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The Great Debate — Mega Releases on OTT Platforms vs Theatres — Perspectives from the Indian Market

‘Been to any new movies lately?’ is no longer a great conversation starter. Here’s one for our times: ‘What was the last movie you went to before the lockdown?’

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every sphere of life and business. As people hunker down at home, the entertainment industry has felt the chills to no slight degree. Theatres in India shut down in mid-March and are staring at an estimated 4000 crore loss in box office earnings this year. Quite understandably, film exhibitors are jittery.

This is probably why a move by some producers to take their films directly to OTT players has sparked a war of words, with INOX and PVR taking exception to the decision (one vehemently, and the other rather more politely.)

Did these producers do the right to give theatres the slip and sell the distribution rights to digital instead? As with every decision in these complicated times, there’s no easy answer. Here’s a look at this crisis in the film industry from the perspective of various stakeholders.

The producers

Some producers have clearly stated that they will delay releases until theatres re-open, while others have been considering their options. How does either choice impact them?

Movies tend to ride on current, topical trends and the marketing machinery is set in motion months before the release. Wait too long, and the excitement may die down. What is more, producers often need the revenue to pay off loans they raised to fund the movie. This makes the case for going the OTT way. This could be particularly true for regional language movies, which have a strong viewership on OTT platforms.

On the other hand, there are big-budget movies that simply demand a silver-screen excursion. Think Bahubali, the Avenger series, or any movie starring Rajnikant. Bringing these directly to a small screen would take the grandeur out of the premiere. Also, the box-office earnings for these would far exceed what an OTT player can pay. Such movies might wait it out for a multiplex release.

Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

The exhibitors

The worst affected, exhibitors have been put in the impossible situation of twiddling their thumbs. While the lockdown is ongoing, they can at least shut shop, save on electricity costs, and ask for rent waivers. But when it is eased, they will have to reopen to much smaller audiences, bleeding money in the process.

One of the parties in the current maelstrom is PVR, which has refused to exhibit any movie which is released on OTT first. Are they merely protecting their turf or arm twisting producers during a difficult time? Either way, the relationship between exhibitors and producers is strained as never before.


The OTT players

OTT platforms have seen a significant uptick in traffic as people turn to their laptops for a much-needed break from real life. The latest BARC-Nielsen report says that there has been a 67% growth in streaming share (in the second week of April) vs the same week last year. Research by Emkay Global reports that major players, such as Zee5, Voot, Eros Now, and Alt Balaji, have seen a 75% to 150% rise in viewership as compared to pre-lockdown times. Amazon Prime Video has bought the rights to at least 7 anticipated releases, and is now poised to attract not just the regular binge-watching crowd, but also the ‘first-day, first-show’ movie buffs. Slice it any which way, OTT players come up top.

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The audience

Audiences aren’t complaining about this windfall of new movies coming their way at no additional cost. Reactions across social media range from the gleeful (comparing the cost of a movie night to that of a Prime subscription) to the wistful (getting nostalgic about the glamour of said movie nights). But the day INOX issued a heavy-handed letter to producers, most of the Twitterati were quick to side with producers and OTTs.


The artistes, filmmakers, et al

Initial responses from the film fraternity have been mixed. Megastar Amitabh Bachchan took to Twitter to excitedly promote the digital release of his new movie Gulabo Sitabo, while veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal shrugged off the idea of OTT supplanting theatres.

The cinema offers a larger than life experience. 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,” he said.

However, if the pandemic continues to make its presence felt, one can imagine that filmmakers might turn to OTT platforms quite easily for movies that are driven by plot and acting, rather than big budgets and special effects.


Safety trumps all

While it is necessary to talk business, what we are facing is above all a public health crisis. As lockdowns ease in other countries, they are seeing an increase in the number of cases. When theatres reopen, can they put safety above self-interest so that they do not become a hotbed of transmission? In the end, perhaps what should decisively tilt the scale in favour of OTTs is that many lives may be saved as a result.


Win some, lose some, but play the long game

Traditionally, film exhibitors and producers have had a symbiotic relationship: producers brought popular content to exhibitors, exhibitors ensured the best ROIs for producers.

While they’ve been equal partners so far, producers have the upper hand now. They have an alternative way of reaching audiences, but exhibitors can only stay in business as long as producers do. This is why, with the pandemic yawning on, exhibitors might have no option but to make peace and bide their time. After all, every director, actor, and producer dreams of a spectacular silver-screen run, and they will seek that once normalcy is restored.

Exhibitors can take heart from this: there is an undeniable magic to the cinemas, overpriced popcorn notwithstanding. It’s a decadent, escapist experience, not one we can recreate at home in familiar surroundings. Chances are, once it is safe out there in the world, we will head back to the theatres. Until then, let us embrace OTT as a way to preserve lives and livelihoods.