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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Dear film exhibitors, it’s futile to resist change

It, indeed, surprised the entertainment industry when it was announced that director Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, no less, will skip the traditional theatrical route and release digitally via Amazon Prime Video.

Written by Manoj Kumar R | Bengaluru | Published: May 15, 2020 7:47:12 pm
Ponmagal Vandhal Ponmagal Vandhal and Gulabo Sitabo will stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Dear film exhibitors,

We are living in uncertain times. The rules of business across the board are changing fast and thick as everyone is struggling to get a grasp of the catastrophe that is bound to change all practices we held dearly for many decades. And the business of cinema will also change without exception.

It, indeed, surprised the entertainment industry when it was announced that director Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, no less, will skip the traditional theatrical route and release digitally via Amazon Prime Video. It was only the first of many announcements that the streaming giant had up its sleeves.

On Friday, Amazon Prime Video announced that it will be releasing as many as seven new titles spanning five Indian languages over the next three months. But, on the eve of this announcement, multiplex chain, Inox, dashed off a strongly worded letter to express its “extreme displeasure and disappointment.”

It warned that filmmakers against departing from the traditional and “globally prevalent content windowing practice.”

“Needless to say, INOX will be constrained to examine its options, and reserves all rights, including taking retributive measures, in dealing with such fair-weather friends,” Inox said in no uncertain terms.

The “retributive measures” may be the exhibitors’ euphemism for blacklisting future movies of certain film production companies/actors. Similar threats were issued to actor-producer Suriya to stop him from globally releasing his productional venture Ponmagal Vandhal on Amazon Prime Video.

The Jyothika-starrer was supposed to hit the streaming platform in the first week of May. A petrified body of theater owners, however, rushed to resist the move. The Tamil Nadu Theatre And Multiplex Owners Association announced that they would blacklist all movies associated with Suriya’s home production banner, 2D Entertainment. The association’s age-old strong-arm tactics worked as the filmmakers put the digital release of Ponmagal Vandhal on hold.

It was not the first time that film exhibitors have reacted strongly to maintain the century-old status-quo, instead of readapting and reengineering the business model to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

In 2013, Kamal Haasan was bullied into giving up his idea to adopt the pay-per-view model for his magnum opus Vishwaroopam by showing the movie through Direct-to-Home platforms a day before releasing it in theaters. It was too bold a move and had the potential to bring about a drastic change by opening up a new stream of revenues for filmmakers.

And seven years later, still, the body of exhibitors is resisting the change. The only question is how long will you (dear exhibitors) continue to resist an inevitable evolution? Even Martin Scorsese made a movie for Netflix. One could only imagine how much pain it would have brought him when he saw people watching The Irishman on screens of mobile phones and tablets.

It was not ideal, but it was also inevitable.

To quote Kamal Haasan, “Just because everyone has a kitchen at home, it doesn’t mean they would stop going out to eat at restaurants.”

The OTT platforms are the best thing that happened to content creators in the 21st century. And they can also be a blessing for small-budget movies that struggle to get a theatrical release.

Take, for example, Kannada movies Law and French Biriyani. Both the movies were waiting for a theatrical release for quite some time, despite having the backing of a powerful producer like Puneeth Rajkumar. Now, they will get a grand global opening in over 200 countries. And it is a massive feat for such humble movies, who couldn’t have achieved it through the traditional “windowing practice.”

And taking the OTT route will only work for small and medium budget movies. A movie like director SS Rajamouli’s Roudram Ranam Rudhiram (RRR) can’t make it work by digital-only release. RRR is being made at an estimated budget of about Rs 350 crore. The sale of digital rights can only fetch the producers about roughly 20 percent of its cost. And the rest of the returns has to come from theatrical revenues globally.

READ: Ponmagal Vandhal, Penguin, Law, French Biryani and Sufiyum Sujatayum to premiere on Amazon Prime Video | 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

So is the case with movies like Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, Master, Soorarai Pottru.

What is the point of resisting a new phase in home-viewing experience when there is no real threat to your hierarchy? There is no alternative, yet, to the ennobling experience of watching movies in a packed cinema hall.

So why sweat?

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