What multiplexes did to single screens once, streaming will do the same to multiplexes
It's unusual to see a business decision making the headlines in the entertainment news category, but does this 'war of statements' between multiplexes and producers hint towards a possible paradigm shift in how we watch films?
For a while now experts have been discussing how the coronavirus pandemic is going affect all aspects of the human life. One of the emerging examples is the possible paradigm shift in how we consume films.
The premonition of cinema viewing experience becoming a personal one was there before the novel virus as well, with the direct-to-digital releases of big films like The Irishman and Marriage Story in the US or Lust Stories and Ghost Stories in India.
The pandemic and the new physically distant social order has made that writing on the wall even clearer.
For the last couple of days, this debate has been raging in India, that whether it is right for star-driven films like Gulabo Sitabo (starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana) or Shakuntala Devi (starring Vidya Balan) to opt for a direct-to-streaming release bypassing the exclusive theatrical window or not.
In fact, Amazon's Prime Video has announced that the 'first day of first show' of at least 7 Indian films will be held on the streaming platform. Along with Gulabo Sitabo and Shakuntala Devi, this list includes highly anticipated films like Ponmagal Vandhal (Tamil), Penguin (Tamil and Telugu), Law (Kannada), French Biryani (Kannada) and Sufiyum Sujatayum (Malayalam).
On the other hand, Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Ghoomketu is set to release on Zee5, while Akshay Kumar starrer Laxxmi Bomb is rumoured to be releasing on Disney+Hotstar.
This trend of releasing big-ticket films on streaming platforms might give us an early peek into what cinema viewing experience could become in the post-corona world.
India is currently in the middle of a strict lockdown as it battles a rising number of coronavirus cases, leaving about 9,500 theatres shut. Business at multiplexes and single-screen cinemas is unlikely to bounce back for weeks or even months, as infection fears linger and discretionary spending plunges.
With no certainty about when the theatres will reopen or whether people would gather in a space where physical distancing becomes difficult, one can understand why the producers would want to sell the film rights to a streaming platform.
"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," Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head, Content, Amazon Prime Video, India, said in a statement
The successes of series like Sacred Games, Fleabag, Money Heist and Panchayat have shown that streaming services, with their global audience base, can take you to more people than theatres could ever have. Plus, the film would have sureshot shelf life on the streaming service. Which director would not like that?
On top of that, streaming creates a level-playing field for all kind of films - small, medium, big and Salman Khan. It's democratic, with a person having the control to watch what they want to watch. It's simple, empowering and convenient.
But the multiplexes are expectedly livid about films skipping the theatrical run and going directly to streaming.
Both INOX and PVR issued statements expressing "displeasure and disappointment" over "some producers deciding to go straight to the streaming platform/s.”
"In these troubled times, it is disturbing to see one of the partners not interested in continuing the mutually beneficial relationship, especially when the need of the hour is to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, and bring the film industry back to its vibrant best. Such acts, though isolated, vitiate the atmosphere of mutual partnership and paint these content producers as fair-weather friends rather than all-weather life-long partners," INOX said in its statement.
While the PVR said, "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."
The Producers Guild of India supported the filmmakers' decision to choose their preferred mode of distribution by saying that this is a time for the entire film industry to come together with empathy and support for the difficult predicament that each of our constituents finds themselves in - from producers, distributors, exhibitors, daily wage earners and technicians, to the thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods are in some way dependent on our industry.
"Statements that call for 'retributive measures' against producers who decide to take their movies direct to OTT platforms - especially at a time when cinemas are unfortunately closed for the foreseeable future - do not lend themselves to a constructive or collaborative dialogue on the way forward for the industry," it stated.
Multiplexes indeed employ a considerable number of people across the country who would face massive job insecurity if the trend of direct-to-digital picks up in India.
On the other hand, multiplexes have long been seen acting as a class barrier with their often expensive tickets and exorbitant prices of food. So during a possible economic recession, if a person can watch the film they would like to watch on the same day as the rest of the world while sitting in the safety and comfort of their own home by paying Rs 200 to 500 a month - what is there not to like?
Theatre owners opine that it is the collective experience that digital platforms would never be able to give. The claps, the hoots, the comments the thrill of the silver screen and community feeling - are all said to be essential parts of the film viewing experience.
"The release of some films on the OTT platform can be an immediate response in the wake of the present situation due to the lockdown but the quality of these screenings cannot match that of the big screens. Our loyal audience will definitely return once the situation normalises," said an owner of a chain of theatres in Kolkata.
Also, we must remember that multiplexes do not accommodate the majority of India. It's the declining single-screen theatres which build and carry on the legends of our much-loved superstars. They too are facing an existential threat from producers choosing to go digital-only. In fact, their situation might be more vulnerable than the multiplexes, with chances of many single-screen theatres never opening again, even after the lockdown is lifted.
According to the Ficci-EY media and entertainment report 2020, the number of single screens in India has been steadily declining — from 7,031 in 2016 to 6,327 in 2019. Now, with salaries and fixed expenses mounting amid the nationwide lockdown and the OTT boom, a lot of them are looking down the barrel of a gun.
In a way, it is even ironic to see multiplexes expressing displeasure and issuing veiled threats at the advent of a credible alternative. At the turn of the millennium, it was the multiplex which made the single screens obsolete for the urban crowd; maybe it is the turn for multiplexes to become irrelevant.