When the big news came, I can't exactly say I was shocked. And one part of me was certainly excited that I'd finally watch this movie I'd been waiting for ever since I got an early copy of the script for feedback. It was a cracker, and I felt it could result in the transformation of Suriya back to the actor we knew and loved, as opposed to the star. The film (in my mind) felt classy, yet it was rooted, massy in a non-pandering way. It felt like something that could have taken Suriya down the Aamir Khan route. Plus, it felt like it would have given him the big hit he's been after for a long time. But these are extraordinary times, which warrant extraordinary measures. And so we have Soorarai Pottru landing up at our homes, around Deepavali.
I asked a bunch of people in the industry what they felt about the announcement, and this is the sense I got. They preferred to not be named, so I've paraphrased their observations as a series of points. Here goes…
So far, during the pandemic, the OTT space has become home for a variety of "small films": the female-oriented film, the message-oriented film, the no-star-value film. But this was never going to make a difference in terms of subscriptions, so the major OTT players were after three biggies: Soorarai Pottru, Karthik Subbaraj's Jagame Thandhiram (starring Dhanush), and the biggest biggie of them all, Lokesh Kanagaraj's Master (starring Vijay).
In a statement, Suriya has clarified that this was a decision he made as a producer and not as an actor. So it's a question of survival, how each individual producer sees himself holding on. It's a state of mind. Let's say you have a Rs. 40 crore loan, with mounting interest. Over the period of a few months, it's bound to create a difference in deciding how long you want to play the when-will-theatres-open? waiting game.
But did he bite the bullet too soon? (As a theatre owner tweeted: "My only doubt is what if Theatres open PAN India in October !!!") Suriya has been having a rough patch at the box office, and Soorarai Pottru looked like a surefire winner. So while the decision may have been inevitable, it's certainly a surprise. Now, one can only pass a qualitative judgement on the film (is it good or not?), not a quantitative one (is it a hit or not?).
Soorarai Pottru's trailer and songs have been out for a really long time. Maybe the fear was that the film shouldn't become 'stale'. If theatres open by the year-end and people come back to normalcy only around summer of next year, wouldn't it be too late for these biggies?
Deepavali + a big-star movie = sacred tradition for the Tamils. So this is a jackpot for Amazon Prime, despite the huge price they've paid for Soorarai Pottru (which was already in a pretty good zone, after the satellite sale to Sun TV and post-theatrical-release OTT rights to Amazon Prime Video).
This means Amazon Prime has a "Deepavali release", as of now the only major Deepavali release in Tamil. And this will be a huge driver for subscriptions in the virgin-OTT markets. The multinational giant could triple, even quadruple, its subscriber base in Tamil Nadu. (The ad practically writes itself: "Instead of spending Rs. 1,000 for one movie, for a family of four, use the same money to get a year's worth of unlimited movies!")
Habit is not to be underestimated. Audiences are getting accustomed to watching films at home, at their convenience. And the longer it takes for theatres to open, the more entrenched this habit will become. Master is the only film now that can break this habit and bring people back to theatres.
The big question, if theatres open by the year-end and if Master releases for Pongal, is the second weekend. There is little doubt that the first week collections will be good, even with reduced-capacity seating. The fans will still go crazy, and those who cannot see the film during the first three days will watch it through the week. (Thus, the Monday-Thursday period will not see the usual 'weekday fall' in collections.) But the second week is when the families come to theatres. And now, with health risks for the old and the very young, will they?
So it's not too far-fetched a prospect that — simply owing to financial compulsions — Master may end up on OTT, too. And if Master ends up on OTT, then that will be the biggest blow for theatres. Because shooting has only just resumed. There is no pipeline of movies to be screened. And the next potential, "habit-breaking" big movie might not be seen until Deepavali 2021.
It is a mistake if producers think they can climb onto the OTT bandwagon just like that. The big players pick up a maximum of 15-18 Tamil films a year. In fact, Amazon Prime announced to its mediators and producers that it was not keen on buying Tamil films, as its recent releases didn't do very well, despite all the promotions. Now, what happens to the "smaller" films, the ones that would have — in normal times — been screened at 1pm shows during weekdays and 9am shows during weekends? They might have to seek out the "smaller" OTT platforms, which will naturally pay less. Like in the movies, there's a hierarchy in the OTT system, too.
This means that producers might end up selling their movies for less. This means they may incur losses and not be able to come back and make another movie. Let's take a movie like Maanagaram. Let's assume it was not backed by Potential Studios, and instead, a small-time producer had believed in this newcomer-director (Lokesh Kanagaraj) and the film had gotten made. Without the successful theatrical run that it had, its "perceived value" (according to an OTT platform) could be anything. The response could be: Wow, this is a damn good film. We're buying it. The response could also be: There are no stars. No one will watch it.
This is where the democracy of the theatrical system becomes something to think about. There are far more risk-taking distributors and producers than there are risk-taking OTT platforms, at least for now. And within the OTT system, with its hidden financials, it's going to be more difficult to answer the question: Who's going to be the next Lokesh Kanagaraj?
But all is not lost. OTT platforms will certainly seek out quality films, too, which overlap with the tastes of their higher-end subscribers. In fact, many younger filmmakers who don't want to make the one-size-fits-all movie may thrive better in the OTT space.
And the acquisition of Soorarai Pottru "legitimises" the OTT space for the Tamil hero. Many leading men were afraid that going directly to OTT might send out a signal that they are not "star enough" for theatres anymore. But now that a star as big as Suriya has done it, the floodgates will open.
And even on a regular day, a star's film having a direct OTT release should be liberating for the 'actor' in a star. If a star wants to try something experimental, something that demands no whistling or hooting, he may end up opting for an OTT release.
The worry is whether OTT may do to films what the Internet did to the music industry. Today, nobody pays for music. In the 1980s, Tamil Nadu had the highest number of theatres in India: about 2,500 (mostly single-screen, of course). Now, the single-screen theatre count is about 500, complexes and multiplexes come to about 650.
But there is a sense that audiences will return. Tamil and Telugu cinema have the biggest 'mass' markets in the country. The average theatre goer watches 3-5 films a year, as opposed to 1 in the case of Uttar Pradesh. It's the same "habit" point as above, but from the glass-half-full point of view. Of course, theatres will have to change. Audiences will only go to theatres that offer them a certain level of quality.
But producers will have to change. There is no money rotating in the market. Many films announced recently may not end up being made. And this may be a good thing in the long run. One of the major problems the Tamil film industry has been facing is the huge number of releases every week. This number will come down, and this will improve the quality of films being made. Instead of making five films all at once, producers will end up making one good, "theatre-worthy" film at a time. (This, of course, is after theatres open to full capacity.) They will have to think: If we make this movie, will the audience be willing to bear petrol costs, food costs, and also carve out a specific chunk of time from their schedule to come to the theatre?
Thus, the job of a producer will also change. He/she will no longer be just the person pumping in money for the project. They will have to become "creative producers" who think about the film in more holistic terms than simply "How much money will it make on the first weekend!"
After the advent of digital technology, anyone could make a film, and everyone apparently did. This democracy is great in theory, but it ended up in many, many unwatchable films. With more prudent producers, the non-filmmakers will be weeded out. A healthy OTT/theatrical coexistence, therefore, might be the best thing that can happen to the market now.
For a healthy OTT trend, it's crucial for a platform to acquire good films, at least to gain the trust of its viewers. Else the platform would merely be seen as a 'safety net' for films that would have otherwise been a disaster at the box office upon a theatrical release. Soorarai Pottru is that one film digital marketers have pinned all hopes on, the one film that could be a game-changer.