During the first wave of Covid-19 last year, Tamil cinema witnessed a small number of films going the OTT way. Starting with Ponmagal Vandhaal, the industry had a lot of films taking the direct-to-digital route all the way to the biggie Soorarai Pottru, which carved a new path for films to embrace digital premiere, and instil confidence in how this could be a punchy alternative. However, with the release of theatrical hits in Master, Sulthan and Karnan, the industry got back on its heels and started to find a footing. But unfortunately, the second wave of Covid-19 has brought things back to square one, and producers are now looking deeper into the option of sending films to OTT.
After small films such as Andhagaaram and Mandela made waves on Netflix, bigger ones in the form of Nayanthara's Netrikann, Vijay Sethupathi's Tughlaq Darbar, Arun Vijay's Border, the long-delayed Karthick Naren directorial Naragasooran are now in serious talks with leading OTT players for direct OTT release. Apart from these, more than 10 other small films too are in the process of finalising their home online, instead of waiting for theatres to reopen.
At this point in time, a producer who wants to release a film has the only option of going to OTT. But, are Tamil film exhibitors in Chennai already requesting them to wait for things to get better? Talking to Firstpost, popular exhibitor Ruban of GK Cinemas, a popular movie hotspot in Chennai, tells, "We already know the impact that a Soorarai Pottru would have created in theatres; there would have been mass hysteria. Honestly, I feel that is too early to judge. If this theatre-vs-OTT topic comes up after theatres open post-COVID and runs for a year, then we can say that OTT is going to be a threat. Right now, it's not a level playing field. It is not right to ask us to not go that way, they have invested money and everybody is here to make money only. With such a feeling of uncertainty, it is better to wait."
Nayanthara in a still from Netrikann teaser | YouTube Screengrab
Rakesh, the owner of the famous Vettri Theatres in Chennai, opines the situation, saying, "Right now, it is more of a handicapped situation. In the lockdown, people want to make themselves safe by selling their products, so such a thing is bound to happen. Down the line, it will get divided - theatres will have their own films and OTT will have their own content. Moreover, people are now waiting for a quality series in Tamil that will keep them entertained. While watching content at home, people wish to opt for a longer format series that has multiple episodes, more than a movie. When OTT players start making originals, the stream will change for sure."
Rakesh says that many producers in Tamil cinema aren't still fully interested in an OTT release. "Take the example of Karnan. They were confident about their content and planned for a theatrical release alone, and then moved to OTT. When the film has a spectacular run in theatres, the revenue is boosted big time. Now, the team of Karnan has made money in both the streams and they would be obviously happy with it. When theatres return to normalcy all through India, the collections will be multifold and it will be proven again. Ultimately, they are going to co-exist, that's what I feel."
We also spoke to a highly-placed source from a popular OTT platform, who are just getting ready with their next slate of releases. "Previously, there was a huge debate about which big film is in talks, deciding to go for a theatrical or an OTT release. But now, we have run out of star films, and what is remaining is just small and medium budget films. OTT platforms, which majorly buy only star films, have run out of options too. Two films in Andhagaaram and Mandela, which did very well on OTT, have created the interest for audiences to watch small-budgeted films on digital platforms. They have changed the mindset. The influx of Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films on OTT has brought about a big passover, as people have warmed up to good content."
When asked if this is the new future of small films, as they would like to go for a direct release online instead of opting for theatres first? The source adds, "Going forward, quality content will be the key for OTT. The right way to go for producers of small films would be to curate their content right from the beginning, for the OTT audience."
OTTs have also opened up a new revenue stream for independent filmmakers who have been struggling with their ready films in hand, for many years. A small film called Alpha Adimai, featuring a set of newcomers, on the whole, has now found its home at a popular OTT platform, with the announcement set to arrive soon. Such a film would surely have a tough time finding screens for a theatrical release, but this new model is helping them. Alpha Adimai is made on a shoe-string budget and is said to be a comedy that will picture incidents in the lives of two gangsters.
On the whole, the OTT wave in Tamil cinema has clearly highlighted the line between big-budget films and small ones, opening up a new avenue for them to find their regional audience.