As cinemas remain closed amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, several movies including Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer "Gulabo Sitabo" and Vidya Balans "Shakuntala Devi" have lined up for a digital release, ditching the traditional route of a theatrical opening. This has led to a tug of war between producers and exhibitors.
Unconfirmed reports indicate Akshay Kumar's "Laxmmi Bomb", Anurag Basu's "Ludo", Sidharth Malhotra's "Shershaah", Janhvi Kapoor's "Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl", Kiara Advani's "Indoo Ki Jawaani", Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday's "Khaali Peeli" and Janhvi's "Roohi Afzana" could also take the OTT path, with others movies also expected to join the growing list.
Direct-to-OTT could become an increasing reality in the near future, but most in the industry feel there is no threat to the big screens. Instead, it's the dawn of a new era where both patterns of release will probably find a way to co-exist.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought along gloomy days for film business and live entertainment gigs with shut down orders, turning out to be financially strenuous for many.
That's why the direct-to-OTT move not only means a push to the digital medium in the Indian market, but also a financial respite to many members of industry.
"The industry is now beginning to find solutions to some critical issues. The move to release some content will relieve some short-term financial pressure on production houses. However, the Indian film industry is still dependent on the box office for a majority of its revenue and will need to continue to keep the exhibition industry as a close partner once the COVID-19 crisis is over," Jehil Thakkar, Partner at Deloitte India, told IANS.
Trade analyst Girish Johar added: "It is a short term phenomena with distress sales. There are many producers who might have taken loans, or there might be other money matters. There might be many reasons for the producers to make such distress sales. And on top of it, there is no word on when cinemas will reopen. Even if the cinemas reopen soon with proper safety precautions in place, it will take time for audiences to actually come back in a good number."
Others like Sunir Kheterpal, CEO, AZURE Entertainment, feel the "shift in windows is only temporary".
"Some shifting of windows may happen going forward but that may not have such a great negative impact on cinemas. This move will help film producers in the short term and will also provide fresher content to OTT platforms. It is a short term deviation in the release windows across the globe. Cinema halls will never stop existing as nothing is beyond the experience of watching cinema on the big screen," Kheterpal said.
Rewriting the film-watching story in India, Amazon Prime Video will be releasing seven Bollywood and regional films, including "Gulabo Sitabo" and "Shakuntala Devi", in the coming months. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's comedy film "Ghoomketu" is also going straight to OTT.
The move to release films on OTT platforms has naturally drawn criticism from exhibitors and movie theatre chains.
"We are disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to the streaming platform/s. We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film's release till cinemas reopen," said Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures, adding: "This is not the first time films are being premiered on streaming platform/s. 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."
Multiplex chain INOX also issued a long statement, the core of which was: "The decision of production house to deviate from the globally prevalent content windowing practice is alarming and disconcerting. Cinemas and content creators have always been into mutually beneficial partnerships, where one's action provided fillip to another's revenues."
The hullabaloo around digital release has stirred up a debate, with actress Pooja Bhatt also joining in to point out that health should be the major concern, before business.
"Question -- Do theatres run movies or do movies run theatres? Content is king. The platform is secondary. People's safety MUST take priority over profitability. If we truly care for our audience,we need to take the movies to them.Not lure them to theatres until we can guarantee safety," the actress-filmmaker tweeted.
Producers Guild of India also hit back at sections of the exhibition sector who seem to be upset with an OTT platform's move to release films directly before their theatrical release.
"Gulabo Sitabo" co-producer Ronnie Lahiri feels it is time for the big screen and OTT to "co-exist".
"Cinema and exhibition models will always remain. Now, it will coexist with the digital. Earlier digital was treated as a downgrade, now it will be co-existing. It will be an option open to the director and producer. OTT will be a major player in the future, and at the same time I don't think cinema will ever get over. There's some disruption at the moment due to COVID-19. It will soon get back to normal," Lahiri told IANS.
"Cinema has seen many threats -- VCR, cable and TV. They had some effect on cinema, but it was a temporary phenomenon, and it will be the same this time as well. Huge investments have gone into these projects, that's probably the reason they aren't able to hold themselves back when they are getting good offers from OTT platforms," Raj Kumar Mehrotra, general manager at Delite Cinema, pointed out.
In the same vein, trade analyst Rajesh Thadani told IANS: "Once things normalise, then people won't directly go to OTT platforms. This is a temporary phase."
Digital world might be a new reality for many, but not for biggies like "83" and "Sooryanvanshi". The makers of these big-ticket Bollywood films have assured cinema owners that they will release the films in theatres first.
"That's because they get good revenue from theatres," asserts Mehrotra.
Girish Johar further explained: "The films that are coming on OTT are somewhat premium content. These are not big tentpole releases. Hollywood is following the same thing. Marvel Studios has pushed all the tentpole movies to 2021.
"OTT can't be a revenue platform for buying Rs 200 crore film. In the case of OTT platforms, it is the time when they can get maximum subscribers as everyone is at home, that's why they are buying new films. Cinemas need not fear as there would be jump once everything is normal, and the window will be respected by the makers as well," he added.
"Once lockdown is over and safety precautions in place, theatrical revenue will jump by more than 20 per cent because there is a lot of pent up demand," Girish said.
In Hollywood, many tentpoles were pulled from release because of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent closure of multiplexes. Sony delayed most of its summer slate, including "Venom" sequel, "Morbius" and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife". Disney postponed "Black Widow" and "Mulan" while slated "Artemis Fowl" for release on Disney+ Hotstar. Warner Bros. reshuffled "Wonder Woman 1984" and "In The Heights". Universal halted "Minions: The Rise Of Gru" and "Fast & Furious" entry "F9", while Paramount moved "A Quiet Place Part II" and Tom Cruise's "Top Gun: Maverick". - Sugandha Rawal for IANS