How Malayalam cinema gears up to cope with situation when lockdown is lifted

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The movie industry has taken a major hit due to the lockdown triggered by the corona virus pandemic. Even though the lockdown is being lifted in phases, with many sectors and industries springing back to life, nothing is yet known about when the theaters open would. Many view releasing movies on the OTT platforms as a ‘bomb’ that could blow up the traditional cinema industry. Around ten Indian movies in various languages, including Malayalam, awaits its global digital premier. From Bollywood super star Amitabh Bachchan to Mollywood heart throb Jayasuriya, prominent stars act in those movies. Many wonder whether this trend is part of the disruption that the lockdown has brought on many industries. People have now become accustomed to working from home; experts think they would soon get used to having a unique cinema viewing experience at their homes as well.

Some producers are open to releasing their movies on online streaming platforms like Amazon Prime as decisions regarding the reopening of theaters haven’t been taken and also because the unreleased movies cause great financial losses for the producers. However, the theater owners have criticized the move saying that such online releases could destroy the theater experience.

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Malayalam movie industry has been on a standstill since the last two months. Cinema workers are worried that they cannot see any signs of reopening the theaters anytime soon. It is for the first time that screen icons like Mammootty and Mohanlal have sat at home for such a long duration, without working, ever since they came into the industry. Not just the Malayalam cinema, the global cinema industry has suffered major setbacks due to the lockdown.

Producers and insiders of the industry reveal that more than fifty movies await theatrical releases. Besides, more than ten thousand daily wage workers, around five hundred artists, producers, distributors, theater owners and workers too are jobless. Until now, Malayalam cinema has suffered a loss of whopping Rs 600 crore.

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When the lockdown was announced, the theaters in Kerala were gearing up for one of their most lucrative collection seasons. The months of April and May usually register high collection graph. The summer holidays are when the families and the youth swarm the theaters to watch some great movies. Movies like Forensic starring Tovino Thomas and Mamta Mohandas, Kappela starring Roshan Mathew and Anna Ben, Prithviraj and Biju Menon starrer Ayyapanum Koshiyum, Dulquer Salman’s Tamil flick Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithal and Anoop Sathyan’s family entertainer Varane Avasyamundu were running on packed theaters when the lockdown was announced. Kappela was released just 7 days before the lockdown and Forensic had been in the theaters for only two weeks.

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Even if the theaters reopen after the corona virus scare subsides, no one is sure whether these movies would be released again. The producers would be just safe if they could sell the rights to the OTT platforms or to television channels at a better price. However, the future of the movies that had been awaiting a theatrical release hangs in balance. Producers are worried whether they would be able to release their movies even during the Onam season.

50 movies to be released

The various theater chains had made an investment of Rs 1100 crore in Kerala in the last three years. Compared to many other industries and sectors in the state, this indeed is a huge sum. Interestingly, 90% of this investment comes from loans. More than Rs 1100 crore has been spent to arrange modern visual and acoustic facilities, seating arrangements and other facilities in 500 theaters. Fifty among them are brand new theaters.

However, things do not look too favorable to even plan a release for these movies. There are confusions about how to maintain social distancing in theaters or whether people would actually come to air conditioned theaters when they are reopened. All these factors are preventing the producers from taking any solid decisions about the releases of their movies.

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Currently, around 50 films have completed filming and are awaiting theatrical release. Among them, Fahadh Faasil starrer Maalik directed by Mahesh Narayanan and produced by Anto Joseph by spending Rs 25 crore and Mammootty’s One directed by Santhosh Viswanath and bankrolled by Ichayees Productions are big budget movies.

The producers had earlier planned to release these movies after Mohanlal’s Marakkar hits the theaters. Now, everyone is skeptical whether the theaters would be opened even after most industries and sectors begin functioning. The multiplexes are thinking about arranging the seats by following the social distancing norms and disinfecting or fumigating the theater complex after each show. Most are hopeful that they could open the theaters at least by August during the time of the Onam festival. If new movies are shot before theaters fully function, then the list of the movies awaiting release would further increase. It is assumed that all these movies would get a chance if at least 15 movies hit the screens per month.

Online viewing

Online streaming has helped Malayalam cinema to a certain extent during the lockdown period. For instance, the rights of the movie Varane Avasyamundu was first sold to an Indian company who then shared it with an international streaming platform during the lockdown. The movie was in the top position in rating and became one of the most viewed Malayalam movies. This suddenly increased the demand for Malayalam cinema in many international online streaming platforms.

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Mohanlal starrer Lucifer grabbed a huge internet market for the first time

It was Mohanlal starrer Lucifer which grabbed a huge internet market for the first time. Though unsure about the future of such collaborations, the internet ratings of the Malayalam movies have definitely skyrocketed during the lockdown period. The makers of Soofiyum Sujathayum starring Jayasuriya have already announced that the movie would be released on Amazon Prime. This move, meanwhile, has triggered a debate about the possibilities and feasibility of such releases.

Some points out that movies made on huge canvases and are visual spectacles demand a big screen viewing experience. Meanwhile, small films could be released on OTT platforms like Amazon Prime. However, the producers cannot ignore the fact that the box office collections are the real backbone of the cinema industry.

Nothing beats theater experience: Priyadarshan

Veteran director Priyadarshan points out that going to the movies is the only form of entertainment for millions of Indians; so he doesn’t comply with the argument that OTT releases could threaten the existence of the theaters. For the average Indian, going to the movies is not just about watching the film, but also involves enjoying a great time with family and friends. He asks whether a play would be perfect if actors act at home, film it and then share it through WhattsApp.

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Priyadarshan

“Even in countries that have better technologies and high speed internet facilities, theatrical releases of movies hasn’t ceased. Instead cinema has grown there. There are limitations for watching movies online. Not all movies could be released through OTT platforms. Chila Nerangalil which I directed is the first Tamil movie that had an internet release. Small movies like this may not get a theatrical release. Meanwhile, movies like Superman could only be released in theaters. That is the reason why the release of the James Bond movie was postponed and not because the makers couldn’t get an online platform,” says Pridarshan.

“Some people may try something new due to the present financial crisis. However, that wouldn’t the turning point of the cinema industry. When video cassettes came, everyone told that the world would now watch movies at home; anyways that didn’t happen, right?” asks the director.

Anto’s tension

Meanwhile, producer Anto Antony anticipates a severe plunge in the box collections when the theaters reopen. “People do not have money at their hands. Besides, they have watched lots of movies at home during the lockdown period. Things would get worsened if the common people begin perceiving movies as something that could be reserved for later,” Producers Association president Anto cannot hide his worries.

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Anto Joseph

A look back at subscriptions

Suresh Kumar, noted producer and former president of the producers association thinks that the situation has changed so much that now movies have to be produced not just for the theaters but for the television as well.

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Suresh Kumar

“It would be nicer to check how much the OTT subscriptions have gone up during the lockdown. The theaters owners were the ones who opposed the production of television serials in Kerala and also when star shows were aired on TV channels. The view that theaters are the only screening spaces for movies should change. One could explore a different medium if it ensures better income for the producer,” Suresh Kumar points out. 

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