The power of the stars continues to drive Mollywood

Even before we have reached the middle of this year, the creators of two Mollywood films: Lucifer & Mature raja – have already claimed that the movies have done Rs 200 Cr & Rs 100 Cr business in the box office, respectively. While industry insiders largely refute the “exaggerated figures”, we take stock of how Mollywood is performing & if smaller films have a larger impact compared to the behemoths.

Till now, 71 movies have hit theatres in 2019 & only less than 10 have managed to recover the revenue, says M C Bobby, secretary of the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK). “Among these, only four films have gone on to provide big revenue to the theatres,” he says. From Kerala theatres alone, Mohanlal ’s Lucifer made Rs 40 Cr, Mommy ’s Mature raja Rs 10 Cr, Dileep’s Kodathi Samaksham Balan Vakeel Rs 10 Cr & Fahadh Faasil’s Nights of Kumbalangi Rs 9 Cr, with Njan Prakashan that released in the last week of December 2018, collecting Rs 15 Cr, according to sources from the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC), Kerala Film Producers Association (KFPA) & FEUOK.

Film Employees Federation of Kerala official & director B Unnikrishnan says, “The industry is on a high right now. The main reason being that the films of three superstars – Mohanlal , Mommy & Dileep – have gone to become commercial successes. Even for a movie like Nights of Kumbalangi to collect Rs 9 Cr from Kerala is a big thing.”

Smaller movies vs. Big budget vehicles, driven by stars.

The filmmaker says that this trend shows that the superstars have not yet finished. Many of the smaller films that have been released this year may have recovered their expenses, but the owners of the theaters make more money with the big movies, he says. A positive trend is that those exhibitors who have refused to play smaller films like June, are now willing to give them a longer career in theaters because they know that if the content is good, it will bring them money.

In 2019, among the smaller films, Nights of Kumbalangi , Vijay Superum Pournamiyum, June & Ishq are those that can be termed hits, says KFPA official G Suresh Kumar. “Smaller films do not have the initial pull that a star-driven movie does. Usually, even if such films are good, it takes a few days for people to come in to the theatres. Also, these films are played in smaller centres first & only if it passes the initial litmus test do bigger centres take them up,” says Suresh Kumar. “This year, even Oru Yamandan Premakatha, which had a star in the lead, too didn’t get the initial revenue we were expecting, but it slowly recovered.”

In sight of this trend, the KFPA official is all praise for Njan Prakashan’s box office earnings. “It has to do with veteran Sathyan Anthikad’s magic. He makes his film with a limited budget compared to other current crop of filmmakers & its impact is there to be seen in the box office.”

Suresh Kumar however says that smaller films will keep being made irrespective of them going on to become hits. “Two days ago, KFPA cleared 27 projects. As long as there are people ready to invest Rs 40 lakh to Rs 1 Cr, these films will be made & will serve as the oil to the industry’s machinery, but it’s the stars that drive the industry,” he says.

The boom of the digital revenue channel.

A major development that is sure to aid bigger projects, however, is the digital rights revenue to stream Malayalam films on OTT platforms, in addition to that gained by satellite rights. Industry insiders say currently Mohanlal ’s films fetch Rs 7 Cr - 8 Cr in digital rights while those for other actors are below Rs 3 Cr. Lucifer ’s digital rights alone were sold for Rs 9 Cr & its satellite rights for Rs 8 Cr, says a source in the know.

The digital rights though could have a bearing on the prices of the satellite rights as well as theatres, as the movies are streamed within a prescribed time of it being released in theatres & ahead of its TV premiere. B Unnikrishnan, however, is positive that both digital & satellite rights will fetch high prices. “Mikhael was released on an OTT platform soon after its January release & only shown on TV last month. Even then, it got peak ratings,” he says.

While Mikhael’s tepid box office performance made sense for an earlier OTT release, Lucifer ’s web premiere left many theatre owners miffed. The film’s director Prithviraj says, “That’s a trade off in the sense that digital rights is something that will have be explored more in Malayalam. I got a lot of messages from theatre owners saying that the film is still doing quite well & tickets were all selling out. But, let us just say that having made an expensive product & the kind of revenue that Lucifer ’s digital rights generated, in terms of business it makes complete sense.”

Again, it’s big budget films that score more in digital rights, says B Unnikrishnan. “However, digital players are also interested in young people’s content & pay reasonably well for that because their medium addresses the younger crowd,” he explains.

The race for Rs 200 Cr box office receipts

With more big budget films, such Maamaankam & Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, in production, the race for crossing the Rs 200 Cr mark is now on. But how true are the box office figures of films like Lucifer & Mature raja ? Both Suresh Kumar & KFCC official Anil V Thomas say, “They are highly exaggerated.”

“For a movie to make Rs 200 Cr in the box office, the producer should have earned at least Rs 60-65 crore from Kerala theatres. That’s highly doubtful. Both Lucifer & Mature raja have not done as much business as they claim,” says Suresh Kumar.

But it's not just Kerala revenue that ramped up Lucifer's revenue, which has realistically only crossed Rs 150Cr, according to sources from KFCC.

Prithviraj had earlier told us that the makers of the film had “opted for something like a distribution deal” in lieu of selling the overseas rights for an outright amount. “The film has done phenomenal numbers outside India & serious revenue came back to the producer from that. The money that came from outside India was an eye-opener,” the actor-director explained.

As for the makers of superstar films being quick to claim exaggerated revenue figures, Suresh Kumar says, “It’s just a marketing gimmick for the stars to command better monetary value for their next project & up their brand value.”