Almost two months into the coronavirus lockdown and the unprecedented disruption in the film business, the strain caused by the mammoth commercial setback is evident as producers of some of the most anticipated movies have decided not to wait for their theatrical release and instead opt for their ‘world premiere’ on OTT platforms. This, however, has not gone down well with some top exhibitors, who have expressed their displeasure and even veiled threat.
Some of the much-awaited summer releases, including Shoojit Sircar-directed Gulabo Sitabo featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, Anu Menon-directed Shakuntala Devi which has Vidya Balan in the titular role, are headed for a world premiere on Amazon Prime Video. Five other Indian films — legal drama Ponmagal Vandhal featuring Jyotika, Keerthy Suresh-starrer Penguin (Tamil and Telugu), Sufiyum Sujatayum (Malayalam), Law (Kannada) and French Biryani (Kannada) — will premiere on Prime Video over the next three months and will be available in 200 countries. ZEE5 will stream comedy-drama Ghoomketu, featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Anurag Kashyap, on May 22 as its Eid offering.
Manish Goswami, vice-president of Producers Guild of India, said: “Some producers are ready to wait. Some are willing to compromise with their profit and go for digital release. It is an individual choice. They should be allowed to do so. It is tough to calculate how much loss the producers have incurred, the amount would be massive as there are so many movies in pre-production, production and ready-to-be released stage.”
Other major movies which are likely to bypass the theatres and head directly to digital platforms are Laxmmi Bomb featuring Akshay Kumar, Gunjan Saxena that has Jahnavi Kapoor in the lead role, Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund and Anurag Basu’s Ludo.
Criticising the decision to release big-ticket Gulabo Sitabo on a streaming platform, INOX in a statement said on Thursday that such a move “paint these content producers as fair-weather friends rather than all-weather life-long partners” and mentioned that “INOX will be constrained to examine its options, and reserves all rights, including taking retributive measures, in dealing with such fair-weather friends”.
PVR, too, took a dig at the producers. “Needless to say, we are disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to the streaming platform/s. We were hoping that the Producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopen,” said Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures.
In a two-page statement, the Producers Guild of India on Friday responded to the criticism and reiterated the heavy financial losses suffered by the filmmakers. The Guild said this was a time for “the entire film industry to come together with empathy” — from producers, distributors, exhibitors, daily wage earners and technicians, to the thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods are in some way dependent on the industry.
It said: “Statements that call for ‘retributive measures’ against producers who decide to take their movies direct to OTT platforms — especially at a time when cinemas are unfortunately closed for the foreseeable future –- do not lend themselves to a constructive or collaborative dialogue on the way forward for the industry.”
It went on to explain how the production sector (just like the exhibition sector) is suffering hundreds of crores of losses on a daily basis as elaborate and expensive sets erected for under-production films have had to be taken down, huge cancellation charges being borne by producers even as interest costs are mounting on amounts raised to fund films. Ambitious projects like Dharma Production’s Takht, YRF’s Prithviraj, and Salman Khan’s Radhe are waiting to be completed.
Describing the move to release Gulabo Sitabo on an OTT platform as “the dawn of a new era for Indian entertainment”, Sircar said he was happy that “a global audience will be able to watch the gritty dramedy”, while Bachchan believed that the family entertainer had “the power to cut across geographic boundaries”.
Even though OTT platforms such as Prime Video, Netflix and ZEE5 have been showcasing a lot of Indian movies, this is the first time that the movies expected to be money spinners will have a direct digital release.
Coming up on Netflix next week is Megha Ramaswamy’s directorial debut, What are the Odds?, which is about two unlikely friends who play hookey from school. Also coming up are Netflix originals such as Anurag Kashyap’s Choked and Anushka Sharma production Bulbul. In the West, however, critically acclaimed movies such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story have gone for a digital release.
Commenting on the exhibitors’ stand, filmmaker Rahul Rawail said, “Most of the movies are made for theatrical experience. But producers too have their compulsions as no one knows when theatres will reopen. That apart, the behaviour of theatre owners has been very arbitrary in the past, especially when it comes to profit sharing. Both parties should talk and sort out the matter.”
READ: Producers Guild of India: Disappointing to see abrasive messaging from some colleagues in the exhibition sector | Shakuntala Devi to release on Amazon Prime Video | Filmmakers stand by digital film release, say ‘big screen will not get replaced by OTT’ | Theater owners disappointed, call Gulabo Sitabo’s digital release a mistake
The veteran director, however, believes that this might change viewing habits and the way films are made. “While there would be movies like Kabir Khan’s 83 and Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi — which are meant to be major theatrical experiences — there would be small and off-beat movies made for steaming platforms specifically. No one can stop technological advances and it’s going to impact the exhibition of movies.”
Even when the lockdown ends, neither is the audience expected to flock to the theatre, nor will film production resume immediately in full force. “A family outing to a multiplex usually costs at least Rs 2,000. The economic conditions of people might not allow such visits. There will be fear of coming in contact with other people too. The production cycle would need combinations like availability of locations, actors’ dates and permission for crowd scenes to come together,” said Goswami, even as he didn’t rule out many other producers following suit and create content for OTT platforms.