Theatres vs OTT: Who’s winning the movie war?
With cinemas shuttered due to COVID-19 and producers opting for digital platforms, skipping traditional routes, we speak to industry players about the ongoing rift
The debate over direct-to-digital releases has split the movie industry. Last week, it was announced that Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, will premiere directly on Amazon Prime Video on June 12. It will be joined by the Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi on the same platform. Additionally, Amazon has acquired regional titles like the Jyotika-starrer Ponmagal Vandhal, along with four others, for digital premieres. It’s also speculated that several films, including Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb and Karan Johar’s Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl, are in advanced stages of digital deals.
The trend has drawn criticism from theatre owners and exhibitors across India. While multiplex chain INOX spoke of ‘retributive measures’ in a statement, PVR urged producers to hold their films until cinemas reopen. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu Theatre And Multiplex Owners’ Association had expressed its displeasure over Ponmagal Vandhal, threatening to ban films by Suriya and his company 2D Entertainment.
“We are disappointed because we have huge investments in infrastructure,” says Mohan Umrotkar, CEO of Carnival Cinemas, which has over 450 operational screens across India. “In addition to revenue, the exhibition sector creates employment for around 2 lakh people. If this trend continues, there will be reason to worry.” According to Mohan, the Indian box-office generates yearly revenue of Rs 10-15,000 crore. With theatres remaining indefinitely shut, a quarter of that business is lost. The situation isn’t helped by potential earners skipping the theatrical release. “With Gulabo Sitabo and Shakuntala Devi going to OTT, we are looking at an additional loss of Rs 100-125 crore.”
Mohan, however, insists the situation is temporary. “These are extraordinary circumstances brought on by a global health crisis. So we understand if producers are trying to recover costs and pay off interests. It’s historically proven that streaming cannot match the theatrical business. I’m sure once the lockdown is lifted, the industry will be with us.”
Predominantly, Bollywood has maintained the eight-week window between theatrical and digital releases. That won’t be the case anymore with producers unwilling to wait out the lockdown. “If a producer wants to sell his film to OTT, there’s nothing we can do to stop that,” says Manoj Desai, executive director of G7 Multiplex and Maratha Mandir cinema in Mumbai. “At present, there’s no clarity when theatres will reopen and with what measures. We are all waiting for this crisis to subside.”
While acknowledging the plight of producers, Manoj says the theatrical experience is irreplaceable. “The films being moved to OTT were made for theatrical viewing. They cannot be watched on your phone. I’m assured that a big-screen offering like Akshay Kumar’s Sooryanvashi won’t go for a digital release.”
Last month, the Hindi films Bamfaad and Ateet were released on ZEE5. The platform is now premiering Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s long-delayed comedy, Ghoomketu on May 22.
“Since inception, our goal has been to consistently entertain the audience,” says Aparna Acharekar, Programming Head, ZEE5 India. “Over the last two months, we have introduced new movies and shows as part of our #BeCalmBeEntertained initiative. In addition to this, we have also acquired blockbuster films across languages with diverse topics. This includes a mix of free and premium content.”
The digital release of feature films isn’t new. According to the 2020 FICCI-EY report, around 50 small and low budget films were released directly on OTT in India in 2019. Streaming subscription revenues also grew by over 100 per cent in the last year. While theatres still drew the maximum footfalls, the advent of streaming has been palpable.
“For small films with less saleable names, OTT guarantees a wider audience. They can also save on print and advertising costs. A theatrical release is an expensive affair for them, with declined distributors’ interest,” says Sushil Kumar Agrawal, CEO of Ultra Media & Entertainment Group, a major content acquisition and film distribution company.
He adds that while the trend has helped one kind of cinema survive, it’s implications for the larger business is daunting. “OTT premieres can save the day for smaller films but it could hit the exhibition industry hard,” Sushilkumar says. “With people not visiting theatres for the past two months, and the reopening of the theatres indefinitely delayed, coupled with social distancing norms making the footfalls sporadic, the sector will be affected for a long time.”
Mohan expects business to resume by July, albeit at partial capacity. Seating arrangements and sanitisation measures will have to be reworked according to government guidelines. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand among cine-goers who are cooped up at home and would like a safe outing,” he says.
Sushil Kumar is less hopeful. “If the number of positive cases reduces by July, then we can expect some kind of normalcy by September-October. People across the world will still be cautious for the whole of 2020 and they will increasingly embrace digital entertainment modes. Film shootings have been postponed globally, and hence the completion and exhibition will be delayed.”
The theatrical-OTT rift is felt across the supply chain. Film promotions have shrunk from lavish affairs to webinars and telephonic interviews. Marketers are forced to rethink strategies in the digital-only scenario. This, in turn, has benefited digital media firms operating through the crisis. “Digital media consumption has increased as most of us are glued to our devices,” says Gautam B Thakker, chief employee at Everymedia Technologies. “This has several advantages including established digital distribution channels, content exclusivity, and no pre-existing theatrical relationships. A digital release is a different game and every film has a unique strategy to stand out.”
Still, Gautam agrees the exhibition model will endure. “Theatres have faced challenges before with the advent of VCRs, VCD, and DVDs. Now streaming platforms are here. The truth is that we all enjoy going to the theatres which is something that will never change.”