The new normal
The increasing acceptance of the streaming platforms by filmmakers and viewers alike, have led many to believe that OTT is a serious contender, which can jeopardise the existeance of theatres
The Bollywood-crazy Indian fans are happy to get their regular dose of films during the pandemic, when the cinema halls are shut down. Regular streaming of films on OTT (over-the-top) platforms have whet their appetite.
Not only has the audience been lapping it up, the producers and filmmakers as well are happy that they are able to find an avenue to release the film and recover production costs.
But the process has also brought in fresh concerns for the industry.
The increasing acceptance of the streaming platforms by filmmakers and viewers alike, have led many to believe that OTT is a serious contender, which can jeopardise existence of theatres. Trade pundits though believe both the avenues will coexist. The proliferation of OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar Disney, Zee5, Alt Balaji, MX Player and many others have, in fact, given more avenues to producers to release films and make money, say experts.
Films such as 'Gulabo Sitabo', 'Shakuntala Devi', 'Choked' etc, which had big stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana and Vidya Balan, released on OTT platforms.
Film trade analyst Komal Nahta says during lockdown OTT platforms have come as messiah. "Had it not been for them, the producers' money would have been locked. The platforms stepped in and were even willing to offer more money than a theatrical release. If they were given Rs 40 crore for a pre-lockdown period, these platforms are ready to up it to Rs 60-70cr, depending on the film. So, the producers realised that even bypassing the theatrical release they were getting more from the OTTs and it is better than locking their money. OTTs provided liquidity for the producers," said Nahta.
Besides, low data charges and ever increasing smart phone users are all driving the digital media growth story. According to a report by 'PricewaterhouseCoopers', it is set to grow at a rate of 22% to reach Rs 12,000 cr by 2023. The advent of 5G services may push the growth further.
Nahta agrees with the prediction as he sees a phenomenal growth for the digital media. Earlier, he had said, "The OTTs are making up their money from subscriptions. For premium customers, they are offering ad-free content. And their base is going up in millions. They are also making profit and the producers are getting money. It is a win-win situation for both parties."
Industry insiders believe another factor that is being considered by the producers is the high cost of distribution and publicity for a theatre release, which pushes up the cost for producers. "After a 100 crore film is complete, around 50 crore goes for its distribution, advertisement and publicity. But for OTTs, there is no such expenditure," said an insider, who doesn't want to be named.
So, will the new normal mean the end for Rs 100 crore box-office collection?
"No, that story is not finished. This is a stop-gap arrangement. We will return to releasing films in cinemas. Films will be made for the big screen. Right now, there is no box office. Once it starts, we will resume talking of Rs 100 crore, Rs 200 crore or even more," felt Nahta.
He believes that OTTs are willing to pay extra, so that viewers forego the theatres and come to them. A producer, he feels, can still sell his film rights to OTTs after 8 weeks and make money from there apart from the satellite rights.
By Nahta's estimate the industry has lost at least 10,000 crore in the last five months. "The box-office is gone, multiplexes have to pay rent and pay salaries. Everyone is losing money," he said. This probably explains why many producers have decided to take the OTT route.
But, there are some, who are willing to wait for the theatres to open. Big-ticket films like 'Laxmmi Bomb', 'Radhe', 'Brahmastra', 'Sooryavanshi', '83', 'Coolie No. 1', which are set to be box-office blockbusters have not yet been released.
Kunal Sawhney, senior VP, operations, Carnival Cinemas, feels that a filmmaker wants his movie to be showcased in the best possible way and that is through theatres.
"When a hero jumps off the chopper, runs over moving trains or goes guns blazing, it is all about impact. You will only believe it when you see it on a big screen with dolby effect. The impact is important. People will remember the movie and the star and that will draw the crowd for the next film," said Sawhney. That, for him explains why the big-budget films are still waiting for the cinemas to open.
The senior VP also feels that with most of the people watching the digital releases on their mobile phones, the experience has not been good. "How long can you manage to hold your phone to watch a film?
Also, the quality of sound is suspect. With so much of data consumption due to WFH, the quality of streaming is also not up to the mark," said Sawhney.
Sarbani Mukherjee, producer, Assorted Motion Pictures, feels that the OTTs are just the right platform for short films. "Our production house is probably the only one to create premium content in short-film category. Our film 'Cakewalk', directed by Ram Kamal Mukherjee and Abhra Chakraborty, was acquired by Viacom 18 and premiered on satellite channel. Our second film, Season's Greetings, a tribute to Rituparno Ghosh, has been acquired by Zee5 Premium. Platforms like Zee5, Voot Select, Sony Liv, Hotstar, Ullu and few international brands are buying premium content, which we make. Multiplexes or single screens were never meant for short movies. Thanks to OTT platforms that many new and independent makers are getting a window."
Another factor working for producers like Mukherjee is that most of the platforms are interested in shorts and web series and have dedicated sections for it. But the OTT players are not willing to divulge much on how they plan their business once the theatres open. All efforts to contact ALT Balaji and Zee5 for their views drew a blank and their officials were not willing to come on record.
Filmmaker, Prakash Jha, who released his web series Aashram on MX Player recently, said, "It is fixed business. It is like you don't lose money. Once a film is released on OTT, I don't know it will be possible to release it back into cinemas. We will get to really understand the mechanics of the whole thing only when the cinemas and the OTTs run parallel. At this point in time, the cinemas are not running. So, the OTT has taken over."
On recovering his money, Jha said, "It depends on the budget. All I can say is that since it is commissioned and funded, as a producer I don't lose money."
At present, digital platforms are self-regulated and there is no censorship, a theatrical release. Internet industry experts say that the OTT platforms do not want any curbs on its content or else it will kill creativity. "These platforms are still self-regulated. Industry bodies, which are non-profit and are looking at the welfare of internet users, are also of the view that the government should have status quo and not put any censorship. They are drawing examples from other countries where such platforms remain a self-regulated matter."
"But the government feels there should be some regulation as sometimes, the content goes out of hand, leading to public outcry. At present such platforms come under IT ministry as the medium happens through internet. But if these are brought under I&B ministry, as is being planned, then there can be regulations," feels an internet expert.