Big releases postponed, film, TV and web series shootings halted, theatres unable to screen movies, daily wage employees struggling for their next meal… the Rs 183 billion Indian film industry is going through its worst phase because of the lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. While the impact of the lockdown on the industry at large is still being evaluated, we take a look at how slim production and related fields have suffered in India over the past month.
Covid-19’s first impact came when Reliance Entertainment on March 12 indefinitely postponed Rohit Shetty’s film Sooryavanshi. The film starring Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif was scheduled to release on March 24. This was quickly followed by Sir, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Haathi Mere Sathi and 83 getting postponed too. Baaghi 3 saw fewer takers in its second week, and Irrfan Khan’s Angrezi Medium had to be pulled out of theatres. It eventually released on OTT platform Disney+Hotstar. Similarly a lot of big ticket releases in regional languages have also been delayed.
Covid-19’s ripple effect was felt when film bodies including Federation of Western Indian Cine Employees (FWICE) and Indian Film & Television Directors’ Association (IFTDA) decided to halt shooting of movies, TV shows and web series. Major production houses like Balaji Motion Pictures, Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films also promptly called off all production activity. Amid this, various state governments ordered the closing down of cinema halls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on March 24 of a 21-day national lockdown sealed the fate for several projects.
Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s much-awaited Brahmastra too halted production. The film which, after several delays, was finally scheduled to release December 4, 2020, now seems to be looking at an uncertain future. Shahid Kapoor’s Jersey, a remake of the Telugu hit of the same name, also suspended shooting to ensure the safety of its crew.
Among the movies hit is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. “I don’t understand how they will manage Gangubai’s production now. Its set has been created in Film City and it will start raining in June,” said veteran actor Seema Pahwa who plays a role in the film. “I am sitting at home when I was supposed to shoot for another film and a web series. The stuff that we have committed to till December will also get pushed. The entire schedule goes for a toss, and we cannot sign new work.”
Losses due to the postponement of releases
After an exciting January-February that offered a mix bag with Tanhaji, Chhapaak, Street Dancer 3D, Panga, Malang, Bhoot and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, March-April was supposed to be set aside for Sooryavanshi and Ranveer Singh’s sports drama 83 with the extended Easter weekend expected to help Box Office collection. Now it seems like Salman Khan’s Eid release Radhe and Akshay Kumar’s Diwali release Prithviraj could also take a hit. Karan Johar’s much-awaited period drama Takht was all set to go on the floors in the coming months. Now things don’t look bright for even the magnum opus.
Experts estimate the entertainment industry has already lost more than a thousand crores because of the lockdown. “This is the first time in our history that the entire India box office is zero.
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There have been regional strikes and shutdowns in the past, but nothing pan India. I think it will be a zero quarter which is a huge thing. The release schedule will now linger on till 2021,” trade analyst Girish Johar revealed.
According to a Financial Express report, the film industry faced a decline of 29.1 per cent to Rs 1062.4 crore in the first quarter of 2020, which stood at Rs 1499.4 crore for the same period last year.
Actor Taapsee Pannu, who was basking in the success of Thappad before the lockdown happened, said, “I just think every business will face a little bit of financial hit including the movie business. The kind of content people will churn out will also get affected.”
Still photographer Tejinder Singh who’s worked on projects like Manmarziyaan, Chhapaak, Thappad and Netflix’s The White Tiger explained, “It’s a very intimate job, be it lightmen, electricians, soundmen, costume from so many hands reaches the actors. You are fed by so many people, spot boys are getting you water and it is messy also. Then there is travel involved.” He said projects which could have been funded by the release of certain films by the production houses could now get affected. “It’s going to change a lot of dynamics on what film goes into production and when. The later we go onboard, the better it is. I believe nothing’s going to happen before August.”
Impact on movie theatre business
Suman Chowdhury, president ratings at Acuité Ratings and Research, told Equitybulls that Acuité expects a 50 per cent drop in multiplex footfalls in the next quarter particularly in metro and Tier II cities. Chowdhury predicts a lot of movie releases will be postponed and there will be erosion in earnings of listed multiplex players such as PVR and INOX.
Impact on the television industry
Despite channels exhausting their bank of episodes, the overall media consumption during the self-isolation period has jumped by 60 per cent, according to research firm Nielsen. Also, Doordarshan’s plan of re-airing iconic shows like Ramayan, Mahabharat and Byomkesh Bakshi has been received well prompting other channels also to bring their popular shows like Hum Paanch, CID and Siya Ke Ram. DD saw a 650 per cent growth in viewership in one week, and became the most-watched channel for two consecutive weeks. It even broke its own record by attaining a viewership of 1.9 billion across all the GECs for the Week 14, as per Broadcast Audience Research Council.
Actor Renuka Shahane reasoned, “There are so many shows which continue to stay in our minds even after so many years.” TV actor Varun Badola, whose show Mere Dad Ki Dulhan had to suspend production, explained that the shows are being watched by those who were part of the section of the audience that watched the shows during their first runs. “If Ramayan can garner such big TRPs even after so many years, something must have been good then. The fact is if you have created good content, it will never go waste. These shows have definitely survived the test of time,” he said.
Daily wage workers of the entertainment industry affected
Perhaps the most hard-hit are the daily wage earners of the film industry. Rakesh Dubey, a spot boy for the last 30 years, said 15 days of work earns him around Rs 20,000 every month. “Now due to the lockdown, we are stuck at home. I don’t know how we are going to manage. I have a family of three children and a wife. Whatever little savings I had managed, are fast dwindling.”
According to Badola, the daily wagers will face huge repercussions if work doesn’t resume soon. “But given the situation, how will you convince people to come on sets? A lot needs to change in terms of the kind of atmosphere we work in. Look at other countries, there needs to be a proper system, not like how we are hand-to-mouth in TV business here.”
The Cine and TV Artistes’ Association (CINTAA) recently appealed to Bollywood A-listers to make donations and help daily wage workers. Rohit Shetty, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Amitabh Bachchan, Ekta Kapoor and Vidya Balan were among those who came forward to provide funds and ration.
But the question that arises is how far will the producers go to ensure a safe working environment for its cast and crew. “The films have to be completed, and once everything resumes, new safety guidelines have to be strictly followed. Anywhere between 100 to 200 people are employed on the set. It’s a labour-intensive industry, so we have to ensure hygienic conditions,” said analyst Girish Johar, underlining how it’s going to be an uphill task.
Impact on other film industries
In the regional film industries, analysts have not yet been able to put a number to the losses. But everyone knows the numbers will be huge and the impact will last at least a year. Filmmaker and distributor Madhura Sreedhar Reddy said the Telugu film industry was expected to rake in around Rs 400 crore this summer. “Now, all estimations are gone. After the lockdown, the big-ticket films are expected to do business with 25 per cent loss even before release. And there will be no theatrical release of small budget movies for a long time.”
Damu Kanuri, producer and vice-president of Active Telugu Films Producers Guild, added that the real challenge will be to get people to cinema halls. “Summer is a big season for Telugu movies with at least three big releases. Only if each film does well at the ticket windows does the cumulative gross of all movies would be around Rs 350 crore. If they fail to attract the audience, then there will be no big amounts.”
Telugu producer SKN said a 1000-seat theatre is staring at a monthly loss of Rs 10 lakh because of the lockdown. And he is not sure streaming platforms are a viable option either. “I am not sure whether the OTT platforms are willing to buy movies before their theatre release. Because we may not know which movie will work and which movie won’t. And the OTTs mainly prefer to buy hit movies,” he said.
In Chennai too the situation more or less remains the same. Tamil film distributor Tirupur Subramaniam said the film industry is expected to be the last to reopen. “We are paying our staff full salary and cleaning our theatres frequently. We have also asked the government for support. I think there will be a drastic change in the way the Tamil film industry does business after this lockdown.”
Yeshas Nag, Bengaluru-based film distributor, agrees that because of the pandemic there will be lingering fear to venture out. Also, since people have been getting partial or no income, spending on entertainment will become secondary.
“There is going to be complete chaos. There was already no understanding among the producers here while releasing the movies. I think without proper planning, the producers in Karnataka will rush to release movies. I have been talking to some producers who told me they will release the movie as soon as the lockdown is over,” Nag said.
OTT gains prominence
If there has been a beneficiary of the lockdown, it would be the OTT streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. As per a KPMG report, there has been a “secular rise in OTT consumption in duration, and across demographics and devices” with a “OTT players with a large, legacy library” clearly having an advantage. In 2019, the industry had revenues of Rs 173 billion in India as per the report.
To keep up with the demand, big players like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix shifted to standard definition from HD to reduce the load on bandwidth. Also, with Disney+Hotstar getting launched, the audience was spoiled for choices. Web shows like Special Ops, Panchayat, Marzi, Four More Shots Please Season 2 and Hasmukh were lapped up by viewers.
The KPMG report said “habit formation could result in a new normal and accelerated growth in consumption and monetisation” for the platforms. Pahwa agreed that people will prefer OTT even after lockdown ends. According to her, the audience has gotten used to watching content from the comfort of their homes. She even suggested the release of impending small budget films online. “Though I don’t see profit happening for at least a year, but currently, if we manage to get back at least the production cost, that’s more than enough,” said the actor, whose directorial debut Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi is awaiting release.
What happens to major films which couldn’t release during the lockdown?
Pahwa is among those who are worried about the backlog of releases. With the box office calendar going for a toss and no announcement regarding new release dates, small budget films are likely to suffer, with big films clashing almost every Friday. Thappad director Anubhav Sinha said, “The opening of films will have to be phased out – limited shows or limited sales of tickets per show or things like those. So obviously, in the beginning, there will be a problem releasing bigger films. We need to wait and see what happens during these early selective relaxations.”
Uri director Aditya Dhar, who is currently writing his next film titled The Immortal Ashwatthama, added “tentpole films with bigger canvas will have way more chances of getting the audience to the theater”. He said with audiences getting used to watching digital content at home, “we need to give them something extraordinary, brilliant and something you can experience only in a theatre”. He said smaller films will now make their way more towards digital platforms.
However, moving movies direct-to-digital is easier said that done. Analyst Johar explained, “India is a very traditional entertainment market. So for us releasing a film in the cinema hall and getting the box office validation is very important. And that is missing on OTT platforms.” Then, he is convinced OTT platform won’t be able to afford a Rs 100-crore film like a Sooryavanshi or 83 or Radhe. “They can buy a Rs 5-crore film. But how will they monetise a Rs 100 crore film?”
So big movies will still need big theatrical releases. In India, a major share of box office comes from the country’s top ten cities and six metros including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and others, which are currently in the list of hotspots. Now, the challenge remains whether the government will open up these cities, including public places like malls and cinema halls, once the lockdown ends. “Once the scare factor is over and people start going out to watch films, there will be a huge pent-up demand and business will run at maximum capacity. But it will take time,” Johar added.
How are theatres preparing for film releases?
Alok Tandon, CEO of INOX Leisure Ltd, said they will have to think differently to ensure social distancing once the cinemas resume services. “Cross-allocation of seats is one measure. Another measure can be to programme the shows in such a manner that entries, intermissions and exits of two shows do not occur simultaneously,” he said, adding that this will also will help ensure that the food counters, exit lobbies and restrooms do not get too crowded. “We will be deploying enhanced hygiene protocols, non-invasive temperature checks and hand sanitisers. Also, deep cleaning and disinfecting processes will continue to remain intense.”
Ashish Saksena, COO of Cinemas at BookMyShow underlined a new normal keeping in mind social distancing and sanitisation. “The health and safety of all – from audience to partners, production houses and execution agencies – will be of paramount importance.”
However, director Aditya Dhar is optimistic: “Considering humans are inherently social animals, they will eventually return,” he said.
What arrangements do film crews expect?
Taapsee Pannu, who was to begin work on her upcoming films Shabaash Mithu, Rashmi Rocket, and Looop Lapeta, said everyone will have to adjust a bit till things smoothen out. “The number of people on a set will be reduced for some time and the health precautions on a set will increase.”
Stylist Amandeep Kaur is prepared to adapt to the new ways of life. “Events are going to be most hit, but like the world is already witnessing, these will shift to a virtual space.” Photographer Tejinder Singh suggested that a safety advisor might become a norm for production houses.
What changes will filmmakers bring?
Aditya Dhar highlight the silver lining of something as dark as the pandemic lockdown. “We are hoping there will be some kind of correction, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of economics of the film,” he said, adding how everyone will have to do change budgets. “Like if an A-list artiste is taking a lower fee, the crew member will also have to take a lower fee to make sure that the entire energy and effort is going into making the film rather than earning from a film.” He said as a result the film will become the most important component. “The quality of films will only get better, and we might be able to create global content.”
With inputs from Manoj Kumar R (Bengaluru) and Gabbeta Ranjith Kumar (Hyderabad)
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