In the 1980s and ’90s, the biggest Tamil distributor in overseas territories was Ayngaran International. A-list productions were traded in lakhs, and many of them had an extended run on the VHS circuit.
The scene has dramatically changed in recent years with the expansion of existing markets and the addition of new ones. Since the 1990s, films have been earning a considerable amount of revenue from territories outside Tamil Nadu. Pa Ranjith’s Kabali, starring Rajinikanth, has reportedly mopped up gross earnings of Rs 500 crore as of August 5 in domestic and international markets. (This figure includes pre-release sales such as theatrical and international rights.) The American distributor CineGalaxy claims impressive collections of USD 4.2 million within the first week of release in the USA and Canada, said the company’s co-owner, Sanjay Dusari. “We leveraged the film’s hype and star power to the full extent and opened more premieres across the country and collected USD 2 million (around Rs 13 crore) just from the premieres alone,” Dusari said.
It’s a far cry from and several crores upwards of the late 1980s. “In 1988, I sold my first movie as a producer, the Vijayakanth project Senthoora Poove, for Rs 4 lakh abroad,” said K Vijayakumar, executive producer of Ayngaran International Film and Media Private Limited. “At that time it was good money. The VHS home video market was also pretty good at that time.”
Guru Sishyan, the Rajinikanth-Prabhu starrer that was also released in 1988, did a business of just about a lakh of rupees. The film’s distributor had acquired its overseas rights for Rs 60,000. The Kamal Haasan starrer Apoorva Sahodarargal sold in 1989 for about Rs 1.5 lakh – indicative of the time when Haasan’s movies fared better with the Tamil diaspora than Rajinikanth titles. It would take Rajinikanth two decades to catch up.
Tamil films are typically released in eight major overseas territories: Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and the United States of America. Kabali has added two more territories to the list – Mexico and the Philippines.
“Even before the ’80s, the foreign markets were called Far East, meaning Malaysia Singapore and Sri Lanka, the Middle East and South East, and this is still the commonly used term for overseas markets,” explained Vijayakumar.
The international territory map started expanding considerably in the ’90s. Trade experts attribute this growth partly to the political unrest in neighbouring Sri Lanka. Scores of Sri Lankan Tamilians migrated to Canada and countries in Europe, and they have since emerged as the largest audience for Tamil films globally. “The entire Tamil film market overseas is dependent on Sri Lankan Tamils who had relocated to different parts of the world, not on people from Tamil Nadu or other states in India,” Vijaykumar explained.
These audiences also warmed to the directors and actors who were making their mark during this decade. “Around this time, there were several stars in the Tamil film industry, such as Vijayakanth, Karthik and Prabhu,” Vijayakumar said. “Mani Ratnam made Roja, and Shankar Gentleman in the early ’90s. Vijay and Ajith too emerged as stars around the latter part of the decade.”
A rate card emerged around the marquee names. In the early 1990s, the overseas rights of Rajinikanth’s Pandian and Yejaman were sold for Rs 6 lakh each, said a distributor who bought their rights on the condition of anonymity. According to Vijayakumar, Vijayakanth films between 1994 and 1996 were picked up by Ayngaran for around Rs 45 lakh. Karthik’s movies fetched between Rs 35-40 lakh. Mani Ratham’s Iruvar was sold for around Rs 50 lakh in 1997.
The Prashanth-Simran starrer Kannedhirey Thondrinaal sold for Rs 32 lakh in 1998. In 1996, the overseas rights of Vijay’s Poove Unakkaga was sold for Rs 30-32 lakh, and by 1998, the screen icon’s prospects had improved. Kadhalukku Mariyadhai and Thullatha Manamum Thullum sold for around Rs 45-50 lakh.
It took the double star power of director Shankar and actor Kamal Haasan to break the overseas price record. The rights to distribute Indian went for Rs 1 crore in 1996.
By 2001, distributor and producer Kalaippuli S Thanu had started unbundling overseas territorial rights and selling them separately. “I sold Aalavandhan for Rs 3 crore abroad, while Kandukondain Kandukondain went for Rs 1.3 crore,” Thanu said. The foreign territories took their time to match the adventurism of the buyers. Up until 2008, a movie starring Vijay or Ajith movie would earn not more than Rs 3 crore, said a leading overseas distributor.
Rajinikanth also emerged as one of the most saleable names during this decade. In 1998 Rajinikanth’s 1995 Tamil hit Muthu was dubbed and released in Japan as Muthu – The Odoru Maharaja (Muthu – The Dancing Maharaja.) The film turned out to be a huge success, with more than a million Japanese queuing up to watch it. However subsequent Tamil films, including Rajinikanth starrers, have been unable to replicate this success in Japan.
Once again, star director Shankar played a pivotal role in boosting the international business of Tamil films. In 2007, the international rights for Shankar’s Sivaji, starring Rajinikanth, were sold for around Rs 10 crore. Distributors shelled out the unheard of sum of Rs 22 crore for the overseas rights of Shankar’s next collaboration with Rajinikanth, Endhiran, in 2010. Endhiran grossed over Rs 61 crore worldwide, holding the box office record for a long time.
Digitisation of film distribution has also boosted the overseas trade immensely, observed Vijayakumar. “Digitisation is the most important thing that has changed the trade,” he said. “The logistics have been made simpler now. Earlier when we had to export film prints, one box of film reel would weigh almost 40 kilos. There were eight or nine reels of such boxes. Now all we need is a hard disc,” he said.
The reception towards Tamil cinema, like Hindi and Telugu cinema, depends greatly on the presence of dependable stars, among them Ajith, Vijay and Suriya. “The price of a Rajinikanth film will be double of that of a Vijay film, but if there’s a combination like Vikram and Shankar, it will be priced higher than a Vijay film, yet lower than that of a Rajinikanth film,” an overseas distributor explained. “While Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ajith, Vijay and Suriya are the top grossers abroad, directors like Shankar and Mani Ratnam have their own star power.”
There’s a limit to the driving power of star vehicles. “Star power brings movie patrons to theatres, but good content is the key,” said Madhu Garlapati, the co-owner of CineGalaxy. “Clean entertainers work more over here.”
The hunt for newer territories has expanded to the lucrative Chinese market. The makers of the sequel to Shankar’s 2.0, the sequel to Endhiran, are hoping to make a dent in China, which is divided between local and Hollywood fare. Rajinikanth wooed the Japanese several years ago. Will the Chinese be next?