CV Kumar interview, founder of Regal Talkies - OTT and theatrical medium can co-exist.
Srivathsan Nadadhur -
Director-producer C V Kumar has been a heralder of a new era of Tamil cinema with his entry into filmdom (with Attakathi). Ever since his debut, he has been a key link in giving films with unique storytelling, the commercial access they deserve - the picture-perfect combo that many new-age storytellers like Karthick Subbaraj and Nalan Kumaraswamy have immensely benefited out of. From a Mundasupatti to a Pizza to a Soodhu Kavvum, his productions have consistently earned the trust of viewers, proving the impact that a tasteful producer can bring into the fray with his choices. With his newly-launched OTT platform Regal Talkies that works on a pay-per-view model, C V Kumar is embarking on a new journey in the digital space to provide a fillip to small and medium budgeted Tamil films. LetsOTT.com prods him to know more.
Does the launch of an OTT platform feel any similar to the release of a film? Are there butterflies in your stomach?
The mood is slightly similar. The anticipation about what people have to say about the interface, whether they would like the films we are streaming or not. It’s a first of its kind attempt in this space and the success of the idea will certainly open up more avenues within the industry. We’ve been working tirelessly to get the nuances right. It’ll take time for us to know when it would break even when we could recover the marketing and the technical costs, but the vibes are extremely positive. I feel grateful to have a platform of my own, to be able to provide opportunities for producers to premiere their films.
What went into the creation of Regal Talkies and was its launch prompted by the situation owing to the pandemic?
Regal Talkies was an idea that was born in 2014 when crowds weren’t even exactly aware of what Netflix or Amazon Prime Video was all about. The platforms too were very niche in their appeal back then; with mostly English content. We tried to launch it back then, but we thought the move seemed too risky. However, we’ve been collecting market statistics, viewer data since then to understand the specifics of what would work for an OTT platform and what wouldn’t. I was very sure that people would hold onto it sooner or later. Of course, the lockdown situation gave us a strong reason to launch it in this hour.
What goes into deciding the one-time viewing price of a film? Is it all about affordability or does the content decide it?
One can never fix an ideal price for any content, everything that’s released is ultimately the brainchild of a creator. We felt it was unfair to decide a price on that basis. Our pricing strategy was rather about feasibility, it’s the best way to reach a common man. The price of our content begins at Rs 10.
How have the producers and distributors reacted to the developments with your platform?
Most of the producers and distributors aren’t sure about how this would work. There has been no benchmark or reference point for this in the past. I can, however, say everyone is curious about the responses. Everyone is waiting for me to release the number of viewers who have watched the film upon its release. Though they are sure this is indeed the future, there’s an element of cluelessness among them. There are a lot of questions in their mind, the answers lie in the numbers.
Do you think the Tamil-only nature of the platform works out in your favour?
For the time being, the platform caters to Tamil content. Unlike Amazon Prime that bought only two direct Tamil films in these months, we plan to premiere one Tamil film every two weeks. We hope to release 24 films directly on our platform every year in addition to 12 documentaries and short films as well. This selective focus on Tamil is definitely an advantage for us. We’ll be the first choice for Tamil-speaking lot. In the future, we plan to expand in many South Indian languages including Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. We’re leaving no stone unturned to help it become a multilingual platform in the times to come.
A lot of Tamil films despite their quality content end up being cost failures. What’s your take on it?
There are roughly 300-400 Tamil films that are produced every year. Out of them, only 100 of them are being produced by notable names in the industry. Most other films feature new filmmakers and are bankrolled by new producers hailing from different parts of the world, from Paris to Malaysia to London and Singapore as well. Most of them don’t have a complete understanding of how filmmaking, production and distribution work. The Tamil Film Producer’s Council has been running a knowledge centre that was created to help the new entrants understand the market, aspects that would help them come up with a successful film. No one is bothered to attend sessions organised by the centre or is having a keenness to learn from experts in the industry. No one wants to learn the ropes by being an associate in a production house for an entire film. Many producers after making one successful film feel that their wild guesses will always work in their favour. However, filmmaking involves a lot of logistics and is a lot beyond telling a good story, be it the casting or budgeting and the 24 crafts involved in the process. That’s the reason many films end up having budget issues and are costly failures.
How is it that you ended up being a successful producer despite your distinct taste for films?
For the film choices under my production house, I purely went by my instinct and trusted the story. Handling the logistics of a business, managing people is something that I’ve familiar with, since the age of five. The production aspect came to me naturally, be it the collaboration of so many people to make a particular sequence work or keeping all the arrangements ready for the execution or the packaging. Because I had command over these aspects, choosing a good story and making it work became easier.
How was your life before you entered films?
I come from a family that depended on tours and travels company for a living. My father has been running the company since 1967 and he’s been instrumental in organising several pilgrimage trips to locations like Kasi, Badrinath to name a few. I was very used to travelling to many locations since my early years. While they were organising trips within the country, I helped them organise international tours as well. I came to the industry only 10 years after my stint in the tourism industry.
As an experienced producer who turned a director with films like Maayavan and Gangs of Madras, you still faced issues with their releases. Are these the kind of difficulties that every producer-turned-director is bound to face?
I wouldn’t say it’s a problem that would have been faced by every producer who turns a director. It was more or less a personal struggle. Some of my decisions didn’t help my case. I roped in people who didn’t stand by their word with the finances. The financial backlogs kept multiplying over time and I had to step in to pay remunerations of the crew.
What do you think is the clincher when a producer has to choose between a premium platform like Netflix and a homegrown pay-per-view platform like yours?
Amazon Prime and Netflix have the world’s largest customer base. Given the wide spectrum of viewers they have, they either go for an outright buy or opt for a revenue-sharing model. Provided one opts for a revenue-sharing model, there’s not much that the producer is left with. After all the expenses he/she incurs on marketing, data charges on the platform, the share demanded by the curator (in helping the film reach the platform) in addition to the taxes, the producer barely gets Rs 4 or 5 lakh in his kitty. The promotion needs to be done by the producer too the film is bound to get a push only if it garners good viewership initially or otherwise bites the dust later. However, in our pay per view model, provided a film is priced at Rs 50 and about thousand people watch it, we only take 20 per cent of the returns beyond the taxes and give the rest to the producer. The amount that a producer gets out of a single viewing in Regal Talkies is similar to ten people watching it on Amazon. Things may seem nascent in our platform now, but we’re hopeful the numbers and the customer base we earn in the coming months would convince producers to come to us.
Is content creation going to be a challenge for platform owners?
I don’t think content creation will be an issue. The government may give us clearance to shoot in two months. Things have started changing for the better in Europe and people are shooting already, sports tournaments have begun, the dance halls have opened; content creation will begin again, it’s all a matter of time.
Have the mixed responses to Tamil films like Penguin and Ponmagal Vandhaal lessened the excitement surrounding direct-to-OTT releases?
I am not sure of how to respond to this. Just because someone likes a paratha over an idly or upma, it doesn’t mean people won’t eat the latter. No film can please everyone and can simply be tagged as good or bad; every story has a particular audience and it is aimed to reach them.
Is there any film under your production that you would have preferred to release directly on OTT?
Probably, films like Pizza, Soodhu Kavvum, Mundasupatti and Indru Netru Naalai. Frankly speaking, most of the films that I have produced would work well as direct-to-OTT releases, itâs, in fact, tailor-made for the digital medium. It’s even true that these films may have had greater viewership had they released on OTT directly.
How do you respond to the view that the renewed focus on the OTT platforms will last only till the opening of the theatres?
Regardless of OTT, theatre or television, everything boils down to the content you are going to give the audiences, how you’ve packaged and presented it. If it works with viewers, nothing else matters. I have seen films not featuring stars but has great content running to full houses. I have also seen star films without a great story that ran with packed houses for the morning show but hardly had any audiences for the later shows.
Interestingly, you’ve focused on yesteryear Tamil films in the platform as well. But isn’t it a disadvantage that most of those films are available for free on Youtube?
We have over 100+ films of the yesteryear era in our content library that are being uploaded daily. It makes sense to have older films in the application that the users would want to revisit at a given time. The old film too is a producer’s creation; making them available for free on a platform (like YouTube) without the producers getting a due share, is a form of exploitation the producers aren’t even aware of.
With a lot of small-budget films and medium-budget films shifting their focus towards OTT, do you think the theatrical releases would come down in the coming years?
There’s no chance that the films running at the theatres would reduce by any means. Theatrical business is evergreen and there’s always a good window for 200 films to run at theatres every year. There’s a good chance that the number of releases in a year would see a jump next year. Theatre and digital space are just different avenues for putting content out.