Just when things were looking up for showbiz, the Omicron variant struck, leaving the Pongal season, perhaps the most lucrative window for exhibitors in Tamil Nadu, in tatters.
Industry insiders peg the overall loss around ₹500-600 crore. For many, Pongal is not just the biggest cash cow, but it’s also the auspicious season, which in a way, sets the tone for the rest of the year. There are cultural, emotional aspects as well.
That way, in trade parlance, it’s a bloodbath of sorts from which the industry might take time to recover.
“Theatre owners in south Tamil Nadu believe that Pongal films always kick-start the overall vibe for theatrical releases any given year. Since time immemorial, the Pongal festival has been close to our hearts. For instance, newly married couples would ask us for tickets and we have rows fixed for their family audiences so that they would feel safe in our theatre. It’s part of our culture as well. They prefer our theatre to celebrate Thala Pongal (the first Pongal festival after wedding). Sadly, for this Pongal, there was no such request from the audience. So feel it’s an inauspicious start to the year,” said Ramasamy Raja of Ram Muthuram Cinemas, a popular movie hall in Tirunelveli.
Many believe if one of the biggies – either Rajamouli’s RRR or Ajith Kumar’s Valimai – released (taking a risk, obviously), notwithstanding the COVID threat, went ahead and released, it would have set the box-office afire.
Industry trackers say RRR and Valimai together would’ve yielded at least ₹350-400 crore.
Food and Beverage sale is as big as ticket sales
Sriram, Creative Producer of Rockfort Entertainment, said “Vijay’s Master grossed around ₹160 crore in Tamil Nadu. Baahubali 2 garnered ₹180 crore as well. I would compare Valimai with Master and RRR with Baahubali 2, so both the films would have easily collected around ₹350 crore easily in the state. Remember, it’s just ticket sales. If you add the food/beverage sales and parking, the figure will shoot up to ₹600. Yes, both RRR and Valimai will hit screens soon, but no way can you compare a normal weekend with the Pongal season. For festivals, people tend to spend (more) money and that’s why Pongal, early in the year, is so crucial for the trade.”
As Sriram said the F&B is crucial for theatre owners. “Well, our theatre has 750 seats. For a houseful show, we get ₹1.5 lakh from ticket sales and ₹75,000 from the food and beverage counter. Ramasamy Raja, the owner of Ram Muthuram Cinemas in Tirunelveli said that around ₹25,000 comes from parking charges.
For multiplexes and other theatres in Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai, and Trichy, the revenue generated in F&B and parking would be more than the theatrical collection. So, the overall loss could be around ₹600 crore.
Senthil of Sri Sakthi Theater in Mettupalayam said he knew Pongal would be a damp squib.
“Due to the pandemic and poor choice of films, we expected a poor turn-out. Even the 2020 Diwali was lacklustre. Compared to other releases, Naai Sekar did decent business but that’s a trickle if compared with the usual Pongal fervour,” Senthil said.
Nikilesh Surya of Rohini Cinemas, one of the biggest theatres in Chennai, a preferred location for fans and fan clubs, said that he is “grateful to the producers who took the risk and released their films for Pongal”.
“Without any new releases, all theatre owners would’ve closed their premises. The show must go on even if it’s a trickle,” Nikilesh said.
In North India, most single screens were shut due to lack of new releases, but the South market is surviving on small and medium-budget films released for the Pongal/Sankranti weekend.
Theal, Kombu Vachcha Singamada, Carbon, Naai Sekar, and Enna Solla Pogirai were some of the films which hit the screens.
Theatre owners and exhibitors also feel that producers did not have enough time to promote their films.
“Most producers thought Valimai and RRR would release for Pongal and so, they weren’t prepared. These small films hit the screens so that they can go ahead and have a satellite premiere. At least, they can get “some money” from TV rights knowing that the theatrical revenue would be less during the peak of the Third Wave,” said a distributor.
“I wouldn’t blame the producers of Valimai and RRR for backing out. Producers of Pongal releases knew that the collections would be poor,” adds Nikilesh (Rohini Cinemas).
Some feel producers should’ve released at least one film of a saleable hero to tide over the crisis.
“Had we had a release of mid-level heroes like Vishal or Arya, it would’ve been better. Naai Sekar‘s collection is decent as it’s a kid-friendly film. Ideally, summer vacation or Christmas would’ve been better for the film. The current environment is not suitable for kids to visit theatres and a film targeting youngsters would’ve been better,” said Ramasamy Raja.
“Another major drawback is the Sunday lockdown and the lack of night shows. For example, Naai Sekar’s collections would’ve been even bigger with Sunday shows and no night curfew,” said Senthil (Mettupalayam).
Time to learn from Telugu cinema?
Interestingly, Telugu cinema took the risk by releasing big films and audience reception was heartening.
Bangarraju, featuring Nagarjuna and Naga Chaitanya, amassed ₹53 crore (gross) in just three days, a big relief to theatre owners and exhibitors during these testing times.
Theatre owners and distributors are confident that the industry will soon return to normalcy. The success of films (since the pandemic broke) like Master, Maanaadu, Karnan, Aranmanai 3, Pushpa, and Spider-Man: No Way Home has given them hope.
“Henceforth, tentpole films will strike gold. For example, Doctor has surpassed the collections of all other previous films of Sivakarthikeyan. Maanaadu has generated the career-best numbers of Silambarasan. On the downside, audiences prefer watching small films like Kadaseela Biriyani only on OTT platforms, not theatres. The future is: big films, bigger revenue. Small films will have no other go, but to opt for direct premiere on OTT platforms. Medium-budget films like Kodiyil Oruvan and Bachelor have a good chance to perform in theatres and the producers can fetch sizeable revenue from OTT platforms as well,” said Nikilesh, adding that dubbed versions of other language biggies will strike big.
Among the dubbed films— Pushpa, Kurup, Eternals, 83, and Spider-Man: No Way Home — have scored big in Tamil Nadu. Allu Arjun’s Pushpa and Dulquer’s Kurup, for instance, performed well in smaller towns, indicating how quality products can still sneak their way into unchartered territories.