With Covid-19 bringing down curtains on theatrical experience, OTT is the new normal
As OTT platforms have come to the rescue of films that had a limited theatrical run, filmmakers across languages talk to us about this unexpected situation and future plans
It has been more than two weeks since India went into a precautionary lockdown to flatten the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic has created an unusual experience for humanity, with film industries being no exception. Theatres were shut down after mere hours of notice. Future releases were affected, but so were the newly released, across languages, which barely a run in theatres. With everyone hooked to streaming content, several producers and filmmakers tell us they are considering taking the OTT path, instead of waiting for theatres to reopen.
“For a film like Kaamyaab, the theatrical run gets usually limited to one or two weeks. After that, the show timings usually get disadvantageous. We are talking about, say, a single show at 11.45 pm… There were a lot of big films slated for March, so it would have been difficult to survive anyway,” says Hardik Mehta, director of Kaamyaab, which came out to positive reviews, and has now been made available on iTunes. The director rules out the possibility of a re-release. “It’s extremely difficult to gather distribution once again. The film industry has taken huge losses because of the lockdown and it will take a long time before things return to normal.”
This is a sentiment shared by Akash Srivatsa, director of the Kannada film, Shivaji Surathkal. The team hoped to get a re-release, but has now reconsidered its decision, due to the prevailing ambiguity. “We wanted to make it available for streaming after a completion of at least 75 days. Going by the current status, we are not sure how the entertainment industry will be after the lock-down period, and so we decided to get it out on OTT platform," says Akash, adding that the film will soon be available on Zee5.
Meanwhile, some films, like Ranjan Chandel’s Bamfaad, have opted for a direct digital release, which is starting to look like a viable option for small-budget films. “Sure, we were hoping for a theatrical release but for us, the important thing was to get the film the viewership it deserves. Instead of taking an emotional decision, we went ahead with an online release. Our film was made on a limited budget, so a digital release was sustainable.”
Even Malayalam films like Anjaam Pathira and Forensic, which were undecided about securing a digital partner, have now decided otherwise. "We managed to recover a little more than the overall budget in the two-week theatrical run, from both India and overseas, and given this response, we had plans to re-release it in theatres, in case the lockdown was lifted early. But now that it seems unlikely, we are considering a digital platform release," says Forensic director Akhil Paul. Varane Avasyamund, another recent Malayalam hit, will begin streaming on Netflix in a few weeks. Director Shambu Purushothaman also reveals that he is in talks with Netflix for his film, Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte, which, despite positive reviews, got taken out of theatres after a mere week.
The major concern for most stakeholders is the present ambiguity. With just a three-day run in theatres, Harish Kalyan-starrer Dharala Prabhu (the Tamil remake of Vicky Donor) has already hit the streaming sites. “This coronavirus situation is a unique case, unlike, say, a strike where things are clearer. We can’t really tell how people will consume entertainment going forward. Will they return to theatres, or stick to OTT platforms? It is early to discuss these things, but we are thinking,” says AK Anirudh, Executive Producer, Screen Scene Media, the producers of Dharala Prabhu. Director-producer Baalu Adusumilli agrees. “The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented shock and everyone is worried over an economic slump and financial setbacks.”
Anirudh adds that an additional factor— piracy —is also forcing filmmakers to take the OTT route. “Considering we still don't know when theatres will be opened, our other option is to wait this period out, but risk piracy running rampant.” Anirudh admits that the lack of a sustained theatrical run has caused a financial dent, but he still isn’t ruling out the possibility of a re-release. “Even though the film might be on streaming platforms, the theatre experience is different. Let’s see.”
Director Srividya Basava made the Telugu film, Madha, which got just a two-day run in theatres. “The film was made available on Amazon Prime (on April 8), and my mailbox, phone inbox and social media accounts are being flooded with appreciative messages,” he says. “We hope to have a re-release, when the situation settles down.”
Filmmakers remain largely in agreement that OTT platforms are helping taking their films to a wider audience. Krishna Nagappa who acted in, directed and also co-produced the Kannada film, Love Mocktail, says people who have streamed his film, are willing to pay the ticket price. “I initially thought they were not serious, but I still shared my account. Believe it or not, the response has been huge. The amount I have received through my film being made available on Amazon Prime, is equal to one theatre’s collection,” he says. Dhyan Atluri, producer of the Telugu film, Palasa 1978, shares a similar heartwarming experience. “We made a concept-based film featuring an all-new star cast. Those who have watched it on Amazon Prime have been sharing heartfelt messages appreciating our work.” Producer Krishna Chaitanya, whose Kannada film, Dia, has supposedly fetched rave reviews after it hit Amazon Prime, points the way forward. “OTT platforms are the best bet for newcomers to establish themselves. This will help them with future projects, and ready them for eventual theatrical releases.” For the moment though, it appears that we have a new normal.
(With inputs from Shilajit Mitra, Sajin Srijith, A Sharadhaa, Murali Krishna CH)