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No business like show business
The film industry is an exciting cocktail of art and literature, music and multimedia, creativity and computer graphics, talent and technology, all of which come together in uncertain proportions to form the magic of a movie.

The multidisciplinary nature of the industry makes it unique and the inherent conflict between art and commerce makes it challenging.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world with an annual output of 1000 plus films in 16 languages.  Of these, Hindi films, popularly known as ‘Bollywood’, constitute the largest number followed by Tamil (Kollywood) and Telugu (Tollywood) in near equal measure. Bollywood has acquired cult status and is now an international brand with Indian films being distributed in 35 countries and enjoying a very wide following. Interestingly, the Bollywood brand has become global with very little conscious investment or effort, unlike other Indian brands such as Tata, Infosys or Reliance.

The Tamil film industry based in Chennai has come a long way since the 1940s when movies like Chandralekha and Parasakthi held audiences in rapture.  The 1940s and 1950s were the era of astute story-telling, acting  and musicals. This era also witnessed the emergence of a new breed of actors like M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan,  Gemini Ganesan and Savithri, who captivated the audience with the raw power of their sterling acting performance.  Film makers such as

C V Sridhar, K Balachander and A P Nagarajan came on the scene in the 1960s and distinguished themselves through their unique film-making styles and genres of story-telling.  

Kadhalikka Neramillai and Nenjil Oru Alayam from Sridhar;  Neerkumizhi, Major Chandrakanth and  Baama Vijayam of K Balachander and the famous “T” series of God-based films by A P Nagarajan were the highlights of this period. A new middle class audience with good sensibilities  took shape, thanks to these directors who challenged conventional filmmaking dominated by star power and created films where the director became the star. Yes, people turned up at the theatres because it was a Balachander movie or a Sridhar movie!   Music in Tamil films gained attention through the melodies composed by M S Viswanathan- Ramamoorthy.  In the 1970s, this form of filmmaking in turn led to the emergence of a generation

of hot new actors such as Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan and others who with time acquired a super star status.

 

The golden period

The 1980s and 1990s were ‘the golden period’ of Tamil cinema. This era of star based films was dominated by Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan and Vijayakanth.  A heady mix of glamour, foreign locations, lavish sets plus song and dance  sequences became part of what was came to be called the ‘masala movie.’  Music directors such as A R Rahman provided the disruptive factor by transforming the feel of film music through scintillating compositions in films like Roja, Bombay and Jeans. Tamil audience lapped up any kind of movie offered to them without discrimination.

Box-office collections were maximised through a motley combination of high screen occupancy, emergence of satellite television rights, overseas screening and music rights. Overseas audience for Tamil films which were hitherto confined to Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka now expanded to USA, UK, and Western Europe.  The Rajanikanth starrer Muthu became a huge success in Japan and Korea opening up a completely new and lucrative market for Indian movies. In fact, the film became a ‘Cultural Ambassador’ for Indian cinema in Japan!


Eventful period

The post 2000 era was an eventful period for the industry. Tamil films witnessed significant evolution in innovative storytelling techniques, technical excellence and production values. A new generation of young and enthusiastic film-makers with good understanding of technology created films that appealed to Gen Y audience.  Films like Paruthi Veeran, Pithamagan  in the early part of the decade and Aadukalam, Pizza, Soodhu Kavvum, among others, were different from the normal rung of films through their powerful portrayal of contemporary issues and unique storytelling styles.

The significant growth in multiplex screens across Tamil Nadu commencing 2008 led to a better experience for movie goers. It also resulted in increasing the cost to the consumer as multiplexes charge more for movie tickets (average of Rs 125 per ticket) leading to high spends for audience. A family of four spend on an average Rs 1000 for a movie in Chennai or Coimbatore along with food and beverages, transport, parking, etc.  Cinema is perhaps no longer ‘the cheapest mode of escapist entertainment.’


Absence of entry barriers

Over the past decade the number of Tamil films produced annually has ranged between 100 and 140. The average investment per film in the small film category has been Rs 2.5 crore and in the big budget category has been Rs 25 -30 crore. High production values have led to increases in production costs and budgets and also sizeable increase in marketing budgets. There has been no significant impact on the number of films produced in spite of high production budgets.

The absence of entry barriers in the industry has led to investments by many start-ups reducing efficiency and escalating costs in the production ecosystem.  The unplanned entry of corporate production houses from Mumbai has been another disruptive factor, increasing content production costs without creating significant value. Star costs shot up in anticipation of higher budgets planned by these larger studios; the studios got carried away by the availability of top stars and plunged into projects without discrimination.

 

Causes for concern

Exports of Tamil films have seen an increase in the past decade but export revenues have gone up only marginally. The revenues of 75 per cent of the films have not matched costs of production during the period 2008 -14. Box office revenues which used to account for 80 per cent of total income for a movie, have now dropped due to high cost of the total movie experience, immediate social media feedback and movie piracy.  Occupancy ratios in screens vary between 15 and 50 per cent for almost 80 per cent of new movies and continue to cause anxiety even as investment in new multiplexes is on the rise. On the other hand, the trend towards Internet consumption of Tamil movies and music at significantly lower cost is very clear with many new digital portals coming up after 2013. Television channels facing the heat from an expanding digital audience and reduced advertising budgets, have cut back on their film acquisition further reducing viability. These factors do cause concern for the industry which employs about 400,000 workers across Tamil Nadu.

 

Some green shoots...

There are some green shoots though. The emergence of a younger audience whose tastes and preferences appear to have shifted from star-studded extravaganzas to content driven films is one. Remakes of successful other language films have always been a blessing in disguise for Tamil film-makers, specially when there is uncertainty as to what stories will work. Films like Papanasam (a remake of the highly successful malayalam movie Drishyam), Kaaka Muttai and other similar small budget films have combined the art of good story-telling with technical excellence to achieve blockbuster status and reasonable returns on investment.  The new generation of film goers is also turning out to be a no-nonsense group, setting high standards of film appreciation and having no hesitation sharing their candid views on social media. This in turn has compelled film-makers to come out with, never seen before stories, presented in an entertaining package that would keep viewers engaged.

 

Content is king

The industry is trying to reinvent itself to face the challenges of the digital age. In this era dominated by internet and smartphones, shortening attention spans and 4320  hours of video getting uploaded on YouTube every hour, the biggest challenge for film-makers and studios is gaining audience attention. With technical innovation and new story telling techniques, the Tamil film industry has come a full circle in about 50 years with content again emerging as king and giving a new meaning to the statement – ‘there is no business like show business.’

 

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