Malayalam cinema post-COVID: An insider's perspective
Vipin Kumar, a leading marketing strategist and celebrity manager in Malayalam cinema, talks about the need to adopt certain measures to improve the present scenario of the industry
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world into a period of great uncertainty. The impact is being felt across the board, irrespective of the industry. Malayalam cinema, too, is going through a very difficult time. While a handful of indie filmmakers are pondering direct over-the-top (OTT) platform release for their films, the biggies have decided to sit it out until theatres reopen.
Cinema Express spoke to an industry insider, Vipin Kumar, who suggested measures that can be taken to improve things to a certain extent. A marketing consultant and strategist active in the South Indian film industry for over a decade, Vipin has worked on some big films, most recently, Prithviraj Sukumaran’s directorial debut Lucifer. He is also a PR manager and team head of over 20 celebrities including Prithviraj, Manju Warrier, and Tovino Thomas, in addition to some leading production houses.
When asked what he thinks could bring about a significant change in the industry in the post-COVID world, he shares his belief that a favourable move from the government, in the form of a tax exemption, would be helpful for ready-to-release films. “Since cinema would be the last priority in the present scenario, reduced ticket rates may bring people to the theatres, even if the crowd is not relatively as high as before,” he says. “A collaborative effort is very essential for that. A revised distributor-exhibitor percentage can be agreed upon, provided it’s acceptable to both parties. Also, a loan facility on moderate interest, with a relaxation period of 6-12 months, can be considered. Since cinema is a risky factor, banks don’t easily give out loans, The other option is an OTT or TV release.”
Like others before him, Vipin also feels that the last option is only practical for a small-budget film. “As OTT platforms have updated their payment terms post-March, that route is only feasible for a film budgeted at Rs 3.5-4 crore. For the others, it would be ideal to wait for a theatrical release,” he says. “One has to take into account the fact that television doesn’t support those who opt for an early OTT release, especially since torrent sites are also part of the game. The OTT platforms should consider reducing subscription rates to draw more users.”
Adding to the previous point, Vipin also suggests making some alterations to the way things are done with respect to films in the post-production stage. “Paying off the technicians will be a big issue at this point. The volume of work is high, and they can only work if they’re paid decently. Perhaps dividing the work between multiple agencies can help finish work on time and also reduce the workload. Cost-cutting can also be achieved by revising the remuneration of the stars and technicians. The manpower can also be reduced,” he says.
As someone who occasionally received the short end of the stick from producers who bailed on their promises, Vipin thinks promotion is a major area of concern. “Promotion expenses should also be taken care of, regardless of a film’s release mode. There are a lot of producers who pay on time, but there are also those who leave you high and dry.”
Explaining the different promotion strategies employed to market a film, Vipin says, “There are three ways. The first is by deciding on a promotion strategist once a film is planned. That’s where people like us come in. We are there from a film’s inception to its conclusion. The second way is to approach somebody a month or so before the release. The third approach is post-release promotion. The last one is usually for a certain kind of film. Maybe the makers want to even out some of the rough edges or improve the collection if it’s doing decent business.”
According to Vipin, the first method is the most effective as it helps one to get properly acquainted with the team, thereby getting a clear understanding of the product they want to sell and how to go about selling it. He believes that establishing a good rapport with the team right from the start will help achieve that.
Vipin also opined that Malayalam cinema would benefit greatly from hiring more marketing consultants as they do in other states. “The scope of a promotion consultant goes beyond that of a regular PR manager,” he says while stressing on the point that each technician is to be treated as a brand just like a star is. “In Malayalam cinema, promotion consultants are few and far between. They can etch out a proper strategy depending on the size and budget of the film. One can’t go about it blindly. Different films require different strategies. What we did for Lucifer cannot be done for a different film. Some films require social media platforms while others need web portals or trolls. Analysing the right strategy is a real challenge, and it can be achieved only through proper communication and good teamwork. Because, at the end of the day, we will be blamed.”
He points out that the ratio of the total budget vs. marketing budget in Malayalam cinema is different from that of international cinema. “If you look at international cinema, the ratio is 40: 60. Before, it was 70: 30. In Malayalam cinema, it’s 98: 2. In a time when the digital medium reigns supreme, it would be wise to utilise that space more. But not every producer has to understand this. Even if we say ‘content is king’, only proper promotion can get the target audience to theatres on the first day of release. Otherwise, the wrong audience will create a negative impact.”