Battle between theatre owners and OTT players intensify over movie releases

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on May 15, 2020

The average time spent on OTT platforms in India is 70 minutes per day, said the report

But this could be a temporary phase as cinema offers larger than life experience, say experts

Even as the battle between movie theatre owners and video streaming applications intensified after Amazon announced 7 new movies to be premièred on Prime, experts said this will be a temporary phase, owing to the coronavirus pandemic and the changes it is necessitating. This is akin to how people prophesied the death of theatres back when televisions emerged, they said, pointing out that, if anything, there will be a coexistence of theatres and over-the-top platforms when it comes to movie releases.

“The cinema offers a larger than life experience. That cannot be replicated easily by television or OTT platforms. Films can be seen by several means. However, going to the cinema hall adds an important dimension - it becomes a social occasion and a collective experience. The OTT platforms will clearly not match up with that,” veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal told BusinessLine. OTT platforms cannot possibly replace theatrical releases, he added.

Such OTT releases are going to coexist with theatrical releases, said Kabir Khan, director of movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. “I think people are very quick to talk about the death of theatres at every given point. I think we witnessed this when TVs came out, when VCRs came out, and when the DVD evolution happened - leading to theories that people will stop going to theatres. But, there is a certain magic of cinemas - there is definitely something about walking into a dark theatre with some 400 people and watching a film together - that’s never going to go away,” he explained.

This coexistence has always been prevalent, said Onir, film and TV director, who won the National Award for his film 'I Am', drawing attention to original movies already released by OTT platforms, as well as telefilms.

Benegal drew attention to how such changes in formats have been happening for decades. “It has been going on for the last 60 years, or maybe more. First came the cinemascope in order to get people to come into the cinemas. Once the television came... in order to attract people to come into the theatres, you started having a much bigger screen size, better sound system etc...”

But, this new development of seven new movies premiering on OTT platforms happens at a time when exhibitors have already been left reeling amid the social distancing measures necessitated by the pandemic, leaving previously bustling cinema halls resembling ghost towns.

Mohan Umrotkar, CEO Carnival Cinemas, feels that this would be a temporary phase, accruing from the exceptional circumstances we are currently faced with due to the coronavirus pandemic. The overall collection from theatrical releases also far surpass what is garnered by directly releasing movies on OTT platforms, he said.

“Given the uncertainty about when theatres will re-open across India and how audiences will respond given social distancing precautions, studios have been left with little choice but to explore releasing their films on OTT platforms, if they are getting a profitable deal,” said Shailesh Kapoor, Founder & CEO, Ormax Media, a media consulting firm.

OTT platforms like Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar will be seeking such content actively, as they are in an aggressive expansion mode in India, he added.

While the bigger films like Sooryavanshi, 83 and Radhe will wait for theatres to open, the mid-range and smaller films will be tempted to opt for a lucrative OTT deal, said Kapoor. “I believe studios are doing this reluctantly for mid-range and small films, out of no choice. No producer, director or actor who has made a film for the big screen would not want a release for it in theatres. But, the situation is inevitable,” he explained.

“This is a ‘short-term opportunity’ in a unique situation. Eventually, theatres and OTT will have to learn to co-exist because it is the consumer mandate, and we have to be where the consumer is. It is similar to a new wave of films being produced in a particular industry or when theatres had to be re-imagined from a single-screen experience to multiplexes,” said Aparna Acharekar, Programming Head, ZEE5 India.

Following the announcement of the upcoming premiere of Shoojit Sircar’s Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana starrer Gulabo Sitabo, Amazon Prime Video further went on to announce the premier of six other films, spanning different languages, which will be available in 200 countries and territories worldwide. It is bringing the cinematic experience to people’s doorstep, it claimed.

Multiplex chain INOX issued a strongly worded statement, expressing “extreme displeasure and disappointment”. “The decision of the production house to deviate from the globally prevalent content windowing practice is alarming and disconcerting.”

“...INOX will be constrained to examine its options, and reserves all rights, including taking retributive measures, in dealing with such fair-weather friends,” it further stated. It also urged content creators to not skip the theatrical run, and stay with the age old and established windowing pattern, “which is in the best interests of all stakeholders in the value chain”.

“We are disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to streaming platform/s. We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopened,” said Kamal Gainchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures.However, this is not the first time films are being premiered on streaming platforms, he added.

“Cinema exhibition has regularly faced competition from new emerging distribution platforms over the last many years, and it has continued to enjoy cine goers patronage and affinity,” said Gainchandani. The theatrical release is the best way for audiences to experience the labour and creative genius of filmmakers, he added.

Though multiplexes are grappling due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, the producers cannot be blamed for opting for a direct release on the OTT platform, said Khan.

As of now, Khan has decided to hold onto theatrical releases instead of opting to release on OTT platforms. But, he drew attention to the plight of many who can’t afford to do the same. Holding on to films involves a cost, he pointed out. “They might feel it is better for them to cut their losses that accrue from holding on to films for months,” he said.

“I think when you come out of this (pandemic), maybe, there will be a greater number of films that will decide to go through OTT platforms because people will realise that there are a lot of people watching films that way, but, theatrical releases are here to say,” said Khan.

Onir echoed similar views, drawing on the analogy of the coexistence of restaurants and home delivery services of food, to emphasise his point. “I don’t think this will be the situation for eternity, it can’t be. After a year or however long it takes, we will be back to theatres.” He also found the response of exhibitors unfair, saying that the current situation calls for more flexibility on their part.

Exhibitors are upset because they feel studios are taking these decisions without keeping the exhibitors’ interest in mind, Kapoor pointed out. “But I don’t believe exhibitors have much to worry about in the long run,” he said.

Umrotkar also feels this would be a temporary situation. He is hopeful, similar to what INOX and PVR said in their statements, that once people are able to go back to theatres, there would still be demand and exhibitors will be able to resume their business like before.

Once the pandemic comes to an end, one can expect old business models to operate again, as theatre-going will never become irrelevant, affirmed Kapoor. “However, we can expect some deal structure changes, e.g. revenue sharing agreements between multiplexes and studios may be revisited.”

While Netflix has commissioned big films for OTT release worldwide - with some of them having budgets at par with big Hollywood films - in India, this would have taken at least another 2-3 years, if not more, if there was no COVID, said Kapoor.

Published on May 15, 2020

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