I was wondering when it would happen. It has, now. First, we got a tweet about an upcoming Jyotika-starrer: First Tamil feature film to get a Direct OTT release, #PonMagalVandhal (Tamil) streaming rights bagged by @PrimeVideoIN. Then, we got a response. The Tamil Nadu Theatre And Multiplex Owners Association has decided not to screen any films from 2D Entertainment, the film's producer/presenter. This means the much-awaited Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru may be blacklisted from theatres, too. The same thing happened when Kamal Haasan said — way before the OTT era descended upon us — he'd release Vishwaroopam in DTH. As an industry watcher, I'd say it's time. It happened in the US. It's happening everywhere. It's time the debate erupted in India, too.
Let's look at the three parties involved.
These are terrible times for films. Only the biggest stars manage to draw crowds in, and several industry people I have spoken to have repeatedly said how difficult it is for "small films" to find (a) screenings, and (b) audiences. Of course, Pon Magal Vandhal — directed by first-timer JJ Fredrick — is not a "small film". It stars Jyotika, who's one of the biggest brand names around when it comes to what's labelled as the "family audience". But it's certainly a small-er film, in the sense that it is not guaranteed to open big, and the all-important first three days are not guaranteed to run full.
It's a sad-but-true situation, and Samantha Akkineni explained it well. In an interview with Film Companion, she said, "Girls have to work so much harder to get a hit. We have to bend backwards to bring people to theatres. A superstar can just walk on screen, and people go crazy. Because of the phenomenon around the male superstar, we have to slog to get just one percent of that reaction from the audience… Just because Oh! Baby was a hit doesn't mean people will watch my next film. I'm not a male superstar who can have three disasters, and still get a great opening."
In an ideal world, this would not be the case. But when the world is not ideal, when a theatrical hit cannot be taken for granted in this case — namely, Pon Magal Vandhal — and more importantly, when the target audience is mostly waiting to watch the film at home, this is the perfect candidate to be streamed. Because seen from the OTT angle, the film is a blockbuster. Everyone's going to want to watch it — and not just because of the COVID19 situation. It's the kind of movie that's practically made for OTT. And the producers will make way more money on their investment, compared to what they would make on an already-released movie. Because at this point, the OTT platforms are desperate and willing to really pay for content, and what better content than "a brand-new Jyotika movie"?
So, if you are a theatre owner or a distributor, you're going to ask: "Why are you pre-judging a movie's performance? Why are you assuming Pon Magal Vandhal won't do well in theatres? Hasn't Jyotika given theatrical hits earlier?" Of course! But unfortunately in Tamil cinema, female-driven films don't start off with a bang in cinema halls, and they don't get Twitter abuzz with 5 am FDFS tweets. They have always had to rely on word of mouth, which takes time (and by the time this word of mouth kicks in, in say a week, six new films will be clamouring for the same screens). So we're talking about a situation where a film could become a hit.
And you're going to say: "Isn't that true of all films? Any film, on paper, is only a 'could become a hit' and there are no sure-shot formulas to make these predictions." You're going to say: "We spend so much money upgrading our theatres, and on the upkeep. We spend so much money paying our employees. If you make these predictions and divert the 'could become a hit' films to OTT, then how will we survive?" Which takes us to…
These are the people who decide the fate of a film. And over the years, the message they have been giving has been getting louder and clearer. (1) We will go to the theatres in the first weekend if it is a major male star, #SadButTrue. (2) We will go to the theatres if it is a big, buzzy director. (3) We will go to the theatres if (1) + (2) happens, at least during the first weekend, and at least in the cities and towns. (4) We will go to theatres if we think the film deserves a big screen, like say, a Bond movie, or a Fast and Furious movie. (5) Everything else, hmmm, depends…
There are so many options. They may choose a Salman Khan film or a Hollywood blockbuster, or they may even settle for a pirated copy of Pon Magal Vandhal. And producers — not just 2D Entertainment, but worldwide — are saying: "Why should we take that chance?" Earlier, they had to take that chance, because gambling was part of the film business. Making a movie was like going to a casino. You could end up a billionaire. You could end up broke. And today, producers are saying, "Let's gamble only on the films worth gambling on, the films that historically have shown better odds!"
There are many crises affecting Tamil cinema. There's the utterly unplanned flood of weekly releases. There's the utter lack of institutional funding, which results in producers having to resort to lenders who charge exorbitant rates. (How much additional financial burden, in terms of mounting interests, can a small-budget film like Pon Magal Vandhal take?) There's the fact that newcomers or small-time filmmakers struggle to find buyers for their films, and most of these films end up being seen only by film critics. (Many times, people have told me things like: I didn't even know such a film came out.) There's the fact that even those who don't have access to OTT are consuming increasing amounts of entertainment on their smartphones. And now, there's this pandemic.
When will theatres open again? And even when theatres open, will people return in full force? Or will the audience be halved? Will there be orders that, say, only every alternate seat can be sold — to maintain social distancing? There are no answers, and while we wait for these answers, it's only right that mid-level films like Pon Magal Vandhal be released in some shape or form. If theatre owners feel that this is an extraordinary decision, it's also an extraordinary situation. It's not that the release of Pon Magal Vandhal is going to make producers rush to drop Master and Soorarai Pottru and Jagame Thandhiram on OTT. It's more that with these films already waiting to hog theatres once the lockdown lifts, when will a film like Pon Magal Vandhal (or a smaller film) get a proper bunch of theatres, a proper release date?
So let's say the theatre owners are adamant about this. They are in the US, too. But the real fact is that… they are scared. Had Pon Magal Vandhal been announced as a direct-to-OTT film, they might not have had an issue — but even now, there isn't that a big issue. Jyotika isn't saying that all her future films are going directly to OTT. It's just this one time, this one film. But theatre owners will probably say, "What if this sets a precedent? What if other stars start doing this?" Well, I'd say it's a good thing. Because a large number of films that come out every year are perfectly suited for home viewing, and if some 30-40 mid-to small-level films come to OTT during this lockdown period, it will ease the pressure on the bigger films, which will play for a longer time. Besides, these are the films that really make money for theatres and for people down the cinema food chain.
Besides, change is inevitable. I remember the boos that erupted when Bong Joon-ho's Okja was screened at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival — because it was a "Netflix film". Now, it's becoming the norm. OTT is the future. No, scratch that. OTT is the present. As much as some of us may romanticise "the theatrical experience", for most audiences, the No. 1 factor is convenience. Just look at how many people have begun to watch Tamil serials on OTT platforms, because they come ad-free and can be watched whenever. It's the same with theatres, too. It will be interesting to see how this tussle plays out. Will the threat to Soorarai Pottru's theatrical release make 2D Entertainment back off? Or will they just say: "Hey, Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón have joined the OTT club. Why not Sudha Kongara?"