There weren't too many surprises in the recently announced winners list of the 51st Kerala State Film Awards. As expected, The Great Indian Kitchen ended up winning the Best Film award, apart from the best screenplay award for its director-writer Jeo Baby.
The best editing award went to Mahesh Narayanan for C U Soon, while the prize for best art direction, lyrics and costume design went to his other film Malik. Three awards in the music department (best music director, best background score and best singer, female) went to Sufiyum Sujathayum and Don Palathara's Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam won for best sync sound.
Theatrical releases like Ayyapanum Koshiyum, Kappela and Vellam won important awards too but the list of films mentioned above reveals a little more about the year of the pandemic and the emergence of the OTT revolution. The Great Indian Kitchen, Malik, C U Soon and Sufiyum Sujathayum were all exclusive OTT releases and their success in the very first year of the direct release is proof that a film needn't rely on the tired channels of theatricals and film festivals to reach a wide audience, apart from winning big come awards season.
Paeans about the accessibility these platforms provide the viewer have already been sung but what about the accessibility it gives the indie filmmaker? Will the OTT revolution finally free the indie or will the star system and market dynamics take over this new space as well?
"Through OTTs, a film is much closer to the viewer. You can watch it on your mobile or your laptop and it is with us. It is travelling with us," says Jeo Baby, days after having won the coveted award for The Great Indian Kitchen. "A pregnant lady, the aged or even kids have the same access to the movie, unlike a movie theatre or a film festival. The easy access is the main difference, which in turn helps the maker as well," he adds.
His film debuted on Neestream, a fairly obscure platform that focuses on smaller Malayalam cinema. Within days of its release, the film became a point of discussion around the country, bringing thousands of viewers to this new platform. In this case, it was the film helping an OTT establish itself, but the reverse is now more common.
Gatham, for instance, is a small-budget Telugu thriller made entirely in the US. It is also an excellent example of a major OTT helping out a tiny film. Made by a bunch of NRI self-taught filmmakers, such an indie would have had no chance of reaching viewers through the traditional theatre distribution model. It released directly on Amazon Prime Video last year and it quickly emerged a surprise hit for the platform. Its success led its producer Srujan Yarabolu to then make Thimmarasu (out on Netflix) and he's ready with Adbutham, a direct Disney Hotstar release.
He says, "Not many distributors would have bought Gatham and it would still have languished in the 'box', waiting for a release. As makers, such opportunities are positive because we no longer have to be restricted to thinking about viewers. The stress of money isn't weighing on us either. It opens up the filmmaker to concentrate on the story, without the pressure of having to fit a song or a fight into it."
This is the sentiment shared by producer Radhika Lavu as well, who has made two Telugu mini-series, both for OTTs. She feels that a theatrical release, at least in the Telugu industry, means making a different film with a set of compromises. Having made Gods Of Dharmapuri long before the pandemic, her show Unheard premiered recently on Disney Hotstar. "Prior to OTT, we definitely would have gone ahead with the theatrical route for Unheard. While the essence of the story would remain, we would have had to mould the content for the distribution model. Theatrical runs require a different thought process and different packaging. Unheard is verbose, and we probably would have tweaked the narration style to make it visual," she says.
What this has done is given, "indie filmmakers a unique voice and multiple avenues as opposed to the previous platforms that were dedicated only to mainstream cinema," she adds. "OTT is also about minimalism and encouraging great scripts as opposed to over-the-top visuals."
According to Srujan, this has only widened the discussion on what type of film needs a theatrical release. "In the Telugu industry, producers and directors are open to making films specifically for the OTT. There is also a filtering process where they analyse what film needs to be made for OTT and which film needs theatres. Both kinds of films may work on OTT but not all films need a theatrical release anymore."
Apart from the content, the budget or the marketing don't seem to matter as much. The idea of 'word-of-mouth' helping a film too gets the time it deserves on a platform, makers feel. Jinovi is the writer-director of the micro-budget Tamil indie Alpha Adimai, which was released on SonyLIV last month. Made at under Rs.30 lakh, his film had no chance of getting a decent theatre run. "We made a small film and we were able to take it to the audience only because of the platform. With Alpha Adimai, we were chosen because it was a film that had its share of commercial elements. There were no known faces or big budgets but we remained honest to the storytelling process. Beyond that, you also need luck for your film to get picked."
From the likes of it, it paints the picture of a fair and free world where merit is rewarded. But the selection process isn't as easy as it sounds. With hundreds of films waiting to be picked up by these platforms, this process is hardly predictable, often without any set criteria. Srujan, for instance, feels it was blind luck that helped his film. "Gatham was first rejected even without it being watched. Even when it was picked up, it hadn't been watched by many. Indies don't have any negotiating power and a small film's selection is still a fluke," he says.
As for others, the timing is perhaps more important than its content. With each platform following a "programming strategy", a trend or a genre might get precedence over the quality of a film. "My film didn't fit the strategy of many players but it fit SonyLIV's. Great films like Maadathy might fall outside this because an OTT might be following a trend or meeting one type of demand."
And if the platform isn't sure about a film or a series, they might offer a pay-per-view model instead of an outright purchase. "This is not feasible for all films. A friend made a small film for just Rs.3 lakh and even that sum was not recovered in this model. A film needs positive press or a selection in major film festivals for this to work and that's what helped Sethum Aayiram Pon."
Speaking about various business models, filmmaker Leena Manimekalai feels indie films are best suited for the "digital theatre system" rather than the "subscriber-based Video on Demand" model. "When indies opt for the pay-per-view model, that too on a medium or small OTT, it is suicidal," she says.
That's why Jinovi thinks it's fair to call these platforms conducive for "independently-made commercial films" rather than for pure experimental indies. "The basis on which they acquire a film is still the commercial value of a project. In Tamil cinema, there is no parallel film movement and even films like Merku Thodarchi Malai need the backing of Vijay Sethupathi. Only if such films are backed by the audience will OTTs come forward to support arthouse or independent films."
As for pure arthouse films, the festival route seems to be a better option, even if you're backed by heavyweights. Nithin Lukose's Paka premiered at the Discoveries section of the recent Toronto International Film Festival. With the backing of Anurag Kashyap and Raj R, the film is now looking for an OTT release early next year. "The issue with the direct-to-OTT model is that they are mainly focusing on films with star value," Lukose says. "The only other way is to take the festival route and return to India after having created some positive buzz and favourable reviews. We wanted audiences to first watch the movie. Even with the backing of my producers, it's not easy to go to them directly for a release. It is not accessible to new filmmakers and you cannot blame them because they aren't sure of who will watch indie films. Even so, I don't think Indian cinema has a space for indie/arthouse cinema, even in the OTT space."
Either in the commercial movie space or otherwise, it's still important that you've created a name to be given a chance in the OTT universe. Don Palathara, a star in his own right as a voice in the Malayalam arthouse circuit, has benefitted from his filmography premiering on MUBI. Usually restricted to the festival crowd, even his older films like Shavam and Vith have now found a base thanks to this platform. "Earlier, my films were restricted only to festivals, private screenings and film societies. In terms of the audience, I have never been trying to make films for the masses. Platforms like MUBI and Neestream have helped me reach the regional audience I have been trying to communicate with for so long."
"But the model is not perfect," he adds. "When we consider the producers, these platforms are not the ideal way to distribute our films. If you already have other avenues to explore returns, then these platforms can be used for additional income. But they cannot be the only source of revenue. Only the big players like Amazon Prime and Netflix are able to make films viable for its makers. I myself have received a name after the OTT revolution, but this revolution should sustain filmmakers by providing them the returns to ensure they continue making their kind of cinema."
At times, it's the business model that fails the smaller film. In other cases, it could even be the negotiation process. "OTTs are open to films of any budget as long as we provide proof of our expenses," Srujan says. "As a producer, we're able to make films within a budget because of our goodwill. In such cases, it is not fair for them to offer us four crores because we completed the film for three. All I ask them is to watch the film and then pay us a fair price and not base that decision on the cost. It should be based on artistic value too."
In other cases, it's simply exploitation of the indie filmmaker, says Leena Manimekalai, whose Maadathy is playing on Neestream. "All the leading OTTs are behind the Khans and the Kanths. Smaller platforms are desperate for content too but they survive by exploiting indies like us. They don't pay us and even if they do, the amount is hardly enough. They don't promote our films and they don't have the technical know-how to combat piracy. Their streaming quality is poor and their compatibility with changing technology is not fool-proof."
But it's the return of investment that's most debilitating, she says. "With Neestream, the platform offers a five-day subscription to anyone who comes to watch Maadathy, purchasing the ticket for Rs.140. The filmmaker gets fifty rupees on that purchase but the viewer in-turn gets five days access. They share this access with others to the point where it's almost like piracy. And when an existing subscriber watches my film, I get fifteen rupees for the view, that too only when the film is watched fully. The fault is also with the audience who watch it illegally. Fifteen thousand people watched Maadathy for free on an illegal Youtube channel. But only three thousand people watched it on Neestream legally!"
According to Don, it's simply the same star system evolving into a new digital space. He says, "People predicted at the beginning of the pandemic that the fan system would come to an end, but I never believed it. As a society, people worship individuals or stars. Unless these basic characteristics of the society don't change, the star system would continue on OTTs too. We have big players who control the content creation process almost exactly like the theatre system."
"After their start, the major OTT platforms focus only on star films now. It is still very difficult for small or independent films to be chosen. It's like the same theatrical star system has slowly taken over the OTT space as well, at least in the regional languages of the South," Jeo Baby concurs.
Which is why Leena isn't upbeat about the OTT revolution. She doesn't see a lot of difference between the old model and feels it's a lot like history repeating itself. "Earlier, films we made never got mainstream theatres or a proper release. We used to screen at State-subsidised theatres of the Film Division or NFDC. Even if we did manage to get theatrical distribution, we were slotted in obscure screens during odd hours. No private channels would buy our films and if we managed to get a recognition like a National Award or a selection in the Indian Panorama surpassing red-tapism, then we got an opportunity of screening it in the State-owned Doordarshan network."
Which is why she has so many questions about the lopsided way this model is evolving, even at this early stage. "Why do leading OTTs employ only upper-caste heads? Why is a Tamil filmmaker expected to send the script and its bible in English to a North Indian or Western decision maker, who has no idea about the regional film history?"
"If we don't have answers for this, it will be silly to expect OTTs to push cinema as a medium and produce a new film language," she says.