When Kamal Haasan tried to release his action-drama Vishwaroopam on the Direct-To-Home channel, it was seen as a bid to de-platform theatres, and predictably, it raised a storm in the film circles. After much hue and cry, Haasan eventually settled for a compromise, a watered-down implementation of the idea, but his attempt, however, had faced severe flak for what screen owners regarded as a move that will totally evict them from business.
Seven years later, it appears as though the coronavirus is doing what Haasan could not in Tamil Cinema: bringing Over-The-Top platforms to triumph.
Between end-May and mid-June, two movies starring top stars of Tamil cinema Jyotika and Keerthi Suresh-- Ponmagal Vandhaal and Penguin-- will stream on OTT platforms. Penguin is produced by Karthik Subburaj, who directed Rajinikanth's revenge drama Pettai, meaning the OTT releases slated in the coming weeks are becoming as mainstream as can be.
Theatre owners have threatened to put actor Sooriya out of business for pushing ahead with the alternative platform for his wife’s movie. However, their voices of protest are turning a little uncertain as it doesn't bode well to be opposing the only channel of entertainment, given that the large screens will remain closed for some time now.
Movie industry observers, film critics and producers say this is par for the course, only that the virus has hastened what would have been a gradual transition to these digital platforms.
Theatre owners, on the other hand, are swearing by the cinema halls that do not just screen movies, “but offer an experience,” says a cinema owner, talking on conditions of anonymity.
The stance of cinema owners is understandable, considering the scale of the crisis they are facing. It was evident in the backhanded tweet of Archana Kalpathi, CEO of AGS Cinemas, that the advent of OTT platforms is sounding an ominous toll: “Yes. Watch movies in theaters near u when we open and support local brands like @agscinemas Vs global OTT platforms…” The articulation of the position of the theatre owners--being cornered by streaming giants such as Amazon Prime and Netflix-- cannot be clearer.
Tamil Cinema, in particular, was facing a crisis. Movies were appearing in theatres without proper lead-ups and getting dumped unceremoniously. Hits were getting far and few between. Movies of large stars having been receiving lacklustre responses at the cinemas while the artsy kind such as Ra. Parthiban’s critically acclaimed Otha Seruppu had a resurgence of sorts-- an extended run if you will- on OTT platforms. In the words of film critic Baradwaj Rangan, the transition was “inevitable..” He said, “Tamil cinema was facing a huge crisis of disproportionate content. Every week, there were movies dumped in the theatres where there were no proper lead ups to them. Half of the time, people didn't even know such movies existed, and even then one or two became hits…. unless they were really big movies, they were cleared because the next set of movies will arrive.”
Interesting would be the position taken by those who have pumped money into ongoing projects of large stars such as Vijay and Ajith who sky high salaries are buttressed by the Big-Bang Openings orchestrated on the first days of movie release. In Tamil cinema, there are several “stars” beginning Rajinikanth all the way down to Sivakarthikeyan who command a certain pull to the cinemas, made possible through carefully crafted on- and off-screen persona. The question that hangs in the air because of the OTT advancement is what happens to all that?!
On the positive side, according to movie industry watchers such as Baradwaj Rangan, is that non-mainstream but impressive content finally gets a wider play. There is a band of moviemakers in Tamil Nadu such as Mysskin, Ram, and members of a certain ilk who have shunned the commercial formula of film-making: song sequences, comedy tracks, and the usual suspects. For this league, higher adoption of OTT platforms is, simply put, platform democratisation.
All said, theatre owners do appear to be in a position somewhat similar to how retailers were when e-commerce was just getting started in India. A prominent theatre owner in Chennai told CNN News18: “All this is just in the interim. Once the cinemas are opened, people will definitely come back, because watching a movie in the big black hall is an experience; they cannot be replaced.”
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