Online promo frenzy: How dependent is the Tamil film industry on social media?

From first look posters to song releases, marketing for cinema has shifted online but with this change come paid reviews and a race for records.
Online promo frenzy: How dependent is the Tamil film industry on social media?
Online promo frenzy: How dependent is the Tamil film industry on social media?
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Tamil Nadu is not new to overboard film promotions. From giant cut-outs of stars dominating the skyline to fans performing paalabhishekams and even building temples, the frenzy around cinema has always been a part of the state’s popular culture. However, this ardour has also found its way to the virtual world in recent times.

The Internet has changed how film promotions are done. Previously, posters on walls, ads on radio, TV, newspapers, and theatres were how films were promoted. But now, much of the marketing has shifted to online. This comes with its own pros and cons.

Traditional marketing vs online promos

Speaking to TNM, film industry tracker and social media influencer LM Kaushik, who has a following of 212k on Twitter, points out that young people who go to watch films in the crucial first three days of a release, are all on social media.

“It is more cost effective compared to print, TV or radio. A lot of youngsters are on social media, a major chunk of them. And they are the ones who watch a film in the first three days or first week. So such promos directly cater to them. It all started 2-3 years ago and now it’s increasing with every year,” he says.

Producer G Dhananjayan says the buzz created online for a film guarantees it a good opening.

“Earlier, it used to take a long time to reach a trailer to an audience. We had to wait for the trailer to be censored and then taken to the theatre. It will take about two weeks for it to be screened and for people to see it. Now, overnight, you are able to reach millions of people in one minute. You are able to create instant attraction. Take the song from Kanaa which has been sung by Sivakarthikeyan’s daughter – it has got 25 million views. It has created a good buzz for the film. Kolamaavu Kokila is a female-centric film and it had such a big opening because of Anirudh’s viral song. Internet is creating the opening game,” he says.

Recalling the time the Suriya starrer Anjaan was marketed online in 2014, he says, “Till 2013, social media was there but not to this extent. There were only a few sites. 2014, it opened up in a big way. For Anjaan, we achieved 1 million views for the trailer overnight. It was a trendsetter then. We achieved this number in one day and it became a big news, but now it’s whether you can get 1 million in 4 hours.”

Entertainment journalist and industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai believes that it is necessary for stars today to be visible on social media. Even the Khans of Bollywood, who have been around for decades, have an active presence on social media.

“They promote their films extremely well on Twitter and on Instagram, every promo is out there in the open. But the same cannot be said for actors from the south. It is perhaps the fear of trolls that keeps them away. But today, the success of an actor depends on keeping a very interactive or active virtual media presence. One very good example is actor Sivakarthikeyan. He aggressively promotes his films on his social pages, gives out multiple interviews before releases, thereby giving all his films a good opening. He’s among the top 5 actors in Tamil – I’d say he’s among the top 3 – reaching this spot in a very short period of time, precisely because of this,” he says.

Social media influencers – a boon or bane?

From first look and motion posters to trending hashtags, teasers, trailers and song releases, there are several promos that filmmakers undertake for a release. And for this, they mostly turn to social media influencers – people who have a large number of followers online.

These promos also extend to generating good word of mouth for a film. Since a lot of people look for reviews on social media on Thursdays and Fridays, insiders say that social media influencers who work for a film promote a good film as a great one and don't damage a film too much if it's a bad film.

However, Sreedhar Pillai notes that for a film to sustain, it has to be really good or the audience will die out pretty quickly.

“No matter the hype created by these promos, teasers and trailers, the film’s success depends entirely on its content. Promotions, however, can draw in a good opening crowd but the film sustains solely on its content. For instance, Mani Ratnam hardly gives any interviews. This gap is compensated by his trailers. They create the kind of expectation to draw in a good opening crowd,” he explains.

Dhananjayan echoes his thoughts: “Let’s say 500 screens are open in Tamil Nadu alone for a big star’s film. We’re talking about the first show. Let’s say an average of 500 people are watching in each screen. That means around 2.5 lakh people are watching a morning show. What these 2.5 lakh people communicate with others is more powerful than what any of these influencers can do. By evening, it will be around 10 lakh people and they will influence around 1 crore people. If those 10 lakh people say the film is just okay or bad, no social media influencer can change anything.”

Dhananjayan gives the example of Karthi’s Kadaikutty Singam, which received an average response on social media and got bad reviews in the English press. However, it went on to become a big hit because those who’d watched it on the first day said it was a wonderful film and collections picked up dramatically from the next day.

Considering that the quick reviews that are put out on social media tend to be part of the film’s promos, they cannot always be trusted.

Sreedhar Pillai says, “I’d say online word of mouth cannot be trusted on the day of the film’s release. You have to wait for a day for it all to settle down. On day one it’s all – very nice, very good film, etc. Also because films have very big openings these days when compared to what it was back then, the number gets exhausted after the first show itself. Back then, word of mouth brought in good crowd for the first three days, sometimes up to a week. Rajinikanth’s Baasha released in 6 theatres in the city and had four shows. You can imagine the kind of crowd it must’ve seen and the number of days it must’ve run. Today, films release in over 50 screens in the city itself and the number drastically comes down after one show.”

Dhananjayan points out that there are also quite a few people who are out to make fast money by creating numerous accounts on social media and claiming to be influencers.

“It’s a boon and bane. It’s a boon because you are able to reach millions of people overnight. It was impossible earlier. The bane is that all these people are demanding money and it’s becoming a money racket. There are people who create several accounts which will barely have any followers. Some people message and tell me that they have 3,00,000 followers but if you ask them to tweet, there will be hardly any likes or retweets. That’s my real benchmark. I tell them to grow genuinely and come back. But there are naive producers who fall for this and ask them how much they want,” he says.

Considering there are about 30 films releasing a month, Dhananjayan says that social media influencers could easily make at least Rs 2 lakh a month.

What does it cost?

Dhananjayan says that the percentage of marketing costs allocated for social media spending depends on the budget of the film.

“For a small budget film, the money spent on online promos may be 10%. If you take a big film, it will be 3%. For a big budget film, the social media spending will be only about Rs 20 lakh, whatever they do. But we can say for sure that the money spent is going up every year,” he says.

Kaushik says that while a single ad in a newspaper may cost the filmmakers several lakhs, the entire online campaign on three platforms – Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – is likely to be around Rs 20-25 lakhs. It’s much lesser for the smaller films.

“Promotions are also happening on Instagram which is photos driven. People release posters, make stories on Insta. It’s an upcoming thing. On Facebook, memes are made for promos,” he says.

The volume of promos is very high and they can be released at any time.

“If not 24x7, it’s 18x7 at least,” Kaushik quips. Social media influencers and online fan clubs receive these promos from the filmmakers which are then promoted aggressively online. The key to doing a good online promo is to keep it short and simple.

“Emojis happen for very high profile films – like Mersal and Kaala. Usually, we do simple things like trending a hashtag – for example, #UTurnTomorrow may come on such a group and if 5-6 of us tweet it, it will trend. It’s the simplest thing to do. Online promos isn’t rocket science,” he says.

Fan clubs

For big star films, social media influencers mainly come into the picture to promote the film after its release, in terms of reviews and giving out box office numbers. These stars have a huge number of fans online who take care of the pre-release promos.

According to Kaushik, actor Vijay has the biggest fan presence online, followed by Ajith and Suriya.

“They are really organised. They will have a separate handle for this alone. Their unity is on a whole other level. In Telugu also, the big stars have such fan clubs. They take it very seriously. The stars are aware about the impact of these promos... some of them also pay for it. Just as they used to give money to rasigar mandrams earlier, now they give it for online clubs also,” he says.

And just as there are fan wars on the ground, it’s all the more intense online where there’s a race to clock the maximum number of views or likes for a newly released trailer.

Commenting on this trend, Dhananjayan says, “This is an ego trip. They want to say my hero’s film trailer got 10 million in one day, yours got only 6 million. It was there all along. On the ground, they’d talk about how many hoardings they put up. Today it’s shifted online. You can’t stop it. And not all of these are fans. Many of them are paid. There’s a set amount of people working only on this – how to get more views, likes, how to beat records. It’s all a marketing game. They do all this to stay in the news.”

Kaushik agrees: “Some of it is organic, especially when there’s a big star. But they also plan and organise themselves to get such numbers.”

Kaushik picks Sarkar posters and the Petta video that showed 164 Rajini titles, as promos that stood out in recent times.

Sreedhar Pillai says, “When it comes to unique promo ideas, I’d say Sivakarthikeyan’s Seema Raja posters have been done very well. It has a very good mass appeal. Also, Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam had a good unveiling of characters. His cast and trailer are other reasons for creating the hype. Also, I felt the songs from 96 have created a very nice build-up, a long time since a film’s jukebox created this kind of expectation.” 

(With inputs from Anjana Shekar)

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