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The future of tamil film distribution

The recent surge in the releases of motion pictures in OTT platforms has made viewing of cinema accessible, but do they unveil the immersive quality of the medium. Can the audience experience the best of both worlds

Director Vasanthabalan belongs to a radical crop of filmmakers who attained the trinity of commercial success and critical acclaim at a time when a film's profitability depended on theatrical footfalls and piracy was less widespread. The director had expressed concerns over the future of  releasing small budgeted films in larger screens as every credible filmmaker has jumped to the streaming bandwagon to avoid the economics of theatrical distribution and a lack of creative freedom. One can sense a defeated tone in Mr Vasanthabalan's speech as the director's next film Jail, his venture after a gap of five years, is awaiting a release.

But filmmakers in the West are looking at this change rather positively. In a recent press conference, director Alfonso Cuaron hinted at the possibility of the lines blurring between theatrical and online release, as every filmmaker can now have the power to present their work in various platforms. This statement was  in response to a reporter who dubbed the universal acclaim and success of Cuaron's latest oscar nominated outing Roma as the “death of independent cinema”. Alfonso Cuaron also stated the Netflix release as a little push required for the film to be acknowledged as the Mexican film shot in black and white without the backing of top billed stars would not have found its audience beforehand had it been released theatrically sans the release in the streaming giant.

I do agree with the sentiments and some of the concerns posed by the reporter , as the widescreen photography and the immersive sound design that sucks you into the atmosphere of a seventies-era Mexico can be experienced up to its full potential only on a larger screen. And Alfonso Cuaron’s clout as a master filmmaker allows him to screen the film in various formats (The film is projected in both DCP and  70mm film in its theatrical viewing, for a digitally shot film). The same applied to the release of Bong Joon-Ho’s 2017 film Okja, a Netflix blockbuster that had a 35mm print running in the Quentin Tarantino owned  New Beverly cinema.

While the superstar filmmakers (particularly from the west) enjoy the privilege of option, the smaller voices, the films with shoestring budgets released on Netflix could not find even a limited theatrical footing, despite the fact that the makers of such films displayed an equally immersive and inspiring vision that eclipses their budget constraints. A shining, recent example of one such films was Soni, directed by Ivan Ayr. I had the privilege of watching the film at Mumbai Film Festival last year. The film’s unique staging of scenes commanded the undivided attention of the viewer ( Every scene is executed as a continuous shot ), thereby giving us plethora of audio-visual information without a change in perspective. This night sequences were tense and breathtaking when viewed inside a dark room  projected at a fifty foot screen. I felt that the same intensity was not translated on a six inch smartphone, and the film was reduced to an engaging watch.

I do hope that streaming platforms consider theatrical release as a medium of choice seriously, so that smaller films with bigger visions are atleast given a cosmetic release. This model of distribution can be achieved when streaming giants partner up with multiplex chains, which ensures that the film can have a nationwide reach within a limited set of screens. Such releases can also safeguard these films from the inevitable content explosion in OTT platforms.

On the heartening side, Soni wouldn’t have garnered the quantum of viewership and cost-cutting in terms of exhibition had it not been for an online release, even if it meant omitting its large-screen grandeur. By giving a power of choice, the filmmaker can take risks, as any film with a focused storytelling can find its own audience in the digital space, whilst magnifying their voices and visions stretched over the silverscreen in a dark room filled with an eager audience.

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