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Piracy plays spoilsport for Bollywood’s hybrid release model

The release of Salman Khan’s Radhe recently has proven the Indian entertainment industry has a long way to go before the hybrid or multi-platform film release model can emerge profitable. Slow Internet and lower bandwidths coupled with inadequate viewing infrastructure gives rise to rampant piracy, especially in small-towns that are the primary audience for mass-market films. While Radhe may still have released in overseas cinemas and a handful of theatres in India, direct-to-digital offerings such as Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii and Varun Dhawan’s Coolie No.1 were also illegally played in small-town theatres after their release on Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video respectively last year.

Traditionally, advertising and subscription-led video streaming services have lost up to 30% of their annual revenue to piracy with content being circulated on file-sharing platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp. A film producer admitted on condition of anonymity that he had received at least three links to Radhe on the day of release on Telegram.

“India is at an extremely early stage of OTT penetration and Internet bandwidth is only truly smooth in, say, the top 10-15 cities. Technology-wise, we are decades behind Hollywood where the pay-per-view model has gained ground,” film producer, trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar said.

By releasing a film directly on a digital platform, producers are not really expanding market and viewing opportunities for it, Johar pointed out, because the clientele that has access to such services is fairly limited. Small-town India that prefers these mass-market films finds it easier to watch pirated prints on their phones rather than pay for it on a streaming platform. Further, unlike the hazy print recorded on phones or camcorders in theatres, downloaded prints of web releases are of good, viewable quality.

“Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. (ZEE) has filed an official complaint at the Cyber Cell, pertaining to the pirated version of the film Radhe being circulated across messaging platforms, including WhatsApp and Telegram. The officials are actively tracking down the phone numbers involved in this act of piracy, taking the required legal actions,” the company said in a statement days after the film’s release. In a tweet, lead actor Salman Khan, too, appealed to audiences to not “participate in piracy” given that the film “had been offered at a reasonable price of 249 per view”.

To be sure, film-makers and actors are also wary of direct-to-digital releases given the mixed response to previous films. Not only did they not make enough money by showcasing on streaming platforms, the value of stars also gets eroded when there are no box office numbers to flaunt. Unlike last year that saw scores of Bollywood films committing to online releases, there is much less speculation and no formal announcement this time yet, even though theatres are shut indefinitely.

“Film-makers tried to cut their losses and did the safest thing they could last year (by going to digital). Over the past few months, however, we’ve got a more nuanced understanding of the fact that while you could protect your downside by going to OTT, that’s not really enough. Essentially, everyone is chasing a box office hit,” said Sanjeev Lamba, executive producer of Hungama Originals at Hungama Digital Media.

Radhe, according to media industry estimates, made around 20 crore- 25 crore over its opening weekend through the hybrid release model as compared to the 100 crore previous Eid releases had made at the box office. Even if streaming platforms go all out to acquire a big-ticket film, producers would, at best, break even. Live Mint


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