(Editor's note: This is the first part of a series that explores the future of industries in Kerala after lockdown, imposed in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.)
Real-life catastrophes usually spur movie ideas, but seldom do they redefine the film industry. Not any more.
After the Coronavirus outbreak devastated normal life, the film industry is in tatters.
The Malayalam film industry, which has taken a Rs 600 crore hit due to the COVID-19 triggered lockdown, is also clueless on the road to revival.
However, two options being dabbled, albeit without much conviction, are low budget films and new release models.
Producers across the spectrum share the view that “low budget” should be the new norm until things get back to normal – if at all it does.
Big ticket investments on films expecting huge box office returns is a passé, they say.
On Friday, the initial sign about such a line of thought gaining momentum grabbed the spotlight.
Amazon Prime picked Jayasurya-starrer Sufiyum Sujathayum for direct streaming along with five films from different languages.
“It will be released in June. The date has not been fixed,” its producer Vijay Babu told Onmanorama on Friday.
“There is no certainty on when the theatres will open and the social distancing norms to be followed. There are several films pending release, including big budget films. So, we cannot anticipate when would such a low budget movie get a chance to release,” Vijay Babu said.
He terms his decision a “survival game”.
“My only aim is to retrieve my investment somehow. Also, if a few films are released online now, other big budget films, which are pending release, would get more space in theatres once they are open. I have only taken the first step, I'm sure many would follow suit,” he said.
Only small and medium films could opt for such an option, he said.
Sufiyum Sujathayum, starring Jayasurya and Aditi Rao Hydari, has been made with a budget of Rs 7 crore, Vijay Babu said.
His decision to shun theatre release has invited the wrath of theatre owners, who have threatened to boycott his films in future.
Veteran producer G Suresh Kumar was of the opinion that over-the-top (OTT ) platforms are a reality and filmmakers have to accept it.
“We cannot ignore OTT platforms. If a producer wants to release his film on an OTT platform, let him do so. My opinion is that both theatre release and OTT should happen simultaneously,” he told Onmanorama before decision to stream Vijay Babu's film was announced. Interestingly, Suresh Kumar's daughter and actor Keerthy Suresh's Telugu-Tamil flick Penguin is also among the six films scooped up by Amazon for streaming.
Suresh Kumar also listed a handful of issues the industry will have to deal with even if the theatres start functioning.
Reduction in the number of seats to stick to social distancing norms and the perceived fear factor to expose yourself to a crowd will come into play then.
“We cannot expect people to turn up in theatres in large numbers. Even if they come, they are unlikely to buy tickets for a high price as people's purchasing power has come down drastically,” he said.
And cost cutting, he said, is a must for the industry to tide over the crisis.
“Actors and technicians will have to cut their salaries at least by half,” he said.
Joby George of Goodwill Entertainments said his banner would continue to produce films, but with a limited budget.
He said he can think of a new project only after the release of his three films, which are almost complete. Until then, the company would be concentrating on its online businesses including an active YouTube channel which has over a million subscribers. George said they were uploading new content on their YouTube channel on a daily basis as consumption of digital content has increased during lockdown. The contents in the channel include clippings of movies, songs and short films.
Rs 1 crore-movies
Cost cutting would be an uphill task for superstar movies, but many see a explosion of low-budget films soon.
Shyju Joseph, a production controller, said discussions on several projects costing below Rs 1 crore were on following the lockdown.
“Many are even planning films on a budget of Rs 50-60 lakh. They are pinning their hopes on OTT platforms and satellite rights,” he said.
Another producer said even a film with a budget of Rs 2-3 crore can survive through OTTs and satellite rights.
“It would be easier for a reputed production house to make such low-budget films and do bargaining with OTT platforms because the streaming companies know that they have other big projects lined up,” he said.
Producer Prem Abraham of Zsazsa Productions, whose maiden project 'Aaha' has been stuck in the lockdown, shared similar thoughts.
“The way people are looking at cinema today is completely different. Within a month and a half, we have fully adapted to digital. Content producers will have to adapt to this new dynamics. We have to cater to the new audience”.
Even producers in Mumbai are thinking of content for niche audience and web series' instead of spending on big projects,” he said.
Abraham said he would wait and watch until the situation is completely back to normal for the release of his film, a rustic sports drama starring Indrajith and Manoj K Jayan in lead roles.
Director B Unnikrishnan, general secretary of Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) brushed aside talk of budget cuts.
“As of now, there's no clarity on shoots resuming or theatres reopening. There's no point in talking about hypothetical situations,” he said.
Overseas market and funding
A huge chunk of money spent on Malayalam film production is channelled from abroad, especially Arab countries. With the COVID-19 crisis battering the oil economies of the Gulf, it would be pointless to expect funding to continue from the region.
The overseas markets, which were major revenue generators, cannot be tapped for the time being.
Amid the gloom, some industry observers see the emergence of a new breed of producers who would be willing to spend on low-budget films eyeing OTT and satellite revenues. Their logic is that it would be the best time to try their luck at the industry which is otherwise ruled by big sharks. They are driven by the hope that a decent project made with a low budget can survive with the revenues from OTT platforms and TV channels.
Vijay Babu, however, does not buy this idea. “Unless you have intense knowledge about any industry this is not the time to step into it. I don't see many new producers in the next few months, he said.
Until a clear picture on the new modes of film consumption and new revenue models emerge, there would be no clarity on reel's real-life play.