Everyone, from S.S. Rajamouli to Anurag Kashyap, has hailed Malayalam cinema for the quality of its storytelling. Malayalam films have often been remade in other languages and not just in India — Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam (2015) became the first Indian film to be remade in Korean. Yet when it comes to the business side of things, Malayalam cinema’s market remains stubbornly niche and local.
During a discussion with Film Companion on his blockbuster survival thriller 2018 (2023), actor Tovino Thomas said Malayalam films struggle to find distributors outside the state, and that it’s difficult to take their cinema across the country. For instance, by the third week of May, 2018 made over Rs. 137 crore against its budget of Rs. 12-15 crore. Of this, around Rs. 65 crore was from Kerala, Rs. 64 crore was from the overseas market, and Rs. 8.4 crore was from the rest of India (ROI). The average Malayalam film doesn’t collect this much from its theatrical release in other Indian states. So is content really king as filmmakers and exhibitors are fond of saying?
Most Malayalam producers prefer to distribute their own films within Kerala, the south Indian state with the lowest population.The industry has also built a market for itself in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region because of the state’s significant immigrant population. But, it’s a different story in the ROI market.
Venu Kunnappilly, producer of 2018, said distribution companies outside Kerala are reluctant to take up Malayalam movies because they tend to be small budget films that are content-driven – the very reason that makes the industry’s output so popular among cinema aficionados.
“Distributors prefer big budget, mass films. In the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada industries too, there are small budget films being made and these films also struggle to find distributors outside their respective states,” said Kunnappilly. Tamil and Telugu film industries run primarily on star power and frequently make films that have budgets between Rs. 50 to Rs. 100 crore. In the Kannada film industry, the pan-Indian success of the KGF films and Kantara (2022) has encouraged filmmakers to dream big.
In Malayalam, however, small budget films with realistic storylines are the norm and only one Malayalam film so far was made on a budget of Rs 100 crore – Priyadarshan’s historical action film Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham (2021) starring Mohanlal. The film flopped and its unoriginal writing is attributed as cause of its commercial failure. While a big budget doesn’t guarantee a good film, it can ensure superior production values and generate interest in the audience. “When you have a big budget to work with, you can get big stars, good quality VFX and many other things that will attract audiences beyond language,” said Kunnappilly.
When a film is ready for release, if the producer partners with a distribution company, the latter will either buy the rights for the film at a fixed price (leasing) or enter into a profit-sharing agreement with the producer. Since the distributor markets the film, unless they’re confident about returns, they’re reluctant to spend on a marketing campaign.
SR Prabhu of Chennai-based distribution company Dream Warrior Pictures said finding new territory for a film involves time, energy and money. “You have to invest the same efforts as you would in your original market for about 5-10% of the business. Distributors are not ready to buy films outright even for the local market in most cases,” he said. Further, Prabhu noted that for a film to find space in a new market, it has to be ready for release well in advance. “The makers should identify the right distribution channels ahead of time, and plan their marketing strategy. This rarely happens,” he said.
Alphonse Puthren’s coming-of-age romance drama Premam (2015) may have had a dream theatrical run of 250 days in Chennai, but in general, the audience for Malayalam films in Tamil Nadu is small, even for big star releases. In comparison, Tamil films have been able to make significant in-roads in the market in Kerala, thanks to their mass appeal. Tamil star Vijay’s latest film Varisu (2023), for instance, was released in over 400 out of 600 screens in Kerala.
Dubbed films are likely to bring in new audiences, but this too involves money. Dream Warrior Pictures distributed the Tamil dubbed version of Srinath Rajendran’s crime drama Kurup (2021), starring Dulquer Salman, in Tamil Nadu. Prabhu said this was a profitable venture for the company, but added that dubbed versions of Malayalam films are seldom planned as simultaneous releases. Besides, good quality dubbing costs around Rs. 10 lakh which might prove to be too expensive for Malayalam films that are typically made on small budgets of less than Rs. 5 crore.
“Dubbing will be cost-effective only if the film has a story that will appeal to people from other languages too. Most Malayalam films are made for people within the state, and without any thought about whether it will work outside the Kerala market,” acknowledged Kunnappilly.
Then, there is entertainment tax – the rates vary from state to state – that also eats into the earnings of a film. In Tamil Nadu, Malayalam films have to pay 15% entertainment tax while according to the 2017 Tamil Nadu government order, it is 8% for Tamil films. A distributor has to consider all these factors before deciding on how much to spend on marketing the film. “If you spend Rs. 20 lakh on marketing a local language film, you can’t do the same with a dubbed film,” pointed out Prabhu.
Mukesh Mehta of E4 Entertainment said distributors who want to release a Malayalam film outside the state should be aware of the territories in which the film is likely to find an audience. Currently, Malayalam cinema’s ROI market is mostly limited to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and since it is the Malayali working populace that forms the bulk of the audience in these states, late evening and night shows work best.
“The Malayali audience is picky about which film they will go to watch in theatres, be it within the state or outside. Unlike Tamil and Telugu audiences that will go to theatres for morning shows because of hero worship, the Malayali audience will show up only if the reviews and word-of-mouth are good,” said Mehta. The age distribution of the audience is also a factor, believes Mehta. A sizable percentage of the Telugu audience outside Andhra and Telangana, for instance, comprises students who are willing to spend money on films, irrespective of their quality.
Due to its high literacy rate, the in Kerala is 87.25% (as opposed to the national average of 36.75%). Consequently, advertising in Malayalam newspapers is extremely expensive. Mehta said a full-page ad in Malayala Manorama, the largest selling Malayalam newspaper, costs a whopping Rs. 35 lakh while the costs are about 40% less to advertise a film in a leading Tamil newspaper. This means most of the marketing budget of a Malayalam film is exhausted just promoting it within Kerala. Unless distributors outside the state take it upon themselves to invest in the marketing, the film cannot hope to bring in new audiences.
“After the success of 2018, many distributors were willing to buy the film outright. I didn’t get such a response even for the superhit devotional film Malikappuram (2022). We will be bringing out 2018 in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada,” said Kunnapilly. The Jude Anthany Joseph directorial is about how people came together during the devastating Kerala floods of 2018 – a theme that the producer believes has found resonance across audiences. “We need such stories that go beyond language barriers for a Malayalam film to work across the country,” he said.
So, should more Malayalam films aspire for the mass appeal of other industries and risk losing their uniqueness? Or should they continue to do what they do best – telling small stories with heart and guts – and hope that the audience eventually develops a taste for such cinema? It’s a conundrum for which there are no immediate answers.