Cinema comes home: With the increase in digital releases, producers divided over pay-per-view model
How effective is the pay-per-view model for Indian cinema? Filmmakers like CV Kumar and Mukesh Mehta weigh in
In 2013, Kamal Haasan sought a direct DTH release for his film, Vishwaroopam. After meeting with stiff resistance from theatre owners, the actor-director had to drop the idea. Seven years later, it’s a different story. With theatres—until recently—being shut for months, filmmakers have had to experiment with digital releases. Pay-per-view (PPV) is a model that came into fashion after Zee launched Zee Plex with films such as Ka Pae Ranasingam and Khaali Peeli. It is the closest available alternative to a theatrical release as viewers do not have to subscribe for a fixed period and can instead just pay for the movie they want to watch. The question is: what are the returns for the producer?
Producer CV Kumar, who began the PPV platform Regal Talkies, strongly believes that the pay-per-view model is the future. “There are so many platforms right now, and with pay-per-view, people are saved from having to subscribe for a month to watch a film,” he says, adding that a good film, when marketed well, can comfortably earn its theatrical revenue on PPV. Also, while a normal digital release would require that the producer sell the film, a PPV model gives the producer more options. “In the case of a normal digital release, the producer has no risk and no share. But with PPV, there is a risk but there’s a share as well. The system will stop yielding returns after some time, and the producer can go on to explore other options like satellite revenue, etc,” he adds. However, Kumar believes the industry will take time to warm up to this model. He says, “Right now, piracy and other issues are clouding its potential.”
Producer Mukesh Mehta, whose Varmaa hit streaming platforms recently and was made available under the PPV model, agrees with Kumar. “When a film awaiting its local release is showcased abroad, a pirated version immediately hits the internet. So long as piracy exists, people will choose to download illegal copies,” he rues. While the producer can opt for a revenue-sharing agreement in a PPV model, Mehta argues the terms are up to the platform the arrangement is made with. In the case of Khaali Peeli, it was a package deal. The price of the ticket and the model were both chosen by the platform.
“When it comes to Zee Plex, the film will automatically go to Zee5. We knew that the film would end up in their archives,” says producer Abbas Ali Zafar. He agrees that the PPV system is the closest option right now to the theatre model. “We have the opportunity of knowing how many people watch it on Day 1, as opposed to traditional OTT releases,” he says, but adds that it is too early to make a call on its efficacy. “Whether it will become a sustainable option depends on several factors—the type of film, and the occupancy and duration of theatre runs,” he says.
While most in the industry are all for the PPV model, producer Dhananjayan calls it “dangerous and risky for producers”. “Unless the film is extremely interesting and has a certain hype, it becomes a risky proposition. For example, Ka Pae Ranasingam was sold to Zee5 and they decided what to do with it. They marketed it well as it was their film. Do you think the platform will spend the same on every film they get?” he asks. He further adds that for the viewer, the return on investment is higher with existing subscription-based streaming platforms. “A yearly subscription to Amazon Prime costs Rs 999, and they premiere 15-20 films. The newer films are free for existing subscribers. But here, for one film, the viewer needs to pay Rs 200. This will naturally affect the number of viewers,” he says, adding, “At least with a normal digital release, I don’t have to be worried. There is also a longer window to watch the film for the viewer.”
So in the ‘new normal’, will digital-only releases continue? Or will it be a simultaneous run with a theatrical release? Mehta, Dhananjayan, and Kumar unanimously rule out this possibility. “Theatre owners do not see PPV as an additional model to theatres. They will not agree to exhibit films that are available for a digital premiere,” says Mehta. But Kumar is hopeful and believes that the larger players will eventually step into PPV as well. Whatever the model, looks like a win-win situation for the viewer.