By Vinod Mirani
The closedown due to COVID-19 is unlike any closedown the film industry has ever been through before. There have been strikes by film producers in protest against highhandedness of distributors or some or the other grouse against government departments.
Most of the time when one or the other section of the film industry decided on a no-cooperation with distributors of some circuits, it had an end. Usually, the film industry lockdowns ended when of their own betrayed them, went against the dictate for personal benefit. The film industry never won any of its battles. Especially so with the authorities.
In those days, finance was arranged at high interest rates and government duties were raised as a rule with every annual budget, and no such strike lasted for long because the filmmakers could not afford to delay their films.
However, this once, the COVID-19 closedown won’t end with one of industry’s own member going against it. All sections of the industry are in it together. All are suffering to a varied degree due to lack of productivity, financial paralyses and losses in some sectors.
The industry is at a standstill. Actors, even the busiest of them are sitting idle, production companies and multiplex properties on a pause. Both of these have fixed outgoings, work or no work. Add to that, investments in underproduction projects stuck indefinitely.
The film industry employs thousands of people besides technical professionals. These are on and off the workers employed at the sets, who are paid on day to day basis only when shooting takes place. No work, no pay. They don’t sign muster anywhere. They are on the lowest rung of the film hierarchy and are suffering the most. Not only has their present but even their future seems to be uncertain. And, when the whole country is under lockdown, it is not as if they have an alternative of finding a job elsewhere.
From day to day developments, it seems like this COVID-19 effect is not going to end very soon. In which event, the future of the entire film industry is uncertain, to the extent that nobody has a clue what will happen, nor can one make plans. At least, not anyone from the industry.
Among the biggest sufferers at the moment are the multiplex chains, their luxurious properties which redefined moviegoing in India now wear a haunted look. No movie screenings, no box office collections.
Yet, future shock awaits these cinema outlets. And this, when the overheads and maintenance remain static. It is not as if the exhibition trade will spring back to normalcy soon as the lockdown is withdrawn. The normalcy is going to need a lot of cooling period. For one thing, the supply of films is going to be scarce as filmmakers and investors will want to make sure the ambience is conducive to risk releasing a film. The moviegoer is sure to be even warier going into an enclosed cinema hall keeping safe distance, with social distancing having been drilled into his mind over the last few months.
Then, there is another medium that has gained momentum during the closedown. That is the popularity and growth of the OTT platform. When cinema was not available and television channels were dishing out repeat programmes, OTT proved to be the only medium of entertainment.
OTT has been making inroads for some time now. But, only as just another medium of entertainment. The fact that OTT was the only entertainment available over the past few months with unlimited providers with seemingly never-ending content options from many countries is not the only cause to worry for multiplexes.
The cause to worry is because OTT is posing to be a parallel premiere release platform for new films. That the filmmakers are even contemplating to bypass a cinema hall and opt for OTT is a cause for worry.
“Angrezi Medium” had just released on March 13 and the closedown was announced the same day. Like with all such films, it did not even get a weekend’s run for the word of mouth to spread, so that the film could pick up momentum. The film’s release was delayed because of the health problems of Irrfan, its protagonist. Finally, when it hit the screens, its stay was shortlived.
The film’s theatrical prospects were finished because rereleasing it after the lockdown would have meant empty houses. It was a rather thoughtful decision on the part of the makers of “Angrezi Medium” to immediately release it on OTT platform. The film was gaining on this platform when, unfortunately, Irrfan passed away. For his massive fan base, the film became a must watch.
This was just a start for concern for the multiplex owners. Because, some filmmakers had started contemplating the premiere release of their films on OTT, sidestepping the cinema screens. And, considering the amount of money that OTT platforms, it could easily suffice to make small and medium-budget films that have been doing well at the box office in recent times. Such films usually have budgets ranging from Rs 10 to 25 crore.
For big-budget films, a release on OTT will not be viable because these have huge investments to recover. Unfortunately for the cinema halls, the number of such films under production has dwindled greatly over the last couple of years.
Add to other problems the multiplexes face, there is a certainty that the taxes on the admission rates of cinema tickets will be increased by the government, as it has done with what it considers inessential for survival, like alcohol and fuel. Cinema tickets are sure to figure on the list.
For the subscriber, what works is that at a fixed monthly fee, OTT opens up a mine of content, be it films, television serials, news, sport, music, documentaries and content created by the platforms on their own, which is much different from what the television channels dish out, and caters to the youth. This is besides the access to the international repertoire.
At the last AGM of Reliance’s Jio, it had promised to bring the premiere release of new films on your smartphone and television. That has not happened yet but, the filmmakers were heard to contemplate new film releases on OTT. Even in South film industries, such a move is under consideration. Recently, filmmakers from Tamil and Telugu industries made a serious move towards this end. That is, opt for OTT medium of exhibition of films.
This thinking by filmmakers seems to have unnerved multiplex owners. That the filmmakers should even think of any other medium to take their films to viewers was never considered. This led the Multiplex Association of India (MAI) to make an appeal to studios, producers, artistes and others concerned to support the cinema exhibition sector by holding on and release their films in theatres once they open again.
So far, the multiplex owners have always got their own way with all those to whom they have held out their appeal for support! For the first time, they have felt threatened.
Multiplexes have been greedy with pricing of admission rates and food services as well as parking. These strategies have driven away a major chunk of movie lovers from visiting cinema halls. Mobile phones and smartphones have proved to be the major source of entertainment for them.
Once reopened, one hopes the multiplexes opt for volume, rather than being selective about their audience by charging high rates. Attract the audience back by being reasonable instead of deciding to make up for the closedown losses by charging more. The state is planning to increases taxes, anyway.
Better to remember that, with the closedown its consumers’ buying power has depleted, too.