The Malayalam film industry has been at a standstill for more than a month now, with no new Malayalam releases, even during the festival season, which is unprecedented in the Mollywood film industry. The stalemate follows conflict between exhibitors and film producers. While the exhibitors want more revenue share, producers cite high cost and low profitability. Caught in between are movie-goers, who have to be content with low-quality facility at movie halls - perhaps the exception may be multiplexes and some top-rated theatres. Shibu B S And Chandrakanth Viswanath dig deep into the issue to bring out the full picture.
I went to watch ‘Pulimurugan’ along with my husband at a single screen theatre in Kochi city. It was the 35th day after the release and there was no big rush for the matinee show at 3 pm. We wanted two balcony tickets and the theatre staff told us that we will have to book the tickets in advance (spot booking, that is what they call it). The cost of one ticket was Rs 103. They charged us Rs 230 for two tickets and said that Rs 24 was the reservation charge.
We entered the theatre and before 3 pm, they started the movie. Remember, half the crowd was waiting outside,” says Radhamani, a housewife. This is not a lone case, in which single screens in various cities are cheating the audience. In most of the theatres, after the initial 20 or 30 minutes, the AC is switched off. Even the level of sound of the speakers is lowered.
To cut energy cost, they lower the power of the lamp, which results in quality loss and faded images on screen. Though most of the theatre slips show that the theatre hall is equipped with Dolby, DTS sound systems, they are below par in quality and do not offer surround sound. There is not adequate parking space in most of the theatres and those who come in their own vehicles have to find apt place outside the theatres and park vehicles at their own risk.
“The twin theatre complex at Thampanoor does not have enough parking space. The two theatres have a combined capacity of 1,500 people. Usually major films of one of our superstars are released here. Inside the theatre, the condition of the seats, the quality of the AC and hygiene are really pathetic. The charge for balcony is Rs 103 per ticket while for first class, it is Rs 98,” says Gokul Krishnan, a student of Mar Baselios, Thiruvananthapuram.
Earlier, after watching the movie ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen,’ for which he had cranked the camera from a theatre complex in Kochi city, cinematographer Jomon T John had raised complaints. “The theatres are not putting in the effort to enhance the viewing experience. We put months of hard work to better the films, taking care of the minute details, using the best and the most modern technologies, hoping to provide superior movie experience. But all the money and the effort are wasted when they do not reach the audience as expected,” Jomon posted in his FB page.
The raids conducted by various departments in theatres across the state on Friday revealed various anomalies in connection with the sale of tickets. In Kerala, only multiplexes are keeping a transparent record on the number of tickets sold, the collection figures and the amount paid to the local bodies concerned as entertainment tax.
“In various ‘A’ and ‘B’ class theatres, they maintain up to three Daily Collection Records (DCRs). One is to fool the producer/distributor. The other one to be submitted before the corporation/municipality authorities. The third is to be shown to the Vigilance authorities if there is an inspection,” says Producers Association president G Sureshkumar. Now most of the theatre owners are cheating the government in connivance with the local bodies, he says.
Where is the ticketing machine?
It was during the tenure of the last UDF Government that the idea of e-ticket machine was initiated. The software developed by Keltron and Information Kerala Mission was aimed at finding the theatre owners who have no accountability on paying entertainment tax to the local bodies, resulting in the loss of tax worth crores of rupees.
It was planned in such a way that tickets with bar code would be issued from a centralised server across the state and a film goer will have to swipe the ticket at the gates. The trigger was the collection of a cess of Rs 3 from 500-odd theatres across the state. However, the ticketing machine remains a distant dream, thanks to the non-cooperation from theatre owners. Sureshkumar asks the government to implement the Adoor committee report to save the Malayalam film industry as early as possible. “If the LSG taxes are rationalised to 15 pc in corporation and municipal areas and 10 percent in panchayat areas along with placing ticketing machines, the revenue can be hiked to a large extent,” adds Sureshkumar. He also points to the private online ticketing company that placed the tender at Rs 1.99 per ticket. They had lost the deal on ticketing machine to the company that quoted 42 paise per ticket.
When commerce rules over art
The main reason cited for exhibitors’ dominance in the film industry is dearth of genuine producers. During its golden period, Malayalam cinema was controlled by producers and production houses - they would rope in the director and writer and approach the right actors after finalising the script. During the late 80s and early 90s, though Mammootty and Mohanlal were ruling the box office, there was enough space for actors like Suresh Gopi, Jayaram and later Dileep. But, the scenario changed after 2008, when the satellite business of movies took a big leap.
Eyeing the huge amounts paid by TV channels for satellite rights, especially for superstar movies, several new producers emerged in the Malayalam industry. “They started making films for superstars, and those who were capable of influencing the superstar and getting his call sheet became producers. The story, director and production values became secondary,” say sources close to the industry. There are production managers who are close to superstars, and act as line producers. Later, most of them start producing movies independently.
“The so-called producers started collecting advance from exhibitors. The main sources of money for commencing the shoot was the first instalment collected for the satellite rights and the theatre advance. If the film fails at the box-office, the producer would become liable to the exhibitor. Then, the producer will be forced to make another movie to repay his debts, and the cycle will continue,” says a veteran producer on condition of anonymity. “In Tamil Nadu, superstars like Rajnikanth often intervene and support distributors, when they suffer substantial losses.
In Kerala, however, such gestures of support from our superstars are unheard of. All that they are bothered about is their image and ego. However, there are some who make creative intervention to ensure the quality of their films,” says a popular director, on condition of anonymity. This year, the industry witnessed a positive trend - that newcomers and projects of not-so-big stars are also getting good theatre collection. “The demonetisation will definitely have its impact on the industry. The release schedules of films have changed. Only producers who can pump in ‘genuine cash’ will be able to produce movies. So, we will have to observe the industry keenly for the next three months,” said producer Ziyad Koker.
Bright future awaits Multiplex culture?
Safety and hygiene were the biggest hindrances faced by the family audiences while making their trip to single screens, before the advent of multiplexes. “Families almost stopped coming to theatres due to dirty washrooms and lack of proper security measures. We have outsourced our housekeeping and security divisions with agencies with specialised ground staff,” says P V Sunil, CEO Carnival Cinemas. The company with 360 screens across the country started its Kerala operations five years ago with a three-screen multiplex at Angamaly. It has 19 screens now at eight properties in seven places in the state and will add three more next month.
The company has an efficient e-ticketing system. “Our ticketing is linked to the local bodies and our corporate office. The banks also can watch the collection and this transparency gives strength to our business. Our e-ticking has grown to 4 to 5 percent after the demonetisation and reached between 20 and 25 percent of the total ticket sales. According to him, the demonetisation drive has increased the collection. “Twenty-five to 30 percent collection in the single screens had been hidden. Now it is coming out and reflects in the market,” he adds.
According to Sunil, the weekends - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - will have an occupancy of 80 to 100 percent while on the weekdays it will drop to 40 to 60 percent. “Our rates are flexible with different rates for weekends and weekdays. For weekends, the rates are different for day and night shows. For the weekdays, we have separate rate for morning and evening shows,” says Sunil. “Kerala is the only state where we have strikes. Annually at least one strike is ensured which means the loss of collection for five days.
This is very critical in a business where each day is vital. There is no harm in paying advance to distributors. However, the problem lies in the case of repayment in case of a shortage in collection if the film goes down in the box office. It is true that there is a delay in settling this account. Otherwise it is a smooth affair,” adds Sunil.