Theatre owners irked by direct-to-digital release of Indian films, say it can never replace traditional moviegoing experience

Even though exhibitors are unhappy with producers choosing to go the digital way, they still think that OTT platforms will never be an alternative for the moviegoing audience.

Raja Sekar May 17, 2020 16:43:43 IST
Theatre owners irked by direct-to-digital release of Indian films, say it can never replace traditional moviegoing experience

On Friday, Amazon Prime announced that a slew of upcoming Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada films will directly release on their platform. While audiences are quite happy with this announcement, it has caused disagreement between theatre owners and producers.

In April, Tamil Nadu theatre owners were the first to voice their objection to direct-to-digital premieres. When the producers of Ponmagal Vandhal, decided to skip a theatrical release and make it available on Amazon Prime, it was met with backlash from theatre owners association. They also threatened to boycott the film's producers, Suriya's 2D Entertainment.

Paneerselvam, the General Secretary of Tamil Nadu Theater Owners and Multiplex Association said, "We have told the producers to stop the OTT release but they didn't listen. Now, we have decided to boycott all the films of the producers of Ponmagal Vandhal".

Theatre owners irked by directtodigital release of Indian films say it can never replace traditional moviegoing experience

Representational image

Tiruppur Subramaniam, the association's President added via Whatsapp, "Just like how producers are free to release their films on whatever platforms they wish, theatre owners would decide whether to screen a film or not. No one can question our choice of films."

Tamil film producers consequently issued a joint statement in support of Suriya's 2D Entertainment saying that they chose OTT platforms to screen films due to the nationwide lockdown. Once the situation reverts back to normal, the standard theatrical window would be observed before an OTT premiere.

The issue only seemed grabbed nationwide attention after Amazon Prime revealed that it would carry Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Gulabo Sitabo from 12 June. Vidya Balan's Shakuntala Devi: Human-Computer (Hindi), Keerthy Suresh's Penguin (Tamil and Telugu), Jayasurya and Aditi Rao Hydari's Sufiyum Sujathayum (Malayalam), Anushka Shetty- Madhavan's Nishabdham (Tamil) and two Kannada films — Law and French Biriyani have been picked up by Amazon Prime as well.

Theatre owners irked by directtodigital release of Indian films say it can never replace traditional moviegoing experience

Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo. Image from YouTube

Kerala theatre owners threatened to boycott future ventures by Jayasurya if Sufiyum Sujathayum gets a digital premiere. Meanwhile, leading multiplex chains INOX and PVR cinemas too expressed their opposition to this move.

"INOX would like to urge all content creators not to 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," said the multiplex chain in a statement. They also mentioned retributive measures will be taken against production houses bypassing theatrical release.

"We are disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to streaming platforms. We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film's release till cinemas reopened. That said, this is not the first time films are being premiered on the streaming platforms. 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. I would also like to use this opportunity to express our appreciation for all the producers who have publicly voiced their support for the theatrical platform and have decided to reschedule their releases to accommodate the reopening of cinemas," read a statement by PVR.

Subramaniam spoke with Firstpost regarding the issue and said, "Even AMC, the largest chain of the world has made it clear that they will not work with studios which bypass the theatrical release. In India, both INOX and PVR Cinemas, two leading multiplex chains have also expressed their displeasure. Our decision is loud and clear, if the producers are making a film only for OTT, let them go ahead and release. But announcing a project as a mainstream theatrical film and bypass just because of the lockdown is unacceptable."

"Leaving aside the business point of view, audiences can't believe the content on OTT and blindly watch it with their families because there are many uncensored web-series and movies available on the platform. But theatre-going audiences can choose the content based on the censor certificate. Also, we supported these stars and producers when they entered this industry as newcomers. Only because of the box office revenue, they have become popular and these OTT platforms are bidding money for their popularity. No OTT platform would buy a film featuring newcomers for a fancy price," he added.

He further said, "Producers should understand that theatre can only play films. We can't air cricket matches. Once I asked a government official about this restriction, he told me that there is no age restriction for cricket matches but all of a sudden if someone runs naked inside the stadium, we can't censor it on live so government has banned such screenings. All these theatres worth crores of money are built only for films and there is no substitute."

Even though exhibitors are unhappy with producers choosing to go the digital way, they still think that OTT platforms will never replace traditional cinemas for the moviegoing audience.

"Over a period of two to three months, Amazon Prime has only bought the rights of seven movies in five languages. Netflix is yet to acquire a mainstream movie during this lockdown. In the same period, 500 to 700 films would have release across these languages. This data is a standing testimony on how theatrical business will not be affected much with the OTT platforms. There will be a minor change in the business model but there is no big threat," explained Nikhilesh Surya of Rohini Cinemas, a popular multiplex in Chennai.

He added that OTT is not a democratic business model. "Only people who have clout will be able to sell their films to OTT platforms. Small films featuring unknown faces will not be benefitted through these platforms and they don't have the fund to acquire a big-budget film either."

Meenakshi Sundaram, Vice President of Maayajal, a sixteen screen multiplex said that the advent of satellite channels was seen as a threat to theatre owners revenue as they assumed families from the lower economic strata would prefer their TVs over cinemas. Later, piracy was also considered a hindrance, but it never led to any significant monetary losses. Sundaram observed that for Indians, movie-watching is a community experience which OTT platforms can never offer.

"Also, a small Tamil film like Draupathi will not get a fancy price from OTT platforms. But a single territory in Tamil Nadu (Chengalpattu) fetched 40 lakhs profit to the distributor. A small film like Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru had a dream run only because of theatres. I still remember giving twenty shows for the film after watching the film, it picked up due to the positive word of mouth. Only after I allocated twenty shows, other multiplexes increased the number of shows. Such magic can never ever happen with OTT platforms," she added.

Nikhilesh Surya also reiterated Sundaram's point. "No one can judge a box-office run of films. There are instances were films panned by critics reaped gold at the box office. In OTT business, producers will not get any such luck. This pre-theatrical release also disturbs the overall business, it's undemocratic. For example, Ponmagal Vandhal and an unknown film would release in theaters on the same day but only films with known faces would be picked by the OTT platforms."

Mohan Umrotkar, CEO of Carnival Cinemas also mentioned in his statement that OTT releases will not affect theatrical business. "I feel that the trend of releasing films on OTT platforms directly is a temporary phenomenon. I don’t see this going beyond the lockdown. While OTTs are a reality, big film producers will prefer a theatrical release before a digital one. The overall collection from theatrical releases also surpasses what is garnered by directly releasing movies on OTT platforms. Once people are able to go back to theatres, there would still be demand and all of us will be able to resume our business like before."

However, Arun Kumar of Ganga Cinemas believed producers would benefit the most out the digital model of release. "These medium budget films will help us to pay our bills but the sudden decision of producers would hit us badly, We are paying Rs 1 lakh for electricity although we don't have any business because projectors need to be switched on and play at least for two hours. Producers should understand that OTT platforms are picking films of popular faces. But the box office collection only fetched the fame for all these actors and production houses."

Vibin of TPV Multiplex said that only after the premiere of the aforementioned films can one comment on the future of cinemas. "I feel that only after the premiere, we can judge the reach of the movie and reception of the audiences. It's too early to judge whether OTT platforms can be an alternative for theatres."

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