With a seemingly unending lockdown in effect, the chances of theatres that have shuttered down for more than 100 days now, opening up looks bleak and unlikely in the immediate future in India. Seizing the moment, popular streaming giants like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, and Zee5 have been directly releasing films that were originally slated for theatrical release, offering small producers and in a few cases even big producers a juicy deal for their projects. As a viable option that proves beneficial in the time of a crisis for producers looking to recover their costs, it is little wonder then that most of this year’s films will be hitting OTT platforms.
Now that the practice of viewing films on a comparatively small screen and in the comfort of one’s home has turned into something close to a ritual, Thirukumaran Entertainment‘s CV Kumar feels there is no better time to launch his pay-per-view based Regal Talkies app. The man whose mainstream production banner has churned out hits like Attakathi, Pizza, Mundasupatti, and Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, Kumar, now aims to provide succour to independent filmmakers and their content, that either doesn’t see the light of the day or reach the right audiences, by releasing them on his app.
While the initial plan was to launch the app on July 8 it has now been postponed by a week due to technical issues. A designated link is up only for Android users enabling them to download the APK (Android Package Kit) and take a look at the interface and features of the app. CV’s Gangs Of Madras (2019), Sankar Narayanan/Cable Sankar‘s Thottal Thodarum (2015), and Pandiarajan‘s Aanpavam (1985) are already available for viewing on the app.
Silverscreen India spoke to director-producer CV Kumar in detail about his Regal Talkies app, what makes it stand out in this highly competitive market, his stance on the ‘OTT vs Theatres’ debate, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to take the plunge into the digital sector?
The idea of creating a streaming app struck me way back in 2014 itself. An Infosys employee and Karthik Subbaraj‘s associate in Pizza and I had this plan of creating one for the purpose of data analysis and we worked on it together. He took care of the technical part and I invested some amount in the project. Though not entirely planned and rolled out, it was somewhat close to a streamer. But we decided to do away with it given the fact that it was not a very prevalent concept back then. Six years later, today, we felt it would be perfect to launch such an app, especially in the current situation since people have become accustomed to watching films and series’ on various streamers in this lockdown. With top players like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix now becoming a household name, we plan on following suit with our Regal Talkies.
Tell us about the name and logo of Regal Talkies.
I love travelling and my inclination towards it pushed me into the business of tourism and travel in my early 20s. My work called for me to frequently visit Bombay, making me watch countless films at Regal Cinema, one of the most fascinating cinema halls in India in my opinion. The infrastructure and facilities and the fact that it was built that well in the 1930s left me awestruck, to the extent where I decided that I would name my theatre the same if I ever get the opportunity and funds to open one. Now that I’ve opened up a ‘virtual theatre’, I decided to name it Regal Talkies. As far as the logo is concerned, there wasn’t too much thought put into it (laughs). It just had to be something that everybody could comprehend and connect to.
Regal is also one of the few words that are universal and not just familiar to a particular set of people. It is also easy to pronounce. So, I suggested this name and everybody readily agreed to it. There’s also a separate charm and royal-ness to the word Regal, so it was ultimately the best option (laughs).
— C V Kumar (@icvkumar) July 3, 2020
Which audience are you seeking to cater to and how do you plan on establishing yourself amidst several apps and top players?
Streamers like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix will be there, but we have a separate brand for ourselves. A lot of people weren’t aware of MX Player until Ramya Krishnan‘s Queen released. It was the series that provided filip and reach for the streamer. Similarly, Game of Thrones gave HBO the audiences from down south. So, it is clear that content is king and will always take the forefront regardless of the other factors.
We’ve decided to release non-mainstream content like documentaries, short films, and much more, that would satiate commercial needs as well as the need for good subjects. The content we’re dealing with has its own dedicated audience glocally and will be appreciated if it meets their expectations. The pay-per-view culture needs fostering only in our cities while it is commonplace for global audiences who already consume content that way. In this way, I could say the global audiences are our most crucial target.
What kind of content can we expect? Will it extend beyond the Tamil language after a point and are you planning on commissioning any and creating originals like other streamers?
We have lots of ideas and plans in mind. I’m planning to establish a sub-banner under Thirukumaran Entertainment for exclusively commissioning these works. So say if we procure 24 movies a month, we might be producing about 12 of them under the home banner. In fact, we have already begun work on four to five films in the past week. We’ve also been mulling over bankrolling series’ which, for the lack of a better word, can be called an ‘original’. One of our films, namely, Thadayam Mudhal Adhyayam is actually a three-part movie that will release consecutively.
As of now, a month’s agenda will comprise two movies and a documentary or short film. We’re just beginning and we want to progress slowly instead of rushing into things. I’d like to establish myself before I build castles in the air.
Do you have plans for releasing bigger films at a later stage on your platform?
Again, it’s all part of the plan but definitely not until I earn a solid audience for this. With the pay-per-view option, I can initially only recover about one to two crores because the service would be extending only to a limited number of people. Over the months, if viewers increase and the audiences lap up our content, we would be able to gradually increase our production budget to a maximum of six crores. Beyond six crores, this medium would not render feasible for us.
How do you plan on rolling out the features of the app? While Ram Gopal Varma has already adopted this ATT (Any-Time-Theatre) method for his titillating content and has garnered decent reception, how effective would the pay per view option be in your opinion for the content you are dealing with?
Our app is very simple and userfriendly. It doesn’t require much understanding and serves only the purpose intended. You download the app from the Google Play Store/Apple Store, log in with your credentials, select, and book the feature/short/documentary that you want to watch at whichever time you prefer right through the day. You pay a meagre amount depending on the budget of the film through Pay Pal or Razor Pay, and you have your film playing in front of you. We shouldn’t prove our intelligence and boast technical expertise with an app. I would rather spend all that energy on the content generated.
The pricing depends on the budget of the projects. For short films and documentaries, we’ve decided to charge about Rs 20 and for feature films, it ranges from Rs 50 to Rs 100. We’ll also gradually add on features to the interface if the need arises.
We cannot deny the fact that Ram Gopal Varma‘s films that are releasing on Shreyas ET and his RGV World Theatre have garnered reception for the erotic content that it suggests through its teasers and trailers. While he seems to benefit, on one hand, he’s losing out on a major section on the other. If he had made a film catering to family audiences, it would’ve generated more views and in turn more revenue than what he actually has cashed. All of us have a first circle of people who are willing to witness any work of art that we produce. If the content proves worthy, they would definitely recommend it to their close ones who in turn inform others. Our audiences are always wonderful enough to spread the word if a movie is good and make sure their kith and kin also witness what they seemed to have enjoyed. In this way, our app has an upper hand in terms of the audience we cater to. I strongly believe in the content we dish out and I’m very confident that our initiative would turn out to be a success.
— Ram Gopal Varma (@RGVzoomin) July 5, 2020
There are several TV channels that stream only independent films for a fee and these films have a household audience. Those people don’t visit theatres or look out for other options for content. For example, taking my Thirukumaran Entertainment into consideration, our small productions like Pizza and Thegidi did not have…
(interrupting) Small productions?
Yes! They are small productions. The outcome turned out to be wonderful for us, but it does not change the fact that the film did not see an overseas release anywhere. Nobody was willing to buy the film in London or Australia or even Canada owing to the lack of star value and the respective overseas market. Audiences from these countries saw the film only 30 days later through Tentkotta/Hero Talkies/Simply South either through subscription or pay-per-view basis. For them, this feature isn’t anything new as compared to the audiences here in India. They’re also bereft of piracy, which is also a reason for the good amount of viewers from overseas.
Tell us about the three films that are ready for release this month. How are you choosing your films?
The first film that we’re releasing is Miruna. It’s more like a short film that runs for about 35 minutes. It is a perfect entertainer with a good share of comedy, fantasy, and romance. I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it and decided to commence with this film. Rakav Mirdath, the director, has done a good job with the content.
Mani Karthi’s Thadayam Mudhal Adhyayam is the three-part franchise I had mentioned earlier. As of now, only the first part has been completed. I saw the film and decided to purchase the franchise wherein I’ll be commissioning the following installments under our Thirukumaran banner. Work on the second film began a few months back but is stalled due to the coronavirus-imposed lockdown. So once it’s all over, we’ll finish filming the rest of the movie.
Since we’ve hit a snag with the release, we’ve released a beta version of Thadayam that’s more like a sneak peek into the film. The full version will be our second release after Miruna.
JA Raghupathy’s Onbathu Kuzhi Sampath is an emotional thriller with a social message. I could say it’s a wholesome film like Attakathi with good songs and wonderful performances.
While this is our plan for July, we’ve got a documentary and two feature films planned out for August. I’d like to keep the content behind the documentary and one of the feature films a secret but I can reveal that the other feature is a complete youth entertainer that deals with the concept of love in the current generation.
I’m being extremely cognisant of the content that we’re dropping. At no given point do I prefer compromising on the quality of films that we are producing. I’ve been watching films for the past 15 days from dawn to dusk without any kind of break and I think by now I would’ve watched about 50 to 60 films. I’m focussing only on the content regardless of the genre or any other factor.
Where there difficulties in the process of launching this app? What did you have to think through before launching this?
(laughs) As you can see, we’re facing problems with the launch now, at this very last minute. Prior to this, everything was perfect. Last month, Google was approving new applications within four-five hours, allowing the app to be listed on the store immediately. Now there’s a change in policy which states that approval requires a period of seven days before it is listed on the store. Not aware of this, we’d submitted all the necessary documentation and details only a few days back. So the app didn’t get listed on the store by July 8.
I had been making calls all day long to the authorities to approve the app, and they had also agreed to look into it as soon as possible. But unfortunately, it didn’t fall in place by July 8, so we decided to defer the launch to July 17. Let’s hope things resolve quickly and the app launch happens smoothly next week.
The initial process wasn’t hard at all since I had the help of my friend Sudhakar Mani who runs Cholalabs, a software company based in Tamil Nadu. He’s done a few projects pertaining to artificial intelligence (AI) for the Indian and US government, so it was a piece of cake for us. I think I jinxed the process by wondering how I haven’t faced any hurdles so far (laughs).
The most debated topic in recent times has been ‘OTT vs Cinemas’. You are one of the top production houses in the industry, tell us what your opinion is since you’ve ventured into both.
The number of people visiting theatres in recent years has not been a stable figure as compared to old times after the emergence of OTT and television. Small budget films aren’t able to recover the funds shelled out for production and publicity like big-budget films because not many people are willing to spend money on films unless it’s shouldered by a huge star like Ajith or Vijay or even Jayam Ravi or Sivakarthikeyan. They are aware that the film will hit the popular OTT platforms within 30-days of release and prefer watching it at the comfort of their houses. So big and medium films will opt for theatrical releases and the smaller ones will hit OTT directly since they prove beneficial to the producer.
Films of actors who fall under the top 15 bankable list of stars incline towards a theatrical release despite the circumstances accounting for more than 50 films in a year. Other than movie buffs and technicians of the film industry, nobody else is willing to watch all the 50 at theatres. In that case, it is the bitter truth that small films don’t stand a chance at all.
But what about the statement from the Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners Association claiming a ban on the films of stars opting for an OTT release?
That is not going to happen even in our wildest dreams (laughs). They are, for all obvious reasons, looking at OTT platforms as a major threat to their business, but it is a known fact that audiences will go back to theatres once they open up post-lockdown. So I don’t think they need to worry so much. Although, they do have a problem with the direct release of big-budget films which I think will be sorted if a healthy discussion takes place between the producers and the theatre association. But a ban is definitely not what they would opt for.
Everybody claimed that the emergence of TV would hamper theatrical business, but instead, it has opened up a new avenue for producers who are raising their budgets taking into account the cost of satellite rights of a film. The same applies even for the overseas and OTT releases. They’re all avenues for the industry and will coexist no matter what. Tomorrow, another unique avenue may open up. While it might pose a threat initially, it would eventually end up helping the film business in some way. Instead of complaining, we should look at the good side and adapt accordingly. You can’t keep fearing change.
A lot of audiences and industry people themselves claim that OTT isn’t helping producers book profits and is just a temporary phase because of this lockdown…
All I can say is that they clearly don’t understand the film trade and its nuances. Producers are actually reviving the money spent very easily, while the OTT platforms are the actual ones who are struggling. They are under the pressure to constantly churn out movies and shows to retain their subscribers which is the only factor helping them to book profits. Netflix which depends on content-oriented scripts has actually not booked profits to date according to me. Compared to Amazon Prime Video which is more of a commercial platform, Netflix has a larger subscriber base but is still reeling under the responsibility to provide better content for better earnings.
The General Secretary of the #TamilNadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association, R Panneer Selvam, has announced that their association has decided to not release any film involving actor #Suriya or his home production banner #2DEntertainment hereafter.#PonMagalVandhal pic.twitter.com/FQtHMzkhKF
— Silverscreen.in (@silverscreenin) April 24, 2020
What is your opinion on the Telugu OTT aha that is gradually picking up after putting out original content including the film Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna?
They’ve got big plans not only for the Telugu industry but also for the other sister industries down South. They are doing really well and will surely turn out to be a huge success. I am not looking at any of them as competitors since we’re on a completely different track. We aren’t calling for a subscription like any of these popular players and have absolutely no compulsions except for a tiny fee that is as cheap as chips. So I think we shouldn’t even be comparing ourselves with them.
How about an update on the progress of sequels to Thegidi, Soodhukavvum, Indru Netru Naalai, and Maayavan?
(laughs). Ravikumar has finished penning the script of Indru Netru Naalai 2 and we were supposed to commence shoot a few months back. But of course, the world had other ideas. The same cast will be working on the sequel with Ravikumar‘s associate helming the project. Nalan Kumarasamy is busy with another script, so he gave us the plot line for the sequel to Soodhu Kavvum and asked us to build on it with a bunch of writers. It will reach us in a couple of days following which Nalan will make corrections to the same. I’ve been penning Maayavan 2 in this lockdown period, but work will not commence until the end of this year because I’ve got a lot to do with respect to Regal Talkies and its content. Thegidi 2 is in the final stages of scripting and details about the cast and crew will be officially revealed soon.