How OTT and cinema halls can co-exist in post COVID world

WION New Delhi May 15, 2020, 04.06 PM(IST) Written By: Shomini Sen

Posters of 'Gulabo Sitabo' and 'Shakuntala Devi' Photograph:( Instagram )

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With several Indian producers opting for digital premiere amid lockdown, does it mean its end of the road for cinema halls? Not really.

These are unprecedented times and the world is slowly and somewhat reluctantly accepting the fact that life post-COVID-19 will not be the same. With most of the activities shifting on virtual space, it was natural that cinema- one of the biggest source of entertainment world over- would shift to digital as well.

On Thursday, Indian filmmaker Shoojit Sircar announced that his upcoming film 'Gulabo Sitabo' featuring two big stars of Bollywood- Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan- would directly premiere on the OTT platform Amazon prime video. A move that was termed as 'bold' by industry pundits with many stating that it heralded a new change in Indian cinema.

Close on the heels of 'Gulabo Sitabo', Amazon clenched the premiere rights of five other films for its OTT platform, including Vidya Balan's big summer release 'Shakuntala Devi' and Tamil film 'Ponmagal Vandhal'.

With most people confined to their homes across the world amid the outbreak of the pandemic, and relying heavily on TV and Internet for news and entertainment- it seemed like a natural step for producers to release films directly on OTT platforms. While it's a win-win situation for makers and the audience, theatre owners have raised an alarm and expressed their 'disappointment' at the new move.

Two of India`s biggest cinema chains, Inox and PVR, who were meant to screen 'Gulabo Sitabo' have slammed the decision.

Also see: Digital release of 'Gulabo Sitabo' makes multiplex chain INOX cry foul

In a statement that is addressed to no one in particular, INOX said that they "Will be constrained to examine its options, and reserves all rights, including taking retributive measures, in dealing with such fair-weather friends." PVR too has expressed disappointment on the new change.

While theatre owners have raised an alarm and even appealed to the PMO, there are others who have pointed out that how the emergence of multiplex chains about a decade back, changed cinema viewing forever and put an end to millions of single-screen theatres.

Watching movies in cinema halls is an expensive affair now. An average ticket at a multiplex costs Rs 400-500 per person. For a couple, a movie date costs approximately Rs 1800-2000 in any big city in India. The multiplexes have often been accused of charging exorbitant taxes on tickets and hiking the price of refreshment.

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The move to have digital premieres has been lauded by cine-goers not only for it provides entertainment to the audience within the comforts of their home but the option is also pocket friendly.

Films are a huge draw for burgeoning online audiences in India, who - driven by cheap data and smartphones - are spending more time watching content online than ever before.

The producer guild also has backed the idea of digital releases simply because it makes sense monetarily. A long statement issued by the Producers Guild Of India, explains why it is pertinent to adapt to the changing times. The statement lists out reasons why Indian producers are going the OTT route, pointing out the capital invested in contracting sets, the overheads, and borrowed capital. The statement also points out that even if the govt allows cinema halls to operate, none of the theatres would see a high footfall in the coming months and the ticket sales will still be less.

In pics: Skipping a theatrical release, movies on their way to digital platforms

The statement also highlights that it is important to clear the backlog as the release of several summer big-budget films got stalled due to the lockdown and that waiting for theatrical release would only affect the business of more films that are in the pipeline for release.

Read the full statement here:

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The clash between multiplex owners and producers is not just restricted to India. In America, AMC Theaters, which runs the biggest chain of multiplexes in North America, has announced that it would not screen Universal Studio films in their theatres anymore. Reason? Amid the pandemic, the studio released their film- 'Trolls World Tour' directly on digital. The first film of the series 'Trolls' was a smash hit and expectations were high from the sequel as well.

We keep discussing that life will not be the same in the post COVID world. The 'new normal' will entail a lot of changes. Virtual will be the new word in everyone's vocabulary. As a matter of fact, it already is. From film festivals to classrooms- everything has shifted to virtual space and so premiering films on OTT should not be ruled out.

Does that mean its end of the road for cinema halls? Not really. The magic of watching your favourite actors on the big screen will remain. But both will have to co-exist.

The series of incidents in the past few days should be a lesson for multiplex owners to learn and adapt to. Instead of crying foul and appealing the govt. to enforce strict action, they need to reassess the profit margin that they keep in each ticket. Lowering prices of F&B and tickets will help in getting people back to the theatre while maintaining the new norms of social distancing.

Indian exhibitors can also imbibe what west has been doing for the past two years. Netflix released its big films 'Roma' and 'The Irishman' in limited screens for a brief period of time. Sure it was done to comply with the rules of the Academy in order to be considered for nominations, but the fact is that these films did make it to select theatres and people watched it on the big screen.

Strategising with producers and the government may help the theatre owners to earn profits in a post COVID world. Taxes need to be lowered, expenses have to be cut down, and exhibiting blockbusters have to be thought in a more cost-effective and innovative way. 

Shomini Sen

Shomini has written on entertainment and lifestyle for the most part of her career. While writing on cinema remains her first love, her other interest lies in topics like gender, society and Indian literature.