It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the film industry is in a perilous situation. The COVID-19 pandemic has knocked the bottom out of theatrical showings. Cinemas have mostly been shut for the past 18 months, with industry losses mounting every day. Almost a hundred Hindi films are ready to be released and jostling with each other for future release dates. Not since the advent of television and home video has there been such a deep existential crisis and pervasive gloom about the future of big-screen cinema.
There is no easy way to say this. Even when we cross the pandemic and cinemas re-open for good (as they hopefully will on October 22 in Maharashtra), the industry will not return to pre-COVID levels for months or even years. Film lovers will, understandably, be wary of rushing to crowded screenings. Governments, too, may be frequently pressured to act to reduce occupancy levels.
The OTT factor
The way forward will require a reckoning with our preconceived notions. The industry has already changed. Many big-ticket films that would have been marquee screenings in theaters have turned to OTT platforms. Our film, Shershaah, was slated for a July 2020 release in the theaters. Ultimately, it was released on Amazon Prime Video to a tremendous response in August 2021.
There are two ways to view Shershaah’s mind-boggling success. After all, many trade analysts have declared it one of the most viewed OTT releases of all time. The film’s music has made waves not just in India but on global charts as well. Now, one might rue the lost opportunity to release the film in theaters and mint crores in profits. But that would be missing the woods for the trees. In the ultimate analysis, we have to wake up to the new reality that is knocking at our doors.
A necessary evolution?
We have to evolve with the times and steer our ships accordingly. In fact, to many in the industry, OTT platforms have been a godsend, enabling us to distribute films to global audiences, while suitably recovering costs as well. It is a symbiotic relationship and must be viewed thus.
Of course, understanding the OTT market comes with its own pitfalls and opportunities. Compared to theatrical releases, many OTT platforms are willing to explore new genres. With viewership demands increasing every year, there is also a hunger for good content and new faces. In fact, shows such as Scam 1992 (SonyLIV) have made stars of relatively new stars due to their sheer talent. On the other hand, shows such as Arya (Hotstar) have allowed older actors to reboot their careers. This bodes well for the industry as a whole. Content is still king, and in the coming years there is going to be a huge demand for it.
Working in the pandemic
We are in the midst of pre-production for a couple of films and shows that should hopefully be released next year. With the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, travel is no longer as convenient as it used to be. So, we are adapting to new models of working and putting films together. These new cost-effective models may shape the industry in the years to come.
For example, it is now entirely possible to have film narrations and run writers’ rooms virtually. This saves precious time and money. People can work at their own pace while preparing for the ultimate objective of going on floors. Extra care also needs to be taken to ensure that during pre-production and production, cast and crew are regularly tested and social distancing norms are maintained. Health safety will remain a critical factor in differentiating the best production houses from the rest.
The next few years will see a lot of assumptions being tested, re-tested, and altered. Genres that previously worked may not continue to work. The thirst for new content from audiences will grow. New faces may take over from established stars. At all times, cost control will be essential. Not many production houses can risk putting together costly endeavors that may return losses. As a result, be prepared to see a glut of small productions that place content above all else. Small-town stories will remain popular and come in many shades: romance, thriller, horror and more.
Now, more than ever, is a time for vigilance – for keeping a sharp eye out for the best content and sharpest talent; and for ensuring zero cost overruns; for maintaining the strictest health-safety standards; and for keeping faith in our audiences and believing that the golden days of cinema will soon return.