The arrival of Netflix in India this Wednesday has been largely welcomed by the Tamil film industry, although as with any discovery or introduction, some skepticism is bound to emerge. Nobody wanted the steam engine or even the electric bulb, but time proved detractors wrong. And so shall it be with Netflix and Tamil cinema.
Of all the movies made in India, those in Tamil suffer the most for want of distributors or exhibitors or both. Despite a surge in the number of multiplexes in Chennai and some other Tamil Nadu cities, there are not enough theatres for the 250 or so films produced every year in the state. Merely 200 or so get a theatrical release, and many of these too are not allowed to run beyond a week (one reason why Tamil producers/directors are so averse to allow reviews to appear on a Friday, the usual day a movie opens), because there is long queue.
This Pongal, which falls on January 15 and which is one of the biggest festivals in Tamil Nadu, at least four Tamil films will open, each cutting into the other’s revenue, and for all one knows, three of them may just fade away after seven days.
There is also another reason why movies do not find takers. Production values are very low, and stories are cliched, and as Sreedhar Pillai, trade analyst, told this writer on Friday, “With the age of digital technology, anybody with a camera can make a film... No wonder, there may be as many as 500 movies (some half made) languishing in the cans for 10 years now.”
If Netflix can buy some of the better or good works from this unsold inventory, it can be a win-win situation for all.
Also, Netflix can go a long way in curbing piracy in a state like Tamil Nadu, where the evil is rampant. Kamal Hassan tried doing precisely this when he wanted to release his Vishwaroopam simultaneously in cinemas and on the direct-to-home platform. But he was not allowed to do so by a group which lacked foresight. The result, hundreds of pirated copies of the film flooded the market.
Every week, week after week, just about every Tamil work which opens in theatres is already to be found on pirated disks.
Finally, Netflix, known for its extremely good quality content, can go miles to engineer better production values in Tamil cinema.
Obviously, smaller movies can benefit by Netflix, smaller works that either fade away from theatres in just a week, unsung and unwritten, or those that remain in the cans for years.
As one producer (who does not wish to be quoted) says that if only Netflix can lower its pricing from the current Rs 500 a month, it will find many, many more takers -- who are fed up of watching bad quality stuff on pirated disks (at Rs 40 each).
Admittedly, Tamil Nadu still has the lowest theatre entry rates in the entire country. A ticket cannot be priced above Rs 120. But this is bound to change sooner than later, because cinema owners have been contending that they cannot run their establishments with this kind of income.
However, even the Rs 500 a month, charged at the entry level by Netflix, seems like a song if a family of four or five can watch several films in a month and in the comfort of their drawing room.