPL returned after 3 years, despite the protests, hordes of people turned up at the stadium to cheer for CSK. Nothing can replace the closed environment, the feel and bonding of watching together, the cheer for a star – these things can’t happen at home. Obviously, the audience will not jump into the theatres immediately because of the break. We need to bring them the most awaited films, so that the excitement is set in motion. It is like starting a new year. Once the celebration starts, it doesn’t stop," he concludes.