Millennium Post
Entertainment

Mixed bag for film viewers as halls reopen

With the cinema halls set to open on October 1 in West Bengal, what lies ahead for the viewers? Can they expect to catch their blockbusters or will the wait get longer? ‘Millennium Post’ explores

With West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's decision to reopen cinema halls in the state from October 1, people associated with the industry are excited. For many, the announcement was not out-of-the-blue as they expected the government to act before the Durga Puja, which is starting from October 22. But will the theatres be back in business right away, it remains to be seen. Theatre owners, in private, are not much happy with the sudden announcement by the government to open halls. The high maintenance cost and low Box-Office collections may not be a rosy picture for many screen owners.

By a rough estimate, there are more than 40 Bengali films ready for release. 'Windows Production House' has 'Belashuru' as it had a June release date and 'Lakkhichhele', which was supposed to release in August; Raj Chakraborty's 'Dharmajuddha', Arindam Sil's 'Maayakumari', Debaloy Bhattacharya's 'Dracula Sir', Anindya Chattopadhyay's 'Prem Tame', Srijit Mukherji's film, Gautam Ghosh's 'Rahgi' and apart from others are all waiting to be screened but on the big screen.

Even though filmmakers are happy to finally get a date for the halls to reopen, many of the Tollywood's A-list directors are not much optimistic about releasing their ready films straightaway. Industry insiders say the producers are sure to run into losses as the government-advised SOP states only 50 people inside a hall for a show. This low occupancy will translate to less Box-Office collection. The big-budget films will, instead wait for the halls to fill up for greater profit sharing.

'Windows Production House', which had released 'Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti' just before the halls shut down indefinitely, is considering re-releasing it at theatres. Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy of the production house had already announced their next projects 'Haami 2' and 'Haami 3'.

Shiboprosad accepts that it will not be possible for his production house to recover the cost of his films if he releases them when theatres open, with much reduced occupancy due to physical distancing norms.

"We will try and release 'Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti'. We even have assurances from multiplexes that they will consider the film as a first-week release. So, we will release the film. There are many people, who could not watch the film before and would like to watch it in theatres," said the director.

Despite the low occupancy, Shiboprosad is willing to release his film upfront.

"We will release the film knowing well that we will not be able to recover our cost. Out of a social cause and an obligation towards the industry, I am willing to take the step. This way we will be giving out a message that good cinema is releasing in theatres again," he said.

But not all directors or producers are thinking alike.

Actor, director and producer Arindam Sil, whose film 'Maayakumari' is ready for release but chose to wait and release it on streaming platforms. He is playing the waiting game. Sil said, " 'Maayakumari' is made for the big screen and I will not release it on digital platform. There is no market for digital platforms for Bengali films. No one will admit it but that is the truth. The demand in digital platforms is for English, Hindi, south Indian languages then Marathi, in that order. 'Gulabo Sitabo' or 'Shakuntala Devi' can be released on OTTs because they could fit into the small screen format but not a James Bond film or Akshay Kumar-starrer 'Sooryavanshi'."

The director, who is doing a Hindi film for 'Netflix', said that he is shooting the film with OTT release in mind. But will he be willing to release his film on October 1? Sil negates such a possibility.

" 'Maayakumari' was set for Puja release but we cannot start promotions for it. The time is too short for promotions. If the film does not release during Puja, it will

be released in December," said Sil. He agreed that films releasing on OTTs are being sold at a very cheap rate.

OTT release not an option

Though Hindi films continue to be released on OTT platforms, in Bengal the scenario is bit different. Unlike in Bollywood, Tollywood has been slow in adapting to the change. In Bengal, original film releases on the digital platforms have been few and far between. While 'SVF' released 'Detective', there is 'Karma' by Riingo Banerjee, which is set to see the light of the day this Puja. But these are aberrations.

That begs the question - if a Hindi film can release on OTT platform, why cannot a Bengali film follow suit?

Industry experts say that if a film is released in OTT the producer can only expect the landing cost (production cost). Unlike Hindi films, for Bengali films releasing on OTT platforms is not a profit-making venture yet.

"If a film is released at a theatre and has a decent run, the income for the producer is much more. This is precisely the reason why a film is not released on OTT upfront," said an expert.

Hindi films have a much wider market and they can expect profit from selling viewing rights to digital platforms. This is a major reason why producers with deep pockets

in Bengal chose to wait for theatrical release. Filmmakers are also aware that OTTs will not buy all kinds of films and will only be interested in ventures where they see potential.

Filmmaker Sandip Ray, who feels the shutdown and the pandemic has dealt a body blow to the Bengali film industry, considers himself fortunate that he does not have the predicament of having a film ready but not able to release it.

"Those, who have made their films with the big screen in mind, will never agree to release it on digital platforms. If I had faced a situation similar to many other filmmakers, I would have chosen to wait for the cinema halls to open," said Ray.

Ray, who considers resumption of shooting for television and web-series is a good sign, too was hit by the shutdown as he had been planning big for the centenary year celebration of his legendary father, Satyajit Ray.

"We had lot of programmes lined up for my father's centenary year. Everything got postponed; seminars, film shows, lectures etc were all in the pipeline and all our plans were upset with the shutdown," added Sandip Ray.

Another factor, which is a new trend for OTTs is the pay-per-view format. Experts say it is a risky proposition. According to the experts, people will not go for pay-per-view. If the producer is not sure of a certain amount for his film, why would he go for this format?

Bengal slow starters

Filmmaker Riingo, whose film 'Ghuri' is doing the rounds of international film circuit now, thinks in OTTs it takes time to recover the money.

"In Bengal, before the lockdown, people did not understand the difference between an OTT and television production. In Bengal, we take more time to adapt. We choose to be followers than initiators. It has been a practice. There are some like us, who are willing to experiment," he said.

But according to him change is happening, albeit slow.

"The prime content is very important and most of the portals have understood that. Srijit has done 'Feluda' for the first time. This is the trend - the sooner you adopt the better. This is the new reality which is going to stay the next 20 years. After the 5G advent, the possibilities are enormous," says an expert.

'Hoichoi', a streaming platform in Bengal, is popular for its content containing web-series and originals. The platform's head, originals, Anindo Banerjee, blames it on the low awareness about streaming platforms.

"After the shutdown, a chunk of viewers moved to OTT. Many of the people, who were not even aware of the existence of such digital platforms, started watching OTTs. We are affected due to the economic slowdown prevailing in the country even before the lockdown. For us, the challenge has been to get new viewers after the theatres and television shoots resume," said Banerjee. But he too agrees that it works better if the film's release on big screen first. "That way it works better for us," he said.

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