Lingaa flops at box office: Is superstar Rajinikanth losing his magic?
The effect of the Lingaa distribution fiasco is that there are few willing buyers for big films who are also knowledgeable about the market.
A controversy is raging in the state of Tamil Nadu and though it has nothing to do with politics, even politicians are stepping in with the hope of finding an answer. Was Superstar Rajinikanth’s Lingaa a hit or a flop? The distributors of the film in Tamil Nadu are seeking compensation from Rajinikanth for Lingaa's poor show at the box-office. On Saturday, they held a symbolic day-long fast on Saturday (January 10) in front of Valluvar Kottam to the actor's attention after Rajinikanth refused to meet them. The court had to intervene after Chennai police declined the distributors' earlier demand for a fast in front of Rajinikanth’s residence.
Holding the star responsible for box office performance is not unusual as far as Rajinikanth is concerned.The superstar himself has set the precedents. Remember Rajinikanth had compensated the distributors when his earlier films, Baba (2002) and Kuselan (2008), bombed at the box office. The legendary MGR had reacted similarly in the past when his films failed — he either compensated distributors or did his next film with the same producer. Rajinikanth is the only working actor in the Indian film industries who has followed in MGR's footsteps in this regard.
Directed by KS Ravikumar, Lingaa was produced by Kannada film producer Rockline Venkatesh and marketed worldwide by Eros Entertainment. It released on the superstar’s birthday – 12 December, as announced at the time of the film’s inaugural pooja — and was expected to be one of the year's biggest releases even though the film was a quickie. It was shot in a record time, rumoured to cost around Rs 100 Crore and held up as the answer to the failure of Rajinikanth's previous release Kochadaiiyan, directed by his daughter Soundarya R Ashwin.
Rockline Venkatesh sold Lingaa to Eros, who later sold the Tamil Nadu distribution rights to Vendhar Movies. Vendhar Movies in turn sold the film, area wise (in Tamil film trade parlance, these consist of Chennai City, Chengalpet, North and South Arcot, Salem, Coimbatore & Nilgiris, Tiruchi-Thanjavur, Madurai and Tirunelveli- Kanyakumari). It's these area-specific distributurs, at the end of the pipeline, who are protesting and asking for compensation. The real problem is that some in the industry believe Kollywood is as big as Bollywood, when the fact is that the Tamil film industry is only 25 to 30% of the latter.
So what went wrong with Lingaa at the box-office? First, the film changed hands three times and by the time it reached the end distributor, the film was overpriced. The end distributors who purchased this overpriced film were mostly newcomers to the trade who probably didn't realise that at the price they were paying, recovery was impossible even if Lingaa had turned out to be a blockbuster. It's worth keeping in mind that Tamil Nadu is one of the few states in India where there is a cap on cinema ticket admission rates. However, the newbies to the cinema trade went ahead and purchased distribution rights, enamoured by the presence of Rajinikanth and convinced the superstar would ensure a gargantuan opening that would ensure they could sell the tickets at a higher rate for the opening weekend.
In fact, Lingaa had a very good opening. It was the second highest grosser of 2014, but the film just did not live up to expectations. The producers thought the mere presence of Rajinikanth in a formulaic story would have repeat value for audiences and the film would sail through. Those in the film trade were told Lingaa would be bigger than the Shankar directed sci-fi mass entertainer, Enthiran (Robot, 2010) , which stands as the all-time highest grosser and the only Tamil film to have netted over Rs 100 Crore from theatricals alone.
Lingaa released at a time when social media opinions and reviews count the most. Online, the film got torn apart by critics and was trashed by disappointed fans. The producers failed to realise the changing times. A star can bring in an opening, but without either storytelling or word of mouth, it's difficult for a film to sustain audiences' interest after the initial spurt and Lingaa's distributors in Tamil Nadu realised after the opening weekend that they were not likely to recover their investments.
Krishnakumar of Capricorn Pictures, who distributed the film in North and South Arcot, said, “The producer Rockline Venkatesh does not regularly produce Tamil films. He had earlier made only two films in Tamil both bombed. Everybody knows he was picked by Mr Rajinikanth to produce Lingaa. If our losses were minimal, we will not complain as it is part of the business, but at the end of the day we are losing 60 to 70% of our investment, and that is why we are asking for a compensation.”
On Saturday, while the distributors were on a hunger strike, Venkatesh held a press meet. He accused the distributors of trying to sabotage Lingaa and starting a smear campaign against Rajinikanth. “They started running down the film even before the first weekend was over," claimed Venkatesh. "They never came up with positive solutions like boosting publicity when they knew the film wasn’t doing well. They went public with their losses and killed the film.”
The issue took a political turn when Seeman, filmmaker and Naam Tamilar Katchi leader, took part in the distributor’s hunger strike, but also urged all parties concerned to find an amicable solution. The central concern now is to find a solution that will safeguard Rajinikanth’s reputation at the box-office. T Siva of Vendhar Movies who had purchased the Tamil Nadu rights told The Hindu: “There is no doubt the movie has not done well and many including Vendhar Movies have suffered huge losses. But it is not right to talk about the losses while the film is still running in theatres. When it is completely out of theatres by Pongal, we will sit together with all parties concerned, including Rajinikanth, and find a solution.”
The effect of the Lingaa distribution fiasco is that there are few willing buyers for big films who are also knowledgeable about the market. Newcomers do not understand how the finances of a big film work and are drawn in by the glamour. Meanwhile, producers are putting pressure on big stars to reduce their remuneration and also control production costs. If they really are to be commercially viable, even big-star films have to be made in a budget that's in Rs 40 to Rs 50 crore bracket (this would include the star’s salary). The way forward in the New Year for the Tamil film industry is to make movies on a tight budget, and aim to be commercially viable from theatrical rights alone.
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