Malayalam Cinema and Prathisandhi have been going hand in hand for years now-decades, really. So every year, when they churn out lists of flopped Malayalam movies, we, as the audience, are almost unfazed. But of late, the news has been nothing but how this could be the biggest slump Malayalam Industry has seen, and maybe this is the right time to be concerned about it. Let’s examine this together through all angles and aspects of the issues that may have factored in for this slump.
For the record, let me tell you how that last decade, precisely the second half of the decade, has been spectacular for Malayalam cinema. Every year we’ve had bigger hits – our budgets and profits as a small industry were pushed to their limits, and we were reaping its rewards. And not to mention, by the end of the decade, the rest of the country was eagerly waiting to see what we would do next.
And then came COVID.
Now, this dip in business was uniform throughout all industries during COVID. It’s been a struggle to readjust. The pandemic caused widespread disruptions in the Entertainment industry, leading to delayed releases and reduced theatre occupancy. This impacted box office revenues worldwide and affected the industry’s overall financial health.
However, despite the challenges, Malayalam cinema has been one of the first to adapt to changing times and release movies consistently during the pandemic, even incorporating COVID into the storylines of many of our films. This was around when the world, in general, was still hesitant about how to portray this pandemic on screen. But then came the question of how to release these movies. Social distancing was still prevalent, and the government did not allow the release of the movies at the time.
Even though Love was the first Malayalam movie to shoot within the constraints of COVID, abiding by all the safety measures, the movie’s release story was a nightmare. Love was released in GCC during Oct – Nov. But it did not have a release in Kerala. Netflix later picked up the movie. And when the theatres reopened months later, Love was rereleased in Kerala theatres, which made no sense because most people who wanted to watch the movie had already watched it. Sure, releasing strategies were all screwed during the pandemic era. But it did not mean there were no successes.
Even in this supposed slump, Malayalam Cinema still had blockbuster wins like Kurup, Hridayam, Jan.E.Man, Bheeshma Parvam, and JJJH, to name a few. Master, Vikram, KGF 2, and Kantara did phenomenal business in Kerala.
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So, what could be the reason for this supposed slump?
The rise of OTT services in Kerala brought attention to a significant issue. Filmmakers opted to directly release their films on these platforms rather than in theatres due to the high risks involved in the latter option. Promotions would then be the creators’ responsibility, who would have to spend more money and exceed the movie’s budget. However, partnering with popular OTT giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime, or newer players like Saina Play, alleviated this burden as their team could handle the promotions.
The decision to release movies directly to OTT platforms did not sit well with the theatre owners association, who reacted by boycotting movies by actors like Fahadh Faasil (who had the most direct-to-OTT releases at the time) in the future. They demanded that movies be screened in theatres for at least 30 days before their OTT release. However, this decision negatively affected low-budget movies, causing significant losses for producers, distributors and theatre owners if the movies did not find their audience within the first week.
What is the solution for this?
Movies need to be budgeted more efficiently
For the most part, Malayalam movies are more decently budgeted than some of the other industries. Many actors are flexible on their salaries depending on the movie’s budget- like how Tovino openly said his salary for Dear Friend and Thallumaala (Both produced by Aashiq Usman) are drastically different as he understands the scope of success for both films. But other artists are adamant about their payscale (many of who have been in the news regarding the matter recently).
This is one of the reasons why Prabhas’ movies or Akshay Kumar’s movies keep tanking. All their movies boast a massive budget, but a considerable chunk of their movie’s entire budget is just their lead actor’s salary. All parties involved must understand the film’s exact scope and scale. And therein comes the next point.
The industry needs better people to promote these movies
Promoting a product is an art. They have to understand what they are selling and to whom they are selling it. You cannot follow the same marketing template for all movies and expect it to work every time. There are way too many people on the internet who would argue that Malayalam films are failing because of redundantly funky titles or that every other movie released are realistic cinemas / prakruthi padams. I implore them to look no further than Nna Thaan Case Kodu, which has a funky title that sounded icky to be a title and is widely considered to be a realistic film. But the movie had the most kickass viral promotion with a drunk Chackochan grooving to Devadoothar paadi in a ulsavam vibe, and people were sold. But let’s keep in mind that promotions can only do so much. The movie has to have legs to stand after the first weekend through Word of Mouth.
Releases have to be spaced out
You cannot release 6-7 movies a day and expect all of them to be a success. And they cannot be interchangeable. Eid releases this time were Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham, Sulaikha Manzil and Ayalvashi. Out of which, Sulaikha Manzil at least had songs that went viral. But bring up any posters or stills from the movie, and a layman cannot figure out which of the movie it could be from.
The industry needs an ecosystem where the creators can decide which platform they want to release their movies on
Some of the smaller movies that may not survive the theatre runs but still have the potential to appeal to a particular audience can be released directly to OTT. There are directors like Jitin Isaac Thomas and Krishand whose movies are mostly in a niche genre. After their movie screenings in select circuits, they are released onto OTT platforms to widespread critical acclaim.
Understanding the theatre-watching experience
Recently, news emerged that substandard films would no longer be shown in Kerala theatres. The Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK) decided to charge screening fees from producers of movies that they deem to be of low quality. However, a major issue with this approach is that a committee appointed by FEUOK will have to judge whether a movie is substandard or not, which could be problematic as films are inherently subjective. Moreover, this approach could favour movies with larger budgets and impressive scales rather than those that genuinely warrant a communal viewing experience. For instance, a movie like Romancham might not pass the committee’s standards, while a movie like Marakkar might. Ultimately, the decision to release a movie in theatres should rest with its creators, who should consider technical competency, budget, and whether the movie is genuinely worthy of a shared cinematic experience.
But of course, even following this to the tee will not guarantee that a movie will work. It’s heartwarming to see 2018, even with minimal marketing doing good business with positive WOM.
But a movie failing would hurt. It would hurt the producers, it would hurt the promoters, and most of all, it would hurt the creators. Because, there are factors beyond our control that are at play here. But artists, who are deeply motivated by a desire to tell a story, express their creativity, or explore a particular theme or idea through film, would always find a way to get back up.
Let’s not forget that most of the movies directed by acclaimed directors like Padmarajan and KG George were financial failures. Let’s not forget Kaalapani did not do well compared to its scale. But these movies found their audience later. That’s the hope everybody in the industry runs by – that not everybody hates all films forever. This way, art wins.