Going for the movies is a thing of the past

Manu Shrivastava | Mumbai

Grabbing a movie at a nearby multiplex with that jumbo box of caramel popcorn in one hand and a coke in another is now itself relegated to something you watched … in the movies! Gone are the days when you could throw caution to the winds, grab your partner’s hand and jostle through enthused crowds surging for an entry into a cinema hall. With COVID-19 breathing down heavily upon the world and no cure anywhere in sight, humans have been reduced to a masked existence, in the obscurity of their homes and distanced by law.

Crowds at Sterling Multiplex in Mumbai before the lockdown was imposed across India
The biggest film productions in India are being awaited but with a difference. Even as states across India have grown to distrust neighbouring states, some even their own working as migrants across borders, watching a film is probably the last on one’s list of priorities. If not, then watching one in a fancy multiplex sure is.

So, Akshay Kumar and Kiara Advani’s Laxmmi Bomb, Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana’s Gulabo Sitabo, Kiara Advani’s Indoo Ki Jawaani, Amitabh Bachchan’s Jhund, Abhishek Bachchan and Rajkummar Rao starrer Ludo, Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi, Janhvi Kapoor’s Gunjan Saxena biopic, Kriti Sanon’s Mimi, Ananya Panday and Ishaan Khatter’s Khaali Peeli and Radhika Madan, Diana Penty and Sunny Kaushal’s Shiddat are through with shooting and ready for release.

Now, they’re all undergoing their respective post-production modules before hitting the OTT platforms – the only inevitable option left for the industry. With the entire nation, locked up at home, releasing these films digitally seems the best and most well-calculated plan. The most reasonable industry practice of retaining the initial two months of a movie release as an exclusive theatrical window before selling the rights to satellite channels or over the top platforms like Netflix or Amazon is a thing of the past. After all, it’s a matter of survival.

Indian Films Set For OTT Release: Amazon Prime will also be released seven films in five Indian languages directly on the digital platform and scheduled to premiere between May and August. Ponmagal Vandhal (Tamil), starring Jyothika, Parthiban, Bhagyaraj, Prathap Pothen and Pandiarajan, Ponmagal Vandhal is a legal drama, will be screened from 29 May. Gulabo Sitabo (Hindi), starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, earlier set to have a theatrical release on 17 April 2020 will be released digitally now from 12th June. Penguin (Tamil and Telugu), starring Keerthy Suresh, will be released from 19th June. Starring Ragini Chandran, Siri Prahlad and veteran actor Mukhyamantri Chandru, Law (Kannada), is being released from 26th June. Featuring actors Danish Sait, Sal Yusuf and Pitobash as leads, French Biryani (Kannada) will be released digitally from 24th July. The much-anticipated Shakuntala Devi (Hindi), featuring Vidya Balan in the lead and featuring Sanya Malhotra earlier set for a theatrical release on 8 May, will now be released on the Prime Video platform. The film's release date is yet to be announced. The last of the lot, Sufiyum Sujatayum (Malayalam) starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Jayasuruya is expected to have a digital release during this period too. The film's release date is yet to be announced.

So, confirming the inevitable despite all that speculation, film director Shoojit Sircar with actors Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana recently announced their upcoming film, ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ will directly release on Amazon Prime Video on June 12, instead of going to the big screen first.

‘Gulabo Sitabo’ was slated for a theatrical release earlier this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a complete lockdown of the nation. "This is the dawn of a new era for Indian entertainment," said director Sircar.

“I am happy that a global audience will be able to watch our gritty dramedy, and enjoy what the film has in store for them. 'Gulabo Sitabo' is a quirky, lighthearted movie the audience can enjoy with their families. It has been a wonderful experience working with Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana on the film,” added Sircar. With the digital release, ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ will premiere across 200 countries and territories.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ghoomketu was released on 22 May 2020 on Zee5. The shooting of the film was completed in 2014 but owing to financial troubles and the inability to find ideal distributors for film release, the release was delayed. The film was initially speculated to have its theatrical release on 16 November 2018 but was postponed.

Capitalising on the move, Amazon Prime Video, India’s Director and Head, Content says, "It is the first step in our endeavour to bring superior cinematic experiences to our customer's doorstep." A Rising Sun Films production, ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ is produced by Ronnie Lahiri and Sheel Kumar.
The news surely does not augur well for the single screens and multiplexes across India reeling under the COVID-19 threat. Why, a few members of the Eastern India Motion Pictures of India even dashed off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take steps to stop producers from releasing films, primarily meant for theatres, on OTT platforms.

The letter maintained that producers, who having signed contracts with single screens and multiplexes, should not be allowed to release their films on over-the-top (OTT) sites. It would only add to the financial woes of cinema hall owners.

Since mid-March, for over two months now, single screens and multiplexes have stopped screening any movies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Bengali film industry, a number of producers have lined up their ventures for release on OTT platforms.

Meanwhile, according to reports within the Hindi film industry, Amitabh Bachchan’s highly-anticipated ‘Jhund’ and Abhishek Bachchan and Rajkummar Rao multi-starrer ‘Ludo’ will also have OTT releases.

Only Tanhaji Scored Theatrically In 2020: This year, after War and Kabir Singh, it was Ajay Devgn starrer Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior that drew in triple digits - ₹367.65 crore (US$52 million) worldwide according to some reports, better even than Uri - The Surgical Strike that made ₹338 crore. And then, came Baaghi 3 released on 6 March that was hit the first by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing nationwide lockdown from 25 March 2020 and fell short of a century. Three lockdowns later, Baaghi 3, produced by Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment and Fox Star Studios, was re-released on Disney + Hotstar on 1 May 2020. Angrezi Medium, Irrfan Khan's last, made at a budget of ₹30 crores, went on to be released on 13 March and was drastically affected by the closure of cinema halls and multiplexes across India following the COVID-19 scare. It went on to be re-released digitally, in less than a month of its theatrical release, on Disney + Hotstar on 6 April.

Producers, stung by the global pandemic and the lockdown constraints in India, have been selling off rights to the films to the online streaming platform. “It’s the uncertainty about the reopening of theatres that has led to producers deciding to go ahead with an online release instead,” says Pune-based, Marathi film industry artiste Mangesh Hiremath.

“How else will they recover their money? With the situation today looking dismal and no solution in sight for a year at least, filmmakers are left with little option but look for other platforms to recover as much as they can,” says financial consultant Rakesh Goel who maintains, “It’s a pure survival tactic. And, one that cannot be dragged or put to question in a court of law either.”

In April, among the first indicators appeared with news of Akshay Kumar’s film ‘Laxmmi Bomb’ said to release directly on an OTT platform. The trickle of small-budget movies and now big names like those of Akshay Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan opting for digital releases has left film exhibitors and theatre chains a worried lot.

From across the industry is a flurry of requests to filmmakers to avoid releasing their films online on the premise that such releases will make cinema halls irrelevant. Multiplex owners, in particular, have appealed to movie producers to adhere to industry practice. Multiplex Association of India (MAI) represents over 18 regional and national multiplex chains and represents around 90 per cent of the multiplex industry in India. Its members operate more than 600 multiplexes with more than 2,900 screens across the country: Now, all that sounds hunky-dory on paper, but makes little difference if the crowds don’t actually come. Does it?

Losses Suffered By Film Industry: Despite multiplexes have been threatening to boycott producers and actors opting for digital releases until theatres open but could be legally challenged as being anti-competitive. Producers, on their part, would be able to legally stream their films even if their contracts didn't contain a force majeure clause. Exhibitors earn anywhere between 50 per cent to 60 per cent from the ticket sales and are bound to be irate. Experts estimate the entertainment industry has already lost more than a thousand crores because of the lockdown. Box office revenues have completely dried up and projects are being delayed, spelling huge losses for the industry.

Intriguingly, life is all set to change. Staying in quarantine within a mandatory lockdown has nipped in the bud all activities we were used to. But, once the legal restrictions are lifted, we will need to evaluate what is worth it and what is in excess.

Also, the issues around movie theatres reopening are more complicated also involve factors that go even beyond just government permission. The reliance on high capacity screenings and concessions in sales will take a hit as screening a movie may not be economically viable at a time when social distancing could reduce capacities to 25 percent or 30 percent.

As and when the lockdown restrictions go and moviegoers maintain a sense of caution through self-imposed distancing, it is going to be a long, long time before it's financially reasonable and moderately safe for theatres to risk reopening.

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