Small films, big challenges
While corporate production houses are able to wait out the lockdown, how are individual producers managing? We speak with them to understand their future plans
Even before we could pick ourselves up from the blow of the first wave of Covid, the second has come to cause further havoc across industries, especially to unregulated ones like the field of entertainment. While corporate studios are able to grind through the debilitating effects of postponing releases, how are the individual producers—those who don’t have the cushion of a corporate system to bank on—faring? “The challenges and obstacles we are facing now are invisible,” says Sashikanth, founder of Y Not Studios. “We can start to look for a solution only when we can recognise a problem. Right now, everything is a question mark.”
He is convinced that traditional business models have failed, and notes that a producer needs to find new streams of revenue in order to sell his film. “It is going to be about the survival of the fittest, henceforth. Usually, we allocate five percent of our budget for such unexpected situations, but the current situation is unprecedented and unforeseeable. Those who are able to survive past this phase will hold an edge."
Producer CV Kumar of Thirukumaran Entertainment agrees that those producers who depend solely on theatre release revenue will fail to survive. “Romba paavam sir,” he begins. “Even well-informed producers like me, who have the know-how about selling satellite and digital rights, are finding it hard to manage this situation. I can scarcely imagine the problems for the rest.”
Ravindhar Chandrasekhar of Libra Productions has a mantra that acts as a guide to tackling the present challenges: “Improvise, adapt and overcome.” The producer, whose next film, Murungakkai Chips with Shanthnu and Athulya, was originally to get a release by the end of May, says, “When the lockdown was announced, I took the time to analyse the mentality of the audience and their buying power. They crave films and entertainment now but fear a communal watching experience. That’s why I am opting for a digital release now.” This has little to do with personal preference, says Ravindhar, who clarifies that he is a big fan of the theatre experience. “It was a tough call for me. I had the choice of holding on to the film till August if I prioritised my pride, or going ahead with an OTT premiere. I chose the latter as many lives depend on this film. Also, luckily for us, the film is a comedy entertainer; so, there is little negative impact when we choose a small-screen release.” There is also the question of profits. “I am now about to sell my film for a tidy profit. This wouldn't have been possible had I funded a big-budget film.”
Sashikanth is well aware of the negative repercussions of opting for a last-minute OTT release, given the unpleasant social media reception he has been getting, after his announcement that the Dhanush-Karthik Subbaraj film, Jagame Thandhiram, would not get a theatre release. “Unlike theatres, OTT platforms have strict parameters governing their acquisitions,” he says. “Films with star power or unique stories, guarantee them good returns, while any other content is usually neglected.” He believes that this understanding of the OTT system is essential for the sustenance of producers. “When I sold my films to OTT platforms a few months earlier—especially Jagame Thandhiram—people attacked me and said I was wrong. But now, they see that I took a wise decision given that theatres remain out of the equation for the immediate future. It is not about right or wrong; it is about trusting your instincts."
CV Kumar, who launched his own pay-per-view platform, Regal Talkies, last year, has six films lined up for a digital release. Even before the pandemic, people had begun gravitating towards content consumption on phones and television, he believes. “A decade ago, well-made thrillers drew people to theatres. Now only stars are able to do that, as people are getting exposed to extraordinary content from all languages through OTT. So, it necessitates that we too serve them original content direct to their homes."
Kumar shares that it’s important for producers to be debt-free, especially in volatile situations like this. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way. “I went through a really tough time on account of funding some of my films with backing from external financiers. From 2018, I have self-financed my projects and this decision gives me peace. Repaying debts along with the ever-increasing interest takes a huge toll on producers, especially when the release delay is uncertain, as it is now."
Ravindhar feels that even if a film is self-financed, it shouldn’t be allowed to languish in limbo for long. “The essence of the film gets diluted with time, and its advantages may get replicated in other films. Every film, I believe, has its lifespan. If it does not get released soon, it will be declared dead on arrival,” says this producer, who has begun acquiring famous YouTube channels as a pet project. “Digital content is the future. When I take over such channels, I am able to support young talent, and in the future, if these channels go on to hit 10 million subscribers, they become a platform in which I can even consider releasing films. I will just have to worry about piracy then.”
Sashikanth has taken a step back now to try and analyse the current market situation. “More important things deserve our focus now. We will not begin any shooting till July.” Kumar, on the other hand, opts for a highly optimistic approach and cannot wait to procure clearances to begin shooting again. “The need for entertainment will always be on the rise. So, it is essential that we work against all odds to deliver. Our planet has seen many pandemics and defeated them. This pandemic too will leave us one day, and sunshine will return. When it does, our films will continue to entertain everyone.”