How Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar and other streaming platforms are changing the dynamics of Telugu film industry

Hemanth Kumar

Nov 10, 2019 09:05:28 IST

Every decade or so, Telugu cinema undergoes a dramatic change which reshapes the evolution of the industry. While digitisation was a monumental shift in the early part of this decade, where filmmakers embraced digital medium to shoot and project films, the second major shift in the industry is happening right now in the form of proliferation of streaming platforms. And this, many believe, could change the way people watch films in future.

The popularity of streaming sites like Amazon Prime, Hotstar, and Netflix among many other such sites has already ignited a debate over whether watching films is still a communal experience in the modern era, when access to the internet has become easier and cheaper. Moreover, there’s also a growing concern over the price that the industry is willing to pay to jump on this streaming bandwagon, which is reshaping both the creative and business aspects of filmmaking.

The streaming platforms, at least in the initial few years, gave filmmakers plenty of reasons to cheer. It proved to be a shot in the arm for Telugu film industry’s long battle against online piracy and moreover, the leading streaming giants were willing to pay a premium to acquire the digital rights of big budget films. Even for producers, who have bankrolled low and medium budget films, the price attached to the digital rights came as a big boon to recover their investments.

Incidentally, this sale of digital rights compensated for the lack of enthusiasm from TV channels to acquire satellite rights.

However, it wasn’t too late before TV channels too began insisting on acquiring both satellite and digital rights of a film since the appetite for watching films on mobile phones, laptops, and smart TVs was on the rise. If this sounds like the best thing to have happened to Telugu film industry in recent years, for a while it truly was, until the popularity of streaming sites reached a point which disrupted the whole ecosystem.

 How Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar and other streaming platforms are changing the dynamics of Telugu film industry

(L to R) Saaho, Ageni Sai Srinivas Athreya, Dear Comrade, Gang Leader are all availabe on streaming platforms.

Beginning Of The Change

The film industry is already taking note of these changing winds. A case in point being the first poster of Allu Arjun, Trivikram Srinivas’ Ala Vaikuntapuramulo which had a disclaimer, ‘You won't see this on Amazon Prime or Netflix’. This is a subtle appeal to the people to watch the film in theatres.

Amazon Prime streaming even big budget films within 45-60 days of a film’s release, long before it’s aired on TV, has had a huge impact on the collective psyche of the audience. This has, particularly, proved to be true in the US, where the revenues of Telugu films are down by almost 30% this year.

Sundeep, a US-based distributor, says, “In the past few months, the lack of subscription-based ticketing service like MoviePass and other deals offered by multiplex chains has had a huge impact on revenues for Telugu films. Also, as soon as people get to know that Amazon or Netflix has acquired the digital rights, they tend to wait to watch it after a month on TV. Not too many movies made money for distributors this year in the US. The only way that this business will sustain is when producers have an agreement that the streaming platforms will wait for at least 8 weeks before streaming a film, or the selling price of US rights needs to be reduced.”

Pricing Wars

In the US, Amazon Prime membership fee is $119 per year and $12.99 per month, and many people already consider this as a better alternative than to spend at least $15-20 for a film in theatres (some films were even priced at $25-30 for their respective premieres). It’s no different in India, where Amazon Prime subscription costs around Rs 999 per year (Rs 120 per month). Among the major streaming platforms in India, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Zee5, Sun NXT have bulk of the latest Telugu films, apart from a select few on Netflix. While Amazon Prime has had a clear head start with their strong slate of latest Telugu films, Hotstar, whose annual subscription costs Rs 999, too has a good chunk of popular films. This sort of competitive pricing offered by various streaming platforms is in stark contrast with how the movie tickets are priced in multiplexes and single screens across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Taking stock of the current situation, Babu, who owns several theatres in Vizag and Vizianagaram, says, “Of late, most films don’t run in theatres for more than 50-60 days, and that window (of 50 days before the films are streamed online) is crucial. The films starring A-list stars won’t feel so much impact, but the market for low budget films is going to change a lot in the next couple of years. Even before the film is screened in theatres people read reviews and form an opinion whether to watch it in theatres or not. The biggest area of concern, in this scenario, is that of ticket pricing. For every major film, tickets are priced at Rs 200 for a week in single screens, before it’s brought down to the normal rates of Rs 50-118. In any case, people end up spending at least Rs 100-200 to watch a film in single screens and at least Rs 500-1000 in multiplexes. When they have the option of watching all these films for the same cost for an entire year on streaming sites, it certainly makes them think twice about coming to theatres.”

History Repeating Itself

The film industry, in many ways, is going through the kind of changes which reshaped the music industry a decade ago.

Madhura Sreedhar, producer and head of Madhura Audio label, recalls how quickly the music industry went from depending on sale of cassettes to CDs, and then to caller tunes all within a matter of five years. “Between 2006-08, most of the revenue for music industry came from the sale of CDs, and when online piracy hit us in 2009, we thought we’ll soon be out of business. But then, caller tunes became immensely popular, but today, they are no longer a norm with streaming sites like Gaana, Saavn, Apple Music, Spotify, and Youtube channels. The revenue comes from licensing and ads placed in these platforms. I feel that the film industry is also witnessing a similar trend. Only the content is constant, but the medium where its screened will keep changing,” Madhura Sreedhar says, adding, “Few years down the line, I don’t know if small films will even get a theatrical release. Right now, the market for small films has gone down in terms of theatrical revenue, but then, the producers aren’t feeling the pinch because with streaming platforms offering a good price, along with dubbing and satellite rights, they are able to recover most of the money. Dorasaani, a film which I co-produced, met with a similar fate. It didn’t do well theatrically, but we made good amount from the sale of other rights. I believe that if your content is good then there’ll always be a market for it.”

New Window of Opportunity

In the past few months, streaming giants have been making a series of attempts to increase their subscribers in India, with each platform pumping in money to produce original content, apart from acquiring rights of films. Netflix has introduced a new Rs 199 plan exclusively for mobile and smartphone users, Zee5 has a series of packs where the users can choose what sort of content they want to watch, and Hotstar too is going to add more content to its platform with the introduction of Disney+ service in US. Amazon has even introduced a pay-per-view system which allows some content owners to vie for their share of the pie.

Then, there are other platforms like AltBalaji, Viu, MX Player, and a soon-to-be launched OTT in Hyderabad which have engaged with content creators in Telugu. The bigger platforms have already been in talks with some of the leading production houses, directors, and producers to make original content in Telugu, although, as of now, the number of such original shows is low compared to shows in Hindi.

Supriya Yarlagadda, producer, says, “Right now, we are all in a race to maximise revenues through various avenues, and we are still learning about what’s the best format to tell a story. Theatrical experience is truly unique, but we should also see if it’s sustainable in the long run. In near future, Telugu film industry might even make films which are going to release directly on streaming sites. It’s a big learning curve for all of us.”

The Road Ahead

The freedom to tell a wide-range of stories on these streaming sites, combined with a huge reach, has piqued the interest of several filmmakers and writers in Telugu film industry. While embracing this digital wave has turned into a boon for producers and filmmakers who want to overcome the difficulties in obtaining ample number of screens to release their films, it’s also throwing up new challenges for filmmakers, especially in terms of the time it takes to get a show approved. Unlike a feature film where a single producer, director (and in some cases, the actor) is the decision maker, it’s a different ball game while engaging with streaming platforms for original shows, given the rigorous process that one needs to go through.

The writing on the wall is clear - make better films because streaming platforms are changing the way people watch movies.

Updated Date: Nov 10, 2019 09:05:28 IST