(OTT wants first strike: Bad news for cinema (Column: B-Town)

The movie industry has been on a standstill since March 13 this year due to the deadly coronavirus. Same is the case with television channels providing various options as well as family fare. Corona being a contact virus, no shooting was allowed for any content — films, television or OTT.

The cinema halls all over India were mandated to close down March 13 onwards, the day late Irrfan's “Angrezi Medium” released in cinemas. Irrfan was a much-admired actor and the film also carried a huge sympathy wave for the actor. Sensing that the closedown could last for long, the makers decided to take the film to the OTT platform of Disney+Hotstar.

Yes, “Angrezi Medium” was a film everybody would want to watch, at least once, for the love of Irrfan. But, some more filmmakers started toying with the idea of opting for OTT release and not waiting for things to normalise and cinema halls to reopen.

Rising Sun Films, the makers of “Gulabo Sitabo” took the lead and the film's premiere release happened on Amazon Prime. The deal the producers got for the film, across the table, must have been comfortable enough to accept even after fulfilling other obligations, since the film's theatrical rights were already sold and needed to be redeemed.

The experiment must have proved to be rewarding even for Amazon Prime that the floodgates are opening up in the OTT market.

This week, Disney+Hotstar Multiplex had a virtual press conference to announce the acquisition of seven mainstream films for a premier release on its OTT platform. These films are the kind that would command a decent opening at the multiplex on release, at least, most of them. The seven films are: “Laxmi Bomb” (starring Akshay Kumar), “Dil Bechara” (Sushant Singh Rajput), “Bhuj: The Pride Of India” (Ajay Devgn), “Sadak 2” (Sanjay Dutt-Alia Bhatt), “The Big Bull” (Abhishek Bachchan), “Lootcase” (Kunal Khemu) and “Khuda Haafiz” (Vidyut Jammval).

The irony of this acquisition announcement is that, Fox Star Studios has been bankrolling and distributing many big-ticket movies of established production banners. Now, its another arm, Disney+Hotstar Multiplex acquires these films (with many more deals in the making) for OTT release. The company's reasoning for going the OTT way is that, ‘people don't come to theatres often enough (three to four times a year)'.

Obviously, Disney+Hotstar don't own any cinema property. Naming the company Disney+Hotstar Multiplex should serve the purpose.

This may not be entirely true that people don't come to theatres despite the fact that the admission rates are quite a deterrent. It is the policy that the multiplex chains follow. They dictate the terms, be it with the filmmakers or the moviegoer.

It is time, the arrangements became more accommodative rather than one-sided! Wasn't it dictatorial for a multiplex chain to threaten with ‘retaliation' when the first producer opted for OTT instead of not waiting for the Corona curfew? If every multiplex chain thinks it runs the cinema industry and can hold a filmmaker and his film to ransom, it had better think again. The arrangement should be mutual.

As for the OTT content provider, it does away with the middlemen as also the P&P costs. Besides multiplexes, even when it comes to the other-satellite-based digital cinema distribution services like UFO, Qube etc, releasing a film also takes a lot of investment, and opting for the OTT saves on the all that trouble. These systems serve mostly the single screen cinema. And, their terms are harsh.

In the earlier system, a distributor acquired a film for his circuit (as the distribution trade was divided in those days) and planned its release according to its merit and the target audience. There were different release strategies and the kind of cinemas for a family film or an action film or a rom-com.

With the coming of multiplexes, the distributor's strategy did not matter. Multiplex chains decide not according to the genre of the film, but depending on the face value. Films of Salman Khan, Aamir Khan etc were blanket bombed in over 3,500 to 4,000 screens, so what if four to five screens happened to be in the same property!

If a film lacked in face value, the cinemas were not very enthusiastic. They got limited screens, which was fine, but also odd show timings. As if the audience was conveyed not to bother. Sometimes, some good films with prospects to grow on the word of mouth suffered on this count.

On the OTT all films are equal and the choice of timings, weather to watch or not are left to the subscriber of the particular OTT platform. Not to forget when to take a break, pause the film and indulge.

How much would it cost to subscribe to Disney+Hotstar Multiplex per annum? It is Rs 399 as of today. And, even at that rate, it is open to all. The family, the relatives, the neighbours.

But, this is not about one OTT like Disney+Hotstar Multiplex alone. Even if one subscribed to half a dozen prominent OTT platforms, it would cost you, may be, same as a couple of VIP lounge tickets. Earlier, a film's collections would be affected due to heavy rains or high winter. These same factors, in fact, would end up getting more viewers for OTT.

And, the media continues to do its job. It reviews OTT content as sincerely as it did theatrical releases. Nobody seems to be missing the theatre experience anymore!

With these new developments where OTT players are buying out unreleased films, there may really be a shortage of flow of content for the cinema halls when they reopen. As it were, there are barely many big-star films that guarantee near-full houses the day they open.

And, it does not end there. Cinema screens won't enjoy monopoly over films, OTT platforms will be vying for the new films as well. Who would have thought that a filmmaker will have an option and a ready film will become a bearer bond!

(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)


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