The release of actor Joseph Vijay’s Leo, directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj and produced by S.S. Lalit Kumar and Seven Screen Studio, on October 19 following a case in the Madras High Court has exposed the ingenious workaround created by exhibitors and distributors to overcome the Tamil Nadu government’s leash on the business of the film industry.
Since January 2023, the State government has denied permission for early morning shows citing law-and-order concerns. Two weeks ago, the State government passed an order stating that theatres can hold one extra show (a fifth show) for Leo every day for six days starting October 19 given the high demand. The order said the first show could be screened at 9 a.m. Seven Screen Studio approached the Madras High Court seeking a direction to the State government to permit a special 4 a.m. show on the day of the film’s release and to permit five shows a day from 7 a.m. (instead of 9 a.m.) between October 19 and 24.
In the last few decades, the exhibition and distribution business has changed dramatically. Thanks to digital cinema, the distribution of Tamil films across the world is now possible at a reasonable cost. But this has also meant that distributors and exhibitors have to make their money within the first few days before possible negative reviews succeed in changing the fortunes of a film.
Leading distributors say that early morning shows were started to enable students and young office-goers to watch the ‘first day, first show’ of films starring their favourite actors without having to take a day off. However, the 4 a.m. shows became an opportunity for fans to “celebrate” the release of such films, making this a uniquely Tamil Nadu phenomenon. TV channels would often report on the celebrations during the release of films featuring big stars, especially Rajinikanth.
While there was tremendous demand from fans to watch the ‘first day, first show,’ the ticket price of around ₹215 in a multiplex, and lower in tier II cities, could not be justified in the marketplace. Many people in the industry say the early morning shows, screened in about 50 single-screen theatres in Tamil Nadu, were a way of resolving this market anomaly. Prices higher than what was mandated by the State government were charged from fans who were willing to pay a premium.
Distributors say that a film with a big star would make ₹50 lakh to ₹1 crore per special show. If the theatres were allowed to screen 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. shows for Leo, industry estimates suggest that distributors could have made ₹2 crore-₹3 crore from special shows alone. In the absence of special shows, the producer of Leo sought a higher share in the revenue from theatres.
Successive State governments have looked the other way regarding early morning shows. But reports of theatres selling tickets at exorbitant prices, the unruly behaviour of fans (milkmen have complained that fans stole their milk to pour on actors’ cut-outs), and consequent traffic issues may have forced the hand of the State government to regulate this phenomenon.
The final nail in the coffin came when Vijay’s Varisu and actor Ajith’s Thunivu released on the same day in January. The death of a fan and the congregation of a large number of fans of both the popular actors together inside the theatres reportedly caused a situation which could have led to a State-wide law-and-order issue. This is one of the reasons why the government appears to have refused the request of Seven Screen Studio to allow a 4 a.m. show and to start regular shows at 7 a.m.
In a written response, Home Secretary P. Amudha explained the government’s decision taking into account the views of the Commissioner of Revenue Administration (CRA) and the Director General of Police (DGP). The CRA said that there was a possibility that overcrowding and traffic congestion could affect public safety if the movie was allowed to be screened before 9 a.m. The DGP said that if shows were permitted from 7 a.m. onwards, the police would have to provide security from 5 a.m. Despite the government’s insistence that shows be screened from 9 a.m., some theatres sold tickets for as high as ₹1,000 for Leo for the first show.
The future of special shows appears to be bleak. But many in the industry hope that the State government will agree to their long-pending demand of introducing flexible ticket pricing. This will help meet the demand from fans for ‘first shows’ while also increasing the government’s tax receipts.