44 films on hold & Rs 360 crore at stake: COVID-19 takes a toll on Malayalam film industry

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Kochi: The Malayalam cinema has been forced into a long interval due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic has affected at least 44 films whose shooting is over or is half complete.

More than Rs 320 crore invested in these films are also now stuck. Most of the films are funded at an interest rate of up to 36 per cent per annum. Therefore, at least another Rs 40 crore is owed on this invested amount as four months' interest. So, in all, Rs 360 crore is at stake.

About 150 films are released in Malayalam cinema every year on an average, but this year even one-third of that number will not be possible. This year, 42 films were released till March 6.

The shooting of over 30 films is complete and they need only post-production work for release. There are 22 movies for which advance has been paid and sets are also in place but shooting could not be started.

There are films like Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, and Malik, that would have cost over Rs 100 crore. They also could not be released.

The industry has about 6,800 people who work on a daily-wage basis. Then there are 450 actors, and 4,500 directors and technicians. In all, about 12,000 people are currently unemployed due to the lockdown.

FEFKA (Film Employees Federation of Kerala) President B Unnikrishnan said not even 50 people of these 12,000 would have some kind of financial security.

At least 70% of the filmmakers in Kerala are NRIs, including Gulf Malayalees. But, with the COVID crisis affecting all parts of the world, investment from NRIs for producing films cannot be expected any time soon.

In fact, for the first time, the producers’ association has had the experience of fielding demands for the refund of the registration fee.

The Malayalam film industry gets an investment of about Rs 750 crore annually, given that it releases about 150 movies every year and each movie is made on a budget of about Rs 5 crore on an average. The government collects 18% of this amount – about Rs 135 crore – as GST and entertainment tax. This year, this revenue for the state will be drastically hit.

Theatres closed for 150 days

It would be 150 days in five more days since theatres have remained shut in Kerala; it is not clear when they will reopen.

Although filming has resumed, the trade has been reeling under COVID restrictions.

Thousands of workers who depend on movies for subsistence are in distress without income for months.

Turning blind eye to demands

It’s been months since film organisations, including the Film Chamber, had asked the chief minister for GST and entertainment tax exemptions and extension of the time for payment of fixed charges for electricity. However, there has been no action from the state government.

Besides GST, the state government also levies entertainment tax on cinema. The owners are not in a position to open theatres without getting the concessions.

Theatres' earnings will drop significantly if they follow the instruction that only 30 per cent of spectators be allowed entry to prevent the spread of COVID. At the same time, they will have to incur additional costs for anti-COVID measures such as disinfecting the theatre.

Shocking fixed charge

The trade has been demanding that the levy of fixed charge on electricity should be waived till April 2022.

Theatres have to pay lakhs as fixed charge whether they use electricity or not.

The Film Chamber had also demanded that the loan moratorium announced by the Reserve Bank and the deadline for renewal of licences from various agencies should be extended till March 31, 2021.

A big blow to new screens

The COVID-19 lockdown has come as a huge blow for new screens.

Over 50 new screens have come up across the state in the last three years, including some old theatres that were renovated, at an estimated investment of at least Rs 500 crore. But, now, the theatres are not even in a position to pay the interest cost on loans they had taken.

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