Kannada cinema takes digital leap

With the rise of Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms, Indian films are minting money by garnering a wider audience online. Not only have OTT platforms fetched more views for big films, but they’ve also given small-budget flicks an opportunity to reach viewers who would have never made the effort to watch them in cinema halls.

According to reports, Indian OTT services are set to reach a net worth of $1.7 billion by 2023, up from $638 million in 2018.

With Kannada films like ‘Kavaludaari’, ‘Katheyondu Shuruvagide’ and ‘Shuddhi’ already available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, the Kannada Film Industry has gone a step ahead by going digital directly.

Adarsh Eshwarappa’s ‘Bhinna’ is the first Kannada film to make this direct jump and will be available on Zee5 from October 8.

The film has supposedly raked in a profit that is double the amount that was invested. So how do OTT platforms work in terms of profitability for filmmakers, both big and small?

‘Bhinna’ director Adarsh says that a big challenge faced by Kannada films is the lack of availability of screens.

“Since many films from other languages, both big and small, release in Karnataka, we don’t get enough screens for our films, unless it has a big star. So, we wanted to find a digital platform for ‘Bhinna’ that can offer good money and give the film a wide reach. When the first copy of the movie was done, we started pitching it to digital platforms. The Zee5 offer was good, and the producers got their money back. The offer was based purely on content, and that for me, was a big validation as a director,” says the filmmaker, who’s now being approached by many people for advice on how to pitch a project to a digital platform.

While Bhinna’s makers remain tight-lipped about the price they received for their film, it’s said that the movie was sold for more than Rs 2 to 2.5 crore as against an initial investment of approximately half that amount.

Ganesh Papanna, the executive producer of the film, who did not reveal the exact amount of the profit, said the direct jump to digital was financially fortuitous.

Though most people get into filmmaking without thinking about the economics of the release or the revenue and returns, Ganesh did his research and found that no digital platforms in the country directly picked up Kannada movies before their theatrical release.

“Netflix has got more than seven to eight Kannada movies — all sold by my team. I had three choices — Netflix, Amazon and Zee — because these are big platforms in India. But Netflix doesn’t buy any Kannada originals, and Amazon doesn’t do any original development. So, Zee was my choice. I told them we’re making this movie for a theatrical release and if they’re buying this, I need my money back.”

He says, “142 movies were released in Karnataka in 2019 and out of them, 132 movies did not even get back their investment. Only 7 to 8 movies got back their investments with some profit, which ranged from 1 to 10 per cent. Nobody has doubled their money, so I was happy that I was able to do so,” says the producer, who believes that if your profit is the double of your investment, your economics are perfect.

Even though box office collection still forms a major chunk of a films’ profits, OTT platforms are also lucrative options for investors to recover their money. So, it’s no surprise that the makers of ‘Bhinna’ decided not to head to the theatres at all.

Ganesh believes that even if the movie was given a theatrical release, it would have met the fate of the doomed 132 films that didn’t make profits, by having just 1 to 2 week run at the box office.

“With big movies coming in, no screens were available and all my investment would have gone into different directions. But now, in Karnataka itself, 5,000 people can watch it from the comfort of their bedroom. The movie will be available in more than 192 countries,” he says.

The investment he talks about entails money for releasing and distribution. “For example, if I invest Rs 100 on the film and spend Rs 50 on releasing, to get back Rs 150, I need to get the box office price of Rs 450, as you get only 33 per cent. To get Rs 450, I have to run the movie on 100 screens for three months and that’s not happened to any movie since the past two years — movies like ‘Mungaru Male’ and ‘Kirik Party’ don’t come often. I’m happy with my economics. Nowadays, theatres are charging Rs 400 to 500 for a single movie, but you can watch our film for Rs 150 as a yearly subscription on the app.”\

Filmmaker Pawan Kumar kickstarted the trend of online releases for Kannada films when his ‘U-Turn’ came on Netflix.

And though a number of indie films were available on OTT platforms later on, ‘Humble Politician Nograj’ created a buzz by becoming the first Kannada film to be picked up by Amazon Prime for a huge price.

“Soon, ‘Kavaludaari’ followed suit. If Amazon buys the film before the release, you get a period of 30 days, after which they put up the film on the platform. Four weeks is the average time a film runs unless it’s an extraordinary hit. The online response to my film was huge. But as a director, I prefer a theatrical release, as the quality of experience is better in cinema halls. Also, if they are making a direct purchase, the OTT platforms need to compensate for what the movie could have earned theatrically. When you sell them the rights without a theatrical release, producers invariably stand to make money,” says the director of ‘Kavaludaari’, Hemanth Rao, who co-produced ‘Nograj’.

Although he doesn’t reveal the amount his film was sold for, he says that the approximate going rate for a decent film with a well-known star cast would be Rs 1.5 to 2 crores while that for a low-budget film would be between Rs 30 to 40 lakh.

“Digital rights are of significant value and have opened up a new business opportunity for producers, which is healthy for the industry,” he adds. With Prime Video also acquiring the digital streaming rights for several upcoming movies, including the much-awaited ‘Avane Srimannarayana’ and ‘Orange’, it’s safe to say that OTT platforms are the next big thing for Kannada cinema.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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