Movies at the time of Covid-19: Could the Coronavirus Outbreak change the way we consume entertainment?
With no films releasing and all shoots scrapped, experts have estimated that this Coronavirus related shutdown is going cost Bollywood losses in the region of Rs 800 crores.
The COVID-19 coronavirus has finally triggered a nationwide lockdown this week but movie theatres around the country have been shut for over a week now. And, no one knows when we’ll next be able to step into a dark theatre with strangers to watch stories unfold on the big screen. With no films releasing and all shoots scrapped, experts have estimated that this coronavirus related shutdown is going cost Bollywood losses in the region of Rs 800 crores. While there is no way of knowing how long this shutdown will continue, it is heartening to know that yesterday, more than 500 of China’s 70,000 theatres reopened after almost three months.
The larger question, though, is how the pandemic is going to affect the most important and fragile part of the film business – getting an audience to step out of their homes and into a theatre – in the future.
Before crystal gazing, though, it’s important to look at shutdowns of the past and how they significantly impacted the movie business. Old-timers remember two instances when the industry had shut down for long periods. The first was a month-long strike in 1986 that started in Bollywood but soon spread to all the movie-making industries in the country. Producers had pulled the plug on all releases and shoots. Their demand to the government was to reduce the taxes levied on the entertainment business. Eventually, the Godbole committee was set up and it resulted in lower taxes.
In 2009, the industry came to a partial closure when no films released for almost two months. This, though, was an internal matter of distributors and exhibitors fighting with production houses and studios over the revenue sharing ratio. The standoff ended with a standardized model regardless of the film’s star cast or budget.
For a few years now, as footfalls in theatres have reduced around the world, there has been a lot of talk in both Hollywood and Bollywood about the threat of streaming services. With the full effects of the coronavirus being felt the world over, social life, as we knew it, has come to a virtual standstill. People are filling the void of out-of-home entertainment with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Could this disruption hasten the ascendance of streaming? If the signs coming in from Hollywood are to be believed, the answer is yes.
Traditionally in Hollywood, films have a 70-90 day window between their theatrical release and getting a second life on an OTT platform. Last week, major Hollywood studios like Universal Pictures, Disney and Warner Bros accelerated the home video release of their theatrical releases like The Invisible Man, Onwards and Birds of Prey respectively. Universal even announced the release of DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour on pay-per-view without waiting to release in theatres. For years now, studios in Hollywood have wanted to reduce this theatrical window but haven’t been able to because of theatre associations. When theatres eventually open after this pandemic, it won’t be possible to unring the bell.
Closer home, movies have a window of 46-56 days between theatrical and streaming release. Trade analyst Komal Nahata believes that it is in everyone’s interest if this window is reduced. “Films like Baaghi 3 and Angrezi Medium suffered because audiences stayed away from theatres which then eventually shut down. These films are not going to get a second chance in theatres. OTT platforms are going to be looking for content right now. It would be a win-win for everyone – the consumer, producer and the platforms – if this window is shortened. Also, it wouldn’t harm the theatres because they are shut anyway,” Nahata says. Ankur Garg of Luv Films, who produced Mohit Suri’s Malang earlier this year agrees with Nahata ‘because these are extraordinary times’ but he adds, “I don’t think these conversations have started yet because there are legal contracts in place’.
Unlike Hollywood, most filmmakers in India don’t see streaming services as a threat yet. “It’s because Indian audiences still like going out to theatres,” Nahata explains. Instead, OTT platforms might be a boon for the smaller films that are lined up for release this year. Most producers borrow money to make their films and interest is paid on this borrowed money. The longer a film’s release is delayed, the more interest is accrued. Add to this the possibility that when this pandemic blows over and audiences and films return to theatres, there will be a huge backlog of films to release. The chances of smaller and even medium budget films being cannibalised by their larger counterparts are quite significant.
Going straight to digital might actually be beneficial for these films. “If this shutdown continues for long, I can foresee a few films going directly on OTT,” agrees Garg, adding, “With every Friday that passes during this shutdown, the industry is losing out on a release date. We might also lose significant holidays like Gudi Padwa and the Easter weekend. Films that have been scheduled to release three-four months from now will either have to make way for those that didn’t release or end up clashing. Smaller films might want to avoid this and go digital”. This could also free up theater capacity for bigger films.
Shoojit Sircar’s Amitabh Bachchan-Ayushmann Khurrana starrer, Gulabo Sitabo is one of the films that will get affected by the pandemic and the resultant shutdown. “Our film is ready but all thoughts of commerce have been thrown out of the window right now. What’s important right now if for everyone to be safe,” says Ronnie Lahiri, one of the producers of the film.
A staunch advocate of the singular pleasure of watching films in a theatre Lahiri doesn’t think streaming will change how the audiences consume films but he recognises that it’s going to be a while before ‘things get back to normal and people return to movie halls’. “Once this blows over, I expect the release schedule to fall back in place. It would have been chaotic if films continued to be shot and nothing was releasing but that’s not the case. Everything is just going to be pushed back by a few weeks or months,” he adds.
The opinions on how much this shut down will affect Bollywood might vary, but there’s one thing everyone seems to agree upon – that streaming platforms will be the ones who will benefit the most.
While these platforms have been investing in production of their own local content to bring much-needed differentiation and to entice new users, the quality here in India hasn’t been anything to write home about so far. This is largely because filmmakers still want to see their best content on the silver screen, regardless of whether the economics work or not. A minor bidding war between platforms for these smaller films might just be the shot in the arm that keeps everyone happy right now, including audiences. It could also change the way Bollywood looks at home entertainment forever.
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