Major Indian films premiering on OTT platforms during Coronavirus outbreak could mean a paradigm shift for the movie business
Perhaps these summer releases on OTT platforms will provide an overview on the way forward for entertainment during Covid-19.
For nearly 2 months, Indian movie theatres have stayed shut. Films have missed out on the lucrative summer vacation period, when schools and college close and families visit theatres in hoards. Prior to the lockdown, Sooryavanshi (featuring Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif and guest appearances by Ajay Devgn and Ranveer Singh) and Gulabo Sitabo (starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana) were highly anticipated. Therefore, when the latter chose an OTT platform to premiere the film, it caused ripples across the film business.
Amazon Prime Video has become the go-to destination to release Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and a Malayalam film featuring stars.
This is like a summer slate independent of publicity and marketing campaigns and meant for the digital viewer alone. Apart from Gulabo Sitabo, the Shakuntala Devi biopic featuring Vidya Balan is the other Hindi film that has moved to Prime Video. In a press release shared by the platform, Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head, Content, Amazon Prime Video, India said, “Over the last 2 years, Prime Video has become the destination of choice for our customers to watch new releases, across the languages, within weeks of their theatrical release. Now we’re taking this one step further, with seven of India’s most-anticipated films premiering exclusively on Prime Video, bringing the cinematic experience to their doorstep.”
Multiplex chains and theatre owners are opposed to this idea. Beyond their disappointment with some film producers, they argue that post the lockdown, films would get longer release windows and better presence in theatres. Film Exhibitor Akshaye Rathi says, “Specific to Gulabo Sitabo, I think there is a misconception that a film like this might not get a suitable time to release in theatres. Across all languages there aren’t more than 35 to 40 films that are near completion. While films are not releasing, shoots or postproduction aren’t happening either. Big films like Gangubai Kathiawadi or Laal Singh Chaddha will now be postponed for quite some time. Which means the content pipeline of upcoming films is sporadic. This will translate to massive visibility for smaller and medium budget films. For instance, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, a Yashraj film has been looking for the right time to release in theatres. In the upcoming year this film too will get visibility and strong positioning in theatres. It’s actually a great time to wait and release a medium budget film in theatres after the lockdown.
Rathi’s point reflects the general consensus among content creators, though most that have projects coming up refuse to go on record.
To deal with a sense of fear and dread, movie theatres will adapt with changing times and cope with virus threat. Rathi elaborates, “Once the fear psychosis settles and we start getting used to living with the virus, there will be visible changes in the way movie theatres operate. Sanitisation will become stringent, contactless food and beverage and ticket sales will come in. Wearing masks and using surgical gloves will be mandatory. There’s no doubt about that.”
Beyond industry folk, questioning the correlation of a lockdown with entertainment leads to interesting responses. Dr Harish Shetty, a leading psychiatrist from Mumbai, and a self-avowed movie buff explains, “Human memory is short. Indian memory more so as we are sentimental; not many are discussing Shaheen Bagh or the vigilante cop in Hyderabad. Once number of deaths falls and a lockdown gradually lifts, most people will return to watching movies in theatres. Nearly 60 percent of India is unaffected by coronavirus . People will definitely watch movies in these areas as soon as lockdown lifts. In this city (Mumbai), lower middle-class families go to watch a movie as a special event. Committed movie buffs that enjoy big-screen experiences are waiting for movie theatres to open. Younger people are used to watching content on phone or laptop screens, but for most, a movie is best watched at a theatre.”
A behavioral factor that has impacted people across India is the emerging culture of work from home, homeschooling and digital functioning. Movie theaters will provide a much-needed relief from digital fatigue. “The concept of OTT fatigue is also setting in,” says Rathi. “As human beings, we are wired for social interaction. The concept of pent up demand will come into play once theatres re-open and people will come to theatres as they'll value the cinematic experience a lot more now. “
Dr Shetty echoes this from his experiences with patients. “As doctors, we notice a sudden flare-up of tempers from patients as they can’t meet or discuss their issues with a doctor in person. They are communicating over the phone, like they are with everyone else through the entire day. Constant exposure to screen brings strain. The lockdown has brought in a sense of isolation for many. Entertainment is an important part of a globalised, market driven world. COVID-19 has brought this global market to a halt. But once it re-opens, people will seek entertainment and relief from staying indoors (in all forms).”
A noticeable aspect of online functioning has been the pressure on children and teenagers to school from a computer, phone or tablet screen. Their need to watch a large screen and entertain themselves is going to drive families back to movie theatres with safety measures intact. Besides, Hindi films that have released on OTT platforms first, like the disastrous Mrs Serial Killer, have not fared well so far. On a subscription-based model like Prime Video, a premiere might reduce chances of piracy, but the immediate business benefits for the platform are also a matter of speculation.
Perhaps these summer releases will provide an overview on the way forward for this strategy.
Dil Chahta Hai or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, I don’t care. As long as someone is making a film casting this trinity in the lead (Zoya Akhtar, are you listening?), I’m watching. With my girlfriends, of course.
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