With director Lokesh Kanagaraj's Vikram (2022) running successfully in theatres for more than 20 days and becoming the highest-grossing Tamil film of all time in Tamil Nadu, you might think Kollywood is thriving. However, alongside these impressive records is the reality check that 2022 has delivered to directors of offbeat, small-budget films, who are struggling to release their completed projects.
Until recently, films made for Rs 5 crore and less found audiences through both theatrical releases and streaming platforms. They covered a range of genres, including coming-of-age romances like Attakathi (2012), urban dramas like Kaaka Muttai (2014) and horror like Demonte Colony (2015). Despite being unconventional in their storytelling, many of these films became box office hits and earned profits for their producers.
This year, it's a different story.
In a recent Facebook post, producer CV Kumar — he backed films like Attakathi, Pizza (2012) and Soodhu Kavvum (2013), which were low-budget and performed well at the box office — said 98% of the small films released in 2022 failed to collect even Rs 10 lakh from their theatrical run. Others have pointed out that even getting a release date is proving to be a challenge this year. "Small films have to endlessly wait for a release date, like a farmer who waits for the rain," said director Dwarakh Raja.
Raja's film Parole is a small-budget film that was expected to release after Vikram, but has now been postponed because of the blockbuster multi-starrer's extended run in theatres. "Releases scheduled for the second and third weeks of June have been postponed to next month," he said. "July's releases have been pushed to August and will be crunched between Cobra [starring Vikram] and Thiruchitrambalam [starring Dhanush]. Other postponed releases will be squeezed and crucified due to Puja holidays, Deepavali releases, pan-Indian films and English films," he predicted.
The other possible avenue for makers of small-budget films are streaming, or over the top (OTT), platforms. These have mushroomed in the past few years. Producer Sameer Bharath Ram, whose slate includes films like Uriyadi (2016), Kadaisi Vivasayi (2021) and Mudhal Nee Mudivum Nee (2022), said the OTT boom has exposed a variety of Indian audiences to good storytelling from around the world. "We were shooting a film in a remote village near Aruppukottai and there I saw a 14-year-old boy watching Money Heist on the phone. Korean dramas are being watched by pretty much everybody. So there definitely is a market for content-driven films," he said.
However, for those hoping to release their films on streaming platforms, the prospects seem bleak. "Almost 60% of the 2023-2024 slots for OTT [over the top] platforms are closed," Kumar wrote in his Facebook post.
Director Lokesh Kumar pointed out that post-pandemic, many streaming platforms have changed their acquisition strategy. "It's extremely difficult to approach the content heads of these platforms," he said. "Each platform has people from the industry who watch films on their behalf for a commission and take the decision. It has become like a broker system. Films without a star cast are just viewed as trash."
Getting noticed in the crowded Tamil film industry has long been a challenge for small-budget films, which often run out of cash by the time they have to execute a marketing and publicity campaign. Producer Sameer Bharath Ram believes bigger, commercial players need to step in and support the smaller films, for the benefit of the Tamil film industry in general. "If they [successful film studios] do a proper theatrical release for these [small-budget] films, they will be able to make much more money than they invest," he said.
An example of how well-known names from the commercial film industry can help an offbeat film is in the waiting game that director Vignarajan had to play for his film Andhaghaaram (2020). This indie horror film was made over three years, starting in 2014, with a small budget. After being completed in 2017, the film languished until director Atlee saw it.
"Atlee watched our film after hearing about it and immediately came on board to present it, which changed a lot of things for us," said Vignarajan. "When we were gearing up for a theatrical release, Covid-19 struck and once again, we had to wait. That's when a screener copy was presented to Netflix India and they acquired the film for an exclusive digital release."
Lokesh Kumar has had less luck with his thriller N4, which is set in north Madras and has a fisherwoman and a police officer as protagonists. "Before [the pandemic], I was able to sell my offbeat film My Son is Gay to a company in Mumbai, so I was confident when I was making N4 that it will find a home at least on an OTT platform." However, N4 is yet to be released and according to Lokesh, even lesser-known platforms are now demanding a star cast in the hope that famous names will convince audiences to opt for paid subscriptions.
Supporting independent and non-commercial storytellers isn't just good karma for established studios. The earnings from the last few years show small-budget films can make respectable profits for their producers and distributors. Not just that, these films introduce new talent to the industry — like director Lokesh Kanagaraj who made his debut with a small-budget film and had to wait for two years to release that first film. In case you were wondering, Maanagaram (2017) was a hit.