First came the Hindi filmmakers. Now regional cinema is gate-crashing the digital streaming party. The lockdown has been good for the film industry—no expensive locale shoots, no big travel and no hotel bills. PG Muthiah, producer of Tamil action film Danny and Tamil comedy Cocktail, is certain that the coronavirus panic helped the success of relatively smaller films on OTT (over-the-top)streaming media service that goes directly to viewers via the internet without the multiplex experience. “Ever since R Madhavan’s Breathe came out, small films have been striking golden deals with the platforms. Earlier, they ran for a bit in theatres, but launching them straight on OTT has become a more viable option,” says Muthiah.
Filmmaker JJ Fredrick elaborates on how digital platforms have come as a boon for medium and small-budget filmmakers. “It’s great that their films are striking deals instead of waiting for theatres to reopen.” The increased visibility is a boost. “Medium-budget films struggle to get more than 200 theatres. OTT platforms take them to many more people.” Thanks to the influx of original content, even small films without a star can make a tidy profit. Conventional pressures from the theatre distribution system don’t bog down a bunch of experimental filmmakers from creative novelty.
Anand Ravichandran hopes that OTT media will refuse to shift their content focus on big-budget films—an optimistic view at best because money talks in the celluloid world too. Ravichandran says, “Streaming platforms buy too many Hindi films at the cost of investing in regional acquisitions. Laxmmi Bomb, for example, has been bought for a large sum.
When OTTs invest in such films, their focus on small ones like ours will not be the same. It’s not like they need content desperately, they’ve bought enough over the years.” Kaarthekeyen Santhanam, who produced Keerthy Suresh’s Penguin, is of a similar opinion. He thinks that for digital platforms, too, star power matters. “Content is the king, yes, but if it features a big star, it becomes easier to sell the project,” he says. Nevertheless, he notes that direct-to-OTT releases are an evolution in mainstream viewing. “It was going to happen a few years down the line,” he says, not really explaining his prophesy, “I foresee films being made for both platforms—theatres and OTT,” he says.
Ravichandran, whose Sethum Aayiram Pon was released on Netflix in April, believes that the choice of platform determines success. “Between the first and second-best platform, there’s a 50 percent drop in consumer count. This gap grows wider as you go further down the list. The release timing is important too. If Darbar had released alongside my film, promoting my film would’ve been a challenge. Promotion is the key,” he says. A small-budget film like his benefitted from Netflix’s upmarket appeal. “I have a web series running on another platform, but I doubt many even know it exists,” he says.
Fredrick seems to have cracked the formula. The success of Jyotika-starrer Ponmagal Vandhal made him realise that OTT platforms purchase films with ‘family appeal’ the most. “They have a dedicated team to sift through films,” he observes. If after all these checks a film remains unsold, then you move on to the less glamorous platforms, Ravichandran notes.
The South Indian OTT wave took time coming. It’s more conservative than Bollywood, which spends far more money. Sufiyum Sujatayum and Law in Malayalam and Kannada respectively were the first digital debuts. While both had a bankable star cast, Cocktail and RK Nagar lacked star value but got quite a bit of traction after their launch on Zee5 and Netflix, respectively.
The uncertainty over the fate of theatres has led to some even coming up with their own platforms. Producer CV Kumar has launched Regal Talkies. Producer JSK Satishkumar is ready with his new streaming platform—JSK Prime Media. On the decision to launch his own platform, Satishkumar says, “It is just numbers really. If 20 lakh people watch a trailer and the film looks promising, I’m sure at least five lakh viewers would be ready to spend `100 to watch it in the comfort of their homes. It makes it viable.” Horizons never keep surprising you. The fortunes of Southern films are going north.