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Multiplex-producers fight may escalate as release window shrinks

Multiplex chains that refused to screen the Hindi version of Kangana Ranaut’s Thalaivii in north India are in for bigger trouble as their dispute with producers over the theatrical and digital release gaps for new films aggravates.

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At least three film trade analysts said several movies featuring big stars are likely to ask for a shorter time span between their release in theatres and on digital platforms in the interest of business given that cinemas are yet to bounce back.

The demand is likely to come after Kangana Ranaut starrer Thalaivii announced the streaming of the film’s Hindi version on Netflix within two weeks of its release in theatres. This led to a boycott of the Hindi film by multiplex chains PVR and INOX. Multiplexes had asked for a four-week window between the film’s release on the streaming service which was denied by the producers.

“The friction is likely to continue and the window between theatrical and digital premier will definitely come down even further if the business doesn’t pick up. In fact, the bigger the star, higher are the chances of the gap narrowing,” independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai said.

Besides, even the small and medium-budget films that have anyway always been shunned by multiplexes, may start looking only at direct-to-digital releases, reducing options for theatres.

The developments come on the back of years of resentment against theatre chains that have dictated shows and timings, said multiple trade experts, stressing the urgent need for the issue to be resolved by the stakeholders.

In the south, which is a market driven by the clout that stars command in theatres, especially on opening days and weekends, it is fairly unbelievable to see movies premiering on OTT platforms within two to three weeks, Pillai added.

For instance, Telugu hit SR Kalyanamandapam, one of the first films to arrive in theatres once they reopened in August, was available online within three weeks despite decent box office numbers. Multiplexes have also played Hollywood films like Fast & Furious 9, Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla vs Kong, that had not just released in cinemas in other parts of the world earlier but also on OTT platforms.

The insistence on sticking to the four-week window in the north for Bollywood titles stems from the fact that they own more theatres here and see far more business coming from the Hindi-speaking belt.

Yusuf Shaikh, business head, feature films at production and distribution company Percept Pictures said there is no doubt a producer will take his film directly to a digital platform if he gets a better deal. “Anything that comes from theatrical right now is only incremental and done with the hope of setting the ball rolling. But if everyone becomes a bit flexible in these unprecedented times, there is a better chance of the business growing,” Shaikh said.

Film producer Anand Pandit who has backed movies like Chehre and The Big Bull said the evolution of audience tastes driven by exposure on OTT platforms, encourages a lot of filmmakers to look at that avenue. While smaller, niche films should customize the gap between theatrical and digital releases on mutually agreed terms, bigger films could play exclusively in cinemas longer, said a film trade expert declining to be named.

“Today, a good piece of storytelling transcends linguistic barriers and cuts across demographics that we earlier thought had a specific cinematic taste. This is a good portent as it signals the growth of the entertainment industry but it is also challenging because it makes producers want to tap audiences across multiple platforms like television, OTT and theatres. At some point, the interests of all three will collide if we don’t streamline a system that benefits everybody,” Pandit said.

Chains like PVR, INOX and Cinepolis did not respond to Mint’s queries on imminent challenges of shrinking windows and fewer movies. Rahul Puri, managing director, Mukta Arts and Mukta A2 Cinemas said exhibitors and OTT platforms need to learn to co-exist on mutually agreed terms, so that both parties make good business and sustain their respective models.

“The time frame between a cinema and OTT release has already been reduced from eight to four weeks. A real immersive experience of a movie is on the big screen, so to reduce the time frame even further will not make sense. There is no right or wrong as both parties have a justified view point, but we must find common ground,” Puri added. Live Mint

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