The changing identity of the theatre film
With OTT platforms having really come into their own, industry insiders speak to us on how the very understanding of what defines a ‘theatre film’ seems to be undergoing a change
Up until very recently, a film automatically meant a ‘theatre film’. Even if you saw it on television later, there remained no doubt that these were made for the theatre, keeping in mind the atmosphere and the facilities within. And yet, following the arrival of OTT platforms—accelerated by the pandemic—it appears that the situation is delicately poised now. The stakeholders need to be really, really convinced about the ‘theatre potential’ of a film, if they are to resist the obvious temptation of selling the release rights to a streaming platform. Last year saw some fairly enjoyable theatre experiences in the form of Krack, Master, Doctor, Pushpa: The Rise, and Spiderman: No Way Home, even while OTT platforms kept the releases ticking alongside.
Tamil producer SR Prabhu believes that the distinction between OTT and theatre films is real now, and more visible than ever. “The budget of the film plays a big part. Sometimes, we can tell that a film won't pull audiences into the theatres,” he says. And that’s why you largely see the small and medium budget films making it to OTT platforms, as it’s believed that the financials enable such releases to be profitable for the stakeholders.
Vivek Ramadevan, an entertainment and marketing consultant, believes that theatre-going habits have changed. "Even before the pandemic, studies showed that footfalls in theatres were dropping, except, say in the Telugu market, where the theatre culture is still strong. With the arrival of OTT platforms, people realised that they could just wait a while before being able to catch films at home.”
And this is why the industry seems to be demarcating between what constitutes a theatre film and what doesn’t. Saagar K Chandra, the director of the upcoming star vehicle, Bheemla Nayak, starring Pawan Kalyan and Rana Daggubati, sees larger-than-life characters as being an important part of the theatre film. “Such characters add to the cinematic experience," he says. Director Chimbudevan, whose hyperlink film Kasada Tapara made its way to SonyLIV, believes that content that can succeed across languages is better suited for OTT platforms. “Squid Game, for instance, went viral, despite being a series rooted in the ethos of Korea. That’s because the theme is universal," he says.
Dhananjayan, formerly a part of Sony LIV's selection committee, shares that OTT platforms prioritise content that they believe will generate ‘conversation’. "Tamil films like Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam, Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, Mandela, and Aelay all come under this category." And while it’s generally believed that star vehicles are appropriate for theatres, he adds that OTT players are also keen on their presence in their content. This causes concern, according to Bollywood director Kunal Kohli. “Where will new talents emerge then? If OTT players too want the established stars, how are we going to develop new talent?” But that’s a discussion for another day. What’s clear though is that everyone wants a piece of the pie when stars are involved.
Rakesh, the proprietor of Vettri Theatres, Chennai, sees the ‘mood of a film’ as being an essential factor in this conversation. “Look at theatre films like Master, Doctor, Pushpa: The Rise, Spiderman: No Way Home… You will see that they were either star vehicles or were films that prioritised conventional entertainment. Films with dark and sad themes are better suited for OTT platforms,” he believes.
Filmmaker Pawan Kumar, whose Telugu sci-fi thriller, Kudi Yedamaithe, got released on Aha, distinguishes OTT and theatre films as 'personal' and as 'larger-than-life', respectively. In ‘larger-than-life films’, there is an emphasis on ‘theatre moments’—like a rousing interval block, for instance. "You can see this in the response to films like Pushpa. The importance of a star seems to be getting bigger, and perhaps we might even see a change in what is thought of as a star film," producer Dhananjayan says. He may well be speaking of how Pushpa: The Rise, despite being a star vehicle, still plays with character morality, and digs deep into a criminal operation like red sanders smuggling.
Director Kunal, whose Lahore Confidential found its way to Zee5, and whose Ramyug, despite being conceived for theatres, got released as a series in MX Player, hopes that content will not be segregated on the basis of budget. And like him, many other filmmakers have been at the receiving end of last-minute decisions to change the platform of release. Director Chimbudevan agrees that there isn’t much clarity for filmmakers while a film is being made. “Sometimes, decisions are taken even after the censor clearance. It’s hard for us filmmakers to write content, as the experience differs dramatically based on how it’s consumed. It helps when OTT platforms sign direct deals with the creator and fund a film,” says the director.
And it is for lack of such transparency in decision-making that we end up with theatre moments playing out underwhelmingly on our television screens. Karthik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thanthiram, starring Dhanush, which came out on Netflix, is a good example of this. Consultant Vivek Ramadevan believes that if the filmmakers had assurances on where their work would come out, they could design the experience accordingly. Actor Roshan Mathew, who starred in Anurag Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, speaks of how the team knew that the film would be an OTT release right from the word go. “That wasn't the case with my Malayalam film, CU Soon, though (which came out on Amazon Prime). I find that OTT releases offer more freedom," he says. Incidentally, Fahadh Faasil, also a part of CU Soon, had been quoted saying that the OTT version was quite different from what was planned for the theatre version, and even suggested that plans could be in place to have another version released separately in theatres.
The coming year will tell us more, what with star vehicles like Valimai, RRR, and KGF 2, which were all conceived before the pandemic, set to come out. As Chimbudevan says, "It's all evolution. From drama came silent movies, and then came the talkies, cinemascope, and so on. I believe that the distinction between OTT content and theatre films will become more visible in the future.”