First, the facts. The first half of 2008 saw as many as 62 Tamil releases. This year, there have been only 48 so far. Box office collections have been lower than last year. All big releases have been pushed to the second half of the year and there have been no big summer releases this year, barring Ayan.
What is happening? The traditional explanation is that the Tamil film industry is the midst of a recession, and is suffering in pretty much the same manner as Bollywood is. But scratch the economic surface, and you find a slew of other reasons for the gloomy state of affairs in Kodambakkam.
This summer, cinema has found itself with direct competition with the elections, the IPL and the Twenty20 World Cup. Although their impact cannot be exactly estimated, there is no doubt they have been responsible for lower box office collections. Another factor is that big films are finding it difficult to recover production costs because distributors are not keen to pay a Minimum Guarantee post-Kuselan.
Kuselan was sold for Rs.65 crores and distributors claimed they lost 75 per cent of the Minimum Guarantee and Superstar Rajnikant refunded Rs. seven crores to compensate the losses.
Trade analysts believe that the recession factor is exaggerated and fails to explain what is happening. Many attribute this to lack of variety in fare, viewer fatigue and change in audience taste. With the exception of Ayan, all star-based six-song-six-fight-formula films have failed to deliver.
Abhirami Ramanathan, Managing Director of Abhirami Mega Mall, admits that the “collections have been average and lower than last summer” but adds that this is certainly not because fewer films have been released during the season: “If the trade was hit by recession, Ayan would not have been a super duper hit. In fact, such collections have never been seen.”
“I am unable to say the collections for other films are average because of recession. It is probably because of change in public taste,” he adds.
Clearly, the sensibility of the audience seems to have changed as low-budget, earthy, neo-realistic films like Subramaniapuram, Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu and the recent Pasanga continue to flourish.
“The recession has had some effect,” Dilip Shah, Honarary Secretary of the Film and TV Producers Guild, believes. “But the bigger reason is that the lack of quality scripts and content. Also, the admission rate is very high and the tax exemption is not passed on to the consumer. Women audiences are not coming to the cinemas because they are finding better content on TV.”
Today, the audience is discerning and has become unforgiving.
Nationally, the strike seems to have hit the trade more than recession.
“There were 1325 Hindi films that were produced in 2008 out of which 1000 films released last year. This year, because of the stand-off between multiplexes and producers, there have been only 80 releases,” explains Shah.
“No matter what, films, education and prostitution will never go out of business,” says Kamal Haasan emphatically. “How do you explain Ghajini becoming the highest grosser when the market was at its lowest? People may not buy an automobile during recession but they will always have that five hundred rupees to spend on a movie.”
Quiz him about Marma Yogi and he clarifies. “Marma Yogi is on hold not because of recession. It’s because of thievery.” (The company he partnered with, Pyramid Saimira, is in the middle of a controversy for alleged fraud.)
Apparently, producers have not been cutting corners or compromising on the scale of their films – a typical fall out of recession. Susi Ganesan’s superhero film ‘Kandasamy’ and Selvaraghavan’s ‘Aayirathil Oruvan,’ awaiting release, are two of the most expensive films made in recent times. Gautham Menon just returned from Malta after shooting songs at a budget of one crore.
“Producers haven’t asked us to cut costs. I have a couple of big films this year starting July – one with Mahesh Babu for his home production and one for Sondarya Rajnikant and Warner,” he says.
Content is king
“If there is a good movie in the cinemas, I’m sure it would work,” believes Swaroop Reddy, Director of Sathyam Cinemas. “Ayan did it in Tamil Nadu and Arundhati did it in Andhra. Even in the US, the movie industry does really well doing recession. Movies depend on content rather than market situation.”
Sathyam Cinemas recently got into film production in association with Real Image when it launched “Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru” last week.
Editor of Galatta Magazine, Shakti Girish, however takes a radically different position. She says that the industry simply does not want to acknowledge this given the sensitive nature of distribution business. “Actors are willing to negotiate, producers have cut budgets and only actresses have hiked their fees and that’s because currently, there are no great scripts,” says Shakti.
Everybody seems to agree that it’s lack of quality scripts that’s responsible for flops.
Trade experts estimate that no film can recover more than Rs. 40 crores in the present climate. Distributors are not keen to pay Minimum Guarantee and the audience won’t take run-of-the-mill. Big budget films are treading on thin ice and there is tremendous pressure to recover costs. The increasing risk factor has discouraged independent producers from venturing into films.
“The number of conventional producers have reduced,” says Arya, currently shooting for Vijay’s period love story ‘Madrasapatnam’. “The film industry depends on individual producers more than studios and a lot of producers have backed out over the last few months.”
While the debate about what has caused the downturn continues, the industry badly needs a few hits to be back on its feet. The trade believes that all it requires is for the content to be fixed to put the glow back on the face of the industry once again.
No. of Tamil Releases
January – December 2008: 119
January – June 2008: 62
January – June 2009: 48
No. of Hindi Releases
January – December 2008: 1000 (out of 1325 completed films)
January – June 2009: 80
(Source: Film and TV Producers Guild of South India)