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The Complete Guide to Tamil Film Distribution in the UK & Top Ranking Stars

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When compared to the likes of USA, Malaysia and the UAE, the UK Tamil Cinema market does seem quite smaller in size. However, that’s not to say the UK market is poor by any means. Almost all major Tamil releases are screened in the UK and although 80% of them bomb or fail to make a profit. But still, distributors continue to release more and more films consistently in the hopes of hitting jackpot eventually.

Now, unlike the process involved for distributing a film in India, the UK scenario is different. In this article, I’ll explain how a distributor would release a film in the UK right from the very first step. My name is Ajay V, a UK based Tamil Cinema critic and trade analyst and since 2013, I’ve connected with several key people in the industry (in the UK) who have helped me get a better understanding of how distribution works.

To make the process easy to follow, we’ll split each part into bullet points:

  • The first step of any distribution would be for the distributor to acquire the UK release theatrical rights. In this example, we’ll use the leading distributor for Tamil films in the UK as of now – Ayngaran International. They will begin by procuring the theatrical rights from the producers of the film.
  • Once the rights have been secured and paperwork complete, the distributor would begin his plans to book locations and screens. This is usually done by contacting the cinema (also known as exhibitor) and letting them know about the film, expectations it has and anything else which would help convince the cinema to allot screens for it. The main cinema chains in the UK are Cineworld, Odeon and Vue.
  • At this stage, negotiations will happen between the distributor and the cinema regarding the % of earnings each party receives. Depending on negotiations, the distributor has several options ranging from minimum guarantee policies to percentage of ticket sales. The most common and simplest option in the UK is percentage of ticket sales – in which the distributor will agree to provide a certain % of gross to the exhibitor. The standard commission which exhibitors take is along the lines of 20-45% (depending on the film).

Just to clarify the process so far – distributor acquires rights from producer, distributor contacts different exhibitors to negotiate – and finally, a % split is agreed on. With me so far?

  • Now that the distributor has negotiated the % split with the exhibitor, the next expense are the virtual print fee (VPF) costs. In simple words, this is where the exhibitor will charge the distributor a fixed price to use their cinema projection kit to screen the film. The average price to for a single screening is approximately £400 (32K INR) – however this number can be a lot lower if the distributor has a proven track record of delivering successful films. Again, to confirm, it will cost approximately £400 for the distributor to show the film once at the chosen cinema. For example, a top cinema in London usually runs about 3-4 shows per day on average for a Tamil film. It will cost the distributor around £1500 just for the screening. This expense is paid to the cinema. Now, the distributor can calculate his budget and plan the most appropriate release size for the film. At times, the exhibitor may not have any availability of dates, and this is the reason why you sometimes see Tamil films in the UK releasing with a delay.

Next time you see your favourite stars movie in the UK releasing in very few locations.. think about what I said above. It is very expensive to screen a movie in the UK.. and each screening costs around £400. It is simply not feasible for the distributors to allocate maximum locations for a film which has no chance to break-even in the first place. 

  • So now the distributor has agreed on a % split and has also reserved a set # of locations/screens. The next step is censoring. The distributor will usually receive a copy of the film from the producer, which they can then submit to the BBFC (British Censors). It costs around £1000 (1L INR) to submit a film for censorship. After some time, the BBFC will get back to you with a certificate and the film’s final rating. If the distributor is happy with the final rating, he can proceed as usual. If not, they would need to make the necessary cuts and then request a revised rating (which costs around £300+ to censor a 2nd time).
  • The final step would be creating the prints (DCP) and delivering them to all the locations on time ready to screen. This is usually done by the distributor and a parcel delivery service (to deliver the DCP’s). Once the cinemas have the prints, they can begin screening the movie at the allotted times.
  • And at the end of the day, each cinema will report its daily gross to Rentrak/Comscore (box office data provider) which the distributor can use to track the performance of their film.

Got all of that?

In short, releasing a Tamil film in the UK is an extremely expensive process. This is the reason why there are so little distributors in the UK – as none have the required start up capital and risk/reward patience to succeed. Similarly, next time you see a film only releasing in 20 locations and not 50.. don’t complain about it. Instead, calculate the rough expenses in your head and try to see if it’s logical for the distributor to book any more locations. Remember, this is a business and one of the main objectives of it is to make a profit. Smaller actors in the UK such as Dhanush, SivaK, Karthi, etc will never have a release with 70+ locations (yet).. because it’s too costly and almost impossible to break-even. Only actors such as Vijay and Rajinikanth can get wider releases as they’re safer bets and there’s a higher chance of breaking even.

Speaking of all this, you’re probably wondering what films tasted success in the UK in 2016? Only 2..

Theri and Remo. Yup, that’s it.

Vijay’s Theri and Sivakarthikeyan’s Remo were the only 2 releases so far this year to have made a substantial amount of profit. Other releases such as Rajinikanth’s Kabali were average at best and the remainder of films either bombed or failed to break-even.

All eyes will now be on Suriya’s Singam 3 to cash in at the box office and of course, we’ll all be waiting for the magnum opus, “2.0” to hit the screens later next year.

Written by Ajay V

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