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Immune to OTT: The future of Indian cinema

It’s been a turbulent period of about 14 months for the Hindi film industry. While film industries across the world have suffered heavily on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, most have managed to get at least a few big releases out since the outbreak in early 2020.

Even in India, the South industries, especially Tamil and Telugu, have seen a few releases, including successes like Master, Vakeel Saab, Uppena and Jathi Ratnalu. But when it comes to Hindi cinema, the theatrical business has been a no-show. Even as films started releasing in the South, Hindi filmmakers stayed away, waiting for the situation on ground, especially in the metros of Mumbai and Delhi, to get better. A few mid-level films like Roohi and Mumbai Saga released, and some bigger ones were expected to follow, but the deadly second wave has wreaked havoc since then.

But the period from April 2020 till now has not been uneventful at all for Hindi cinema. With theatres closed, OTT platforms have become the port of call for many Indian film producers. Gulabo Sitabo, Shakuntala Devi, Dil Bechara, Laxmii, Coolie No. 1 and now Radhe… the list of Hindi films opting for a direct-to-OTT release (though Radhe had a simultaneous theatrical release overseas) is long and growing.

Some of these films have gone on to do very well. Dil Bechara, which was released free (AVOD) by Disney+ Hotstar as a tribute to its lead actor who passed away June last year, clocked an estimated 75+ Million views in India, a record for any OTT property in the country thus far. Laxmii (25 Mn) benefited from Disney+ Hotstar’s huge reach too, though it was behind the paywall, unlike Dil Bechara. Coolie No. 1 amassed good numbers (14 Mn) for Amazon Prime Video, and Radhe has given Zee’s attempt pay-per-view (PPV) model a boost, with 10 Mn+ views so far. Radhe, Coolie No. 1 and Laxmii had to face severely negative reviews from most critics. But a sizeable section of the audience still watched them, especially over the first week.

Many analysts have concluded that the damage to the theatrical business in India will be irrevocable, and that the future of Indian cinema (or Hindi cinema at least) will be entwined with the OTT category. This, however, is a case of an opportunistic tendency to comment on trends in a way that suits the optics of the day. Many commentators, and even journalists, are guilty of this this tendency. Over the last year, I have often been asked my views on this topic as a part of a story a business publication is doing. In a majority of cases, the story has already been positioned as ‘pro-OTT, anti-theatres’. I should explain why I vehemently disagree with this misleading and over-simplistic narrative being peddled around.

The reasons are plenty, but I’d focus on only three of them here. To begin with, cinema is a social, outdoor medium. In all our research around theatrical consumption, the experience of going to a theatre with friends or family is often the primary motivation, rather than the specific film being watched. OTT is a more intimate medium, still led largely by personal consumption on the smartphone, where the viewing is anything but ‘social’ in nature. The social need fulfilled by movie theatres can only be compensated by other such modes of entertainment, say sporting events or plays.

The second reason is related to another unique need that movie theatre viewing satisfies: that of providing larger-than-life entertainment on the big screen. Films like those in the Bahubali and the Avengers franchise are watched on the big screen because of the magical experience that viewing provides. Much before the pandemic came in, audiences across the world were already segregating films in their heads as those for theatres and those for streaming. It was strikingly evident that with the growing penetration of streaming platforms, more intimate, emotional stories may not get a sizeable interest in the theatres, which will increasingly become the medium for big-screen, make-believe event films. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend that was decisively shaping up, even in India, since 2018.

The third reason is economic in nature. The typical business model of a big-ticket starcast film requires sizeable recoveries from three sources to ensure a minimum profit level: theatrical, satellite and digital. If we skip the theatrical component, the onus is on the other two to ‘fund’ the film. The contribution of theatrical revenue for an average Indian film was 65% in 2019. If the 35% had to fund the remaining 65%, several films will become commercially unviable at the onset. OTT platforms in India may be currently shelling out a premium for some of these big films, but that’s a short-term marketing investment to attract new subscribers, and not a plan sustainable in the long run.

Cinema is safe. Let me stick my neck out and predict that 2022 will be biggest year ever at the Indian box office. There’s only one thing that can stop that from happening. And that one thing is a botched-up vaccination strategy, not the OTT category. Business Insider

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