Why Kollywood's Rs 100 crore club badly needs a hit

By Sreedhar Pillai

2012 has been a bad year for the Tamil film industry. So far, all big budget, star-driven movies have failed to recover their costs at the box-office. A record 135 odd films have released in the first 10 months, out of which only a few have tasted commercial success. And interestingly, most of them were relatively smaller, non-star films.

The biggest hit of the year was (former chief minister M Karunanidhi’s grandson) Udhayanidhi Stalin’s debut comedy Oru Kal Oru Kannadi (OKOK).

The other few that clicked at the box-office included award winning director Pandiraj’s romantic comedy Marina with little known stars, debutant director Balaji Mohan’s breezy comedy Kadhalil Sodhapuvadu Yeppadi (KSY) starring Siddharth and Amala Paul, first timer Ranjith’s campus story Attakathi with fresh faces, and Karthik Subburaj’s debut horror thriller Pizza with newcomers.

Kollywood star Vijay in a still from Thuppakki. Image courtesy: Sreedhar Pillai.

Subramaniapuram fame Sasikumar as a masala hero in Sundarapandian too worked well at the box office. And the biggest surprise was SS Rajamouli’s Naan Ee where the real hero was a fly. The big budget multi-starrer Nanban, with Vijay in the lead (remake of 3 Idiots) just broke even. It could be termed an average grosser as it recovered its cost from theatrical, Telugu dubbing and satellite rights. The rest of the biggies fell flat - Ajith’s Billa 2, Vikram’s Thaandavam and the most recent, Suriya’s Maatran.

All these films cost upward of Rs 40 crore and were sold at fancy prices, but could not recover their cost from theatrical revenue and rights sales. Veteran journalist Film News Anandan, historian and industry tracker says: “I’m shocked that big budget star driven films have bombed miserably this year at the box-office. It was always the big stars who ruled Tamil box office from the days of MGR. This year, it is for the first time that so many small and medium films are proving to be more successful than big star films.”

Says leading commercial director Lingusamy: “I think the basic issue is content. A star can have an opening, but after the first three days, it is the story and presentation that matter the most. A big star has a huge fan base which gets the opening, mainly the young audiences; but after that if the film has to be a hit, it has to be liked by the family audiences.”

Dr Murali Manohar of Mediaone Global, one of the biggest distributors of star movies and co-producer of Rajinikanth’s Kochadaiyaan says: “This year may not have been good for star films because the content has been weak and they were overpriced. But outside Chennai, especially in interior Tamil Nadu, the so-called multiplex hits have not done well.”

“We control around 35 single screens in NSC, Salem and Madurai areas, where only a star movie gets an opening. A film like Suriya’s Maatran, which is average, has done better business than the multiplex hit Pizza. This industry is star driven, and there is still a huge market for a well made commercial entertainer with a big hero who commands an opening,” he adds.

One of the biggest financiers in Tamil cinema has a different take: “Every star worth his box office pull after one or two hits thinks that he is the next Rajinikanth. He starts asking for ridiculous amounts as his pay. Today 55 % of a big budget film goes as the salary of the star. The director is in awe of the star and expects him to deliver than the content”.

There is a lot of truth in it as Tamil biggie’s budgets have gone completely haywire. There are five or six bankable stars who command an opening, and producers, mostly star struck and cash-rich NRIs or corporates, first sign the star then look for a suitable script.

According to a journalist working for a business daily in the city, a big hero Kollywood film is only 30 per cent of a superstar Bollywood film in business prospect. But Tamil film producers brag that their films cost Rs 100 crore plus. Director Shankar’s new film with Vikram as hero titled I, which is now being shot in China, is said to have a budget of Rs 100 crores. The only Tamil film that has ever crossed Rs 100 crore in collections was Rajinikanth’s Enthiran (Robot in Hindi). It looks like ‘I' will have to collect more than Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger to break even.

There is a huge gap in box office revenue between Bollywood and Kollywood, still Tamil actors are asking for salaries which an average Hindi film star gets. Traditional production houses such as AVM are no longer making biggies because it is not financially viable. It is the new breed of cash-rich producers or corporates who are offering unheard of salaries to stars and star-directors without taking into consideration the market realities.

They feel that once they get a star's dates, everything will fall into place; but the reality is that Kollywood'a market today worldwide is not even one third of Bollywood. A leading distributor gives the breakdown of the economics: “Hindi cinema is pan Indian and internationally more countries screen Bollywood films over Kollywood films. Today a big Tamil film generates 80 to 85 % of its total revenue from Tamil Nadu theatricals, Television and audio rights. The remaining 15 to 20 % come from theatrical distribution sales from Overseas, Indian, domestic (Kerala, Karnataka & upcountry multiplexes) and Telugu dubbing rights.

In Tamil Nadu, the state government has total control over the industry, as almost all chief ministers have come from the industry. There is a 30% tax for Tamil movies which are not certified ‘U’ by the censors or do not have a Tamil title. Plus, there is a cap on ticket prices with multiplexes allowed to charge only Rs 120 as maximum ticket rate. Under these circumstances, the revenues for a big film are limited.”

Now the all eyes are on Vijay’s, AR Murgadoss directed-Thuppakki (The Gun), the last of 2012s biggies releasing for Diwali (Nov 13). A lot is riding on the Rs 70 crore film, which many feel may reverse the trend.

AR Murgadoss says he is confident that the action oriented entertainer will be a big hit. He is also planning to remake the film in Hindi with Akshay Kumar. An excited Murgadoss said: “Thuppakki is an out and out racy, mass entertainer with Vijay playing an army commando. The film is set in Mumbai. Santosh Sivan shot it. ”

Concludes Dr Murali Manohar, who has taken the Chennai city rights of Thuppakki : “Diwali is one of the biggest festivals in Tamil Nadu and Thuppakki is a cracker of a movie that can be enjoyed by Vijay fans and the family audiences. I’m sure that it will work as our audiences love big star movies with the right mix of entertainment.”

Still, it is really a long way to reach Rs 70 crore.