The second wave of the covid-19 pandemic has thrown theatrical release schedules off gear, leading to a backlog of films that are ready. Producers have money stuck in multiple projects that are waiting it out to hit the big screen at a time when many cinemas have shut shop permanently. The resumption of movie shoots since September last year and the cautious approach by OTTs (over-the-top) streaming platforms for direct-to-digital releases will spell bad news, especially for small-budget films that are unlikely to find any takers.
Producers with ready projects are bearing the carrying cost of films, with interest rates mounting at 12-15% per month for loans taken to finance them, said Sanjay Bhandari, a bank loan consultant to the film industry. Trade experts say, the January to March quarter of 2021 alone could have made around Rs1,500 crore for the movie business across different revenue streams that has been deferred for now.
Everything scheduled at least between April and June will now be moved to the next quarter, which already has titles scheduled from earlier. “There are bound to be clashes and it remains to be seen how people sit across the table to accommodate different titles with adequate shows and timings,” said Bhandari.
“There is a lot of money stuck on the theatrical side because most producers have waited for other films to come and set a precedent that audiences are willing to come to theatres (and make it a safe bet for them to release their films). The multiple-week backlog is going to hit very hard since the per capita penetration of theatres is woefully down,” said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and television, Saregama India that owns boutique studio Yoodlee Films.
As a result, the window available to each film in theatres is going to get smaller, said Kumar, as bigger titles with star value and high budgets muscle out smaller films.
“Smaller films may not find takers anywhere, as they are unlikely to be entertained by theatres and will not find buyers in the digital space easily either,” Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema said. The initial frenzy to acquire movie titles has died down, executives in the OTT industry said, thanks to underwhelming response to recent films.
The Hindi film industry makes around 2,000 films a year, but there’s space for only 200-300 to release in the 9,527 theatres in the country. Around 30-40% of the films made in the past five years have not been released. With at least 20% of the country’s screen count having been wiped out by the pandemic, prospects for small-budget films are dim.
Keeping the backlog in mind, many producers have deferred upcoming shoots even if their individual state has permitted them. “We have film projects lined up but haven’t started shoots yet. Theatres aren’t open and may remain shut even in May so there is no point starting anything new unless there is clarity,” said Mahendra Soni, co-founder of Bengali production house Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF).
To be sure, trade experts such as Mohan point out some business opportunity was missed by not cashing in on holiday weekends like Republic Day earlier this year when a mainstream Bollywood entertainer could have hit screens to gauge audience sentiments. However, producers who have long waited for pan-India theatre reopenings say it was too big a risk when unlike regional cinema, Hindi films seek wide releases across the country, many centres in which were operating at 50% capacity.
“There is complete uncertainty and we’re just playing it by the day right now. It took four months for some kind of confidence to return after theatre reopenings last time; so it would be foolhardy to presume it would be any different this time,” Shariq Patel, chief business officer at Zee Studios said. Live Mint