How OTT platforms saved India’s film industry during the pandemic

What Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar once claimed may have been true till mid-March 2020. But the year that followed since then proved Akshay wrong and the head of Star and Disney India, Uday Shankar, right.

Akshay claimed: “Movies will always be the first birth right of the theatres.” So was it until Covid-19 lashed India and the pandemic changed everything. Uday was absolutely unequivocal in his disagreement with the superstar. He said: “Movies are the birth right of nobody but the audiences.”

Therefore, it is of least relevance how movies and other entertainment contents are made available to the audiences. And OTT (over-the-top) platforms or direct digital releases (DDR) are today doing exactly that — making movies and every other entertainment contents the birth right of the audiences.

The traditional dynamics that have ruled and run Indian film and entertainment industry are gradually becoming antiquated. Viewing medium is shifting fast from theatres and television sets to mobile phones and computer screens as more and more movies and other entertainment contents are getting released on various OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar and Zee5.

Big budget Bollywood movie starring Amitabha Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, Gulabo Sitabo, pioneered the change. It debuted on Amazon Prime Video and was followed on its heels by Choked, Chintu ka Birthday, Ghoomketu, Mrs Serial Killer, Maska, Bamfaad, What Are The Odds and Ateet. They all set a trend by debuting on various OTT platforms; Indian cinema, began shifting online making movie watching easy and affordable.

The trend Gulabo Sitabo set in encouraged the Bollywood biggies like Akshay, Ajay Devgan and Alia Bhatt to break away from the tradition and agree on selling their movies to OTT platforms.

This trend opened the floodgates for many more Bollywood movies to premiere on different OTT platforms in 2020. They include some big budget movies like Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime Video, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl on Netflix, Dil Bechara on Disney+Hotstar, Sadak 2 on Disney+Hotstar, Laxmii on Disney+Hotstar, Ludo on Netflix, and Coolie No 1, a remake of the 1995 film of the same name, on Amazon Prime Video.

More than anything else at the core of this shift from theatres to OTT platforms lay the uncertainties and stagnation the Covid pandemic slapped on Indian cinema industry in general. The contagion and consequential lockdown dented the industry beyond any quick recovery; the industry shrunk by over 29 percent in the first quarter of the last year alone simply because a huge amount of money of Rs 183 billion industry got stuck due to non-release of many movies.

Blood was gushing out of Bollywood from everywhere. Covid and lockdown virtually wrecked India’s Hindi film industry forcing Akshay to admit “…with the pandemic, we are seeing a situation where we have created this space (OTT) where more and more audiences can enjoy what we make for them …” while announcing direct to digital release of Laxmmi Bomb — a horror comedy.

The second wave of the pandemic and fresh bouts of lockdown drove the last nail into the coffins of India’s theatre halls and the way movies were released since time immemorial. The new situation made all the downstream business of the film industry stand wobbling at the threshold of both disaster and change.

Emergence of OTT platforms, “propelled by,” as digital marketing expert KS Sharma said that “the rise in the standard of living, evolution of smartphones, ubiquitous and affordable Internet connectivity coupled with increasing penetration in rural areas” may make the distributing business of cinemas virtually redundant.

But DDR opened new vistas for the industry. Apart from offering a leeway to get out of the stagnation the industry found itself in the wake of the pandemic and lockdowns the OTT platforms, as Uday said, “offered an opportunity to grow the market and for more films to be made and released. It is deeply strategic and the right thing for all” because “the potential of the film industry and the viewership it has managed so far has been restricted because of India’s limited screen count and the release windows available which in turn, restrict … output and the appetite of audiences.”

It would certainly not be an exaggeration to say that the Indian film industry, including Bollywood, would have collapsed and become bankrupt had not the DDR or OTT platforms come as a redeemer.

Industry analyst Girish Johar was quoted in the media as saying: “This is the first time in our history that the entire India box office is zero.”

OTT platforms, which according to Boston Consulting Group is expected to grow to $5 billion by 2023, have indeed become a game-changer for the movie industry. But will it sound the death knell for theatre halls and replace theatrical experiences.

Fear in the industry is palpable as many feel that with OTT becoming the next normal for Indian entertainment industry the OTT platforms will change the content, manner of release, star compensation and even the way movies are filmed and eliminate distribution business.

Optimism, however, still laces the industry. Theatre owner have still given up hopes and have not downed their curtains. Findings of Ormax Media still keep the hope burning in them. The Ormax survey says 82 percent Indians miss going to the theatres. And Alok Tandon, chief executive officer of Indian theatre operator Inox Leisure Ltd.,went on record saying, “We have got a lot of assurance from our producer friends that they all believe in the power of a theatrical exhibition.”

But there’s no denying the fact that the pandemic has changed the industry. It is unlikely to follow an unwritten rule of maintaining eight-week gap between digital and theatrical premiere of films. The gap is certain to come down to three or four weeks. The clout of the theatres has probably reduced for good and the theatre owners are in no position to control digital and satellite premieres.

“Movies have now truly become the birth right of the audiences,” aptly summed up Delhi-based film critic Sapna Anchal.

Source: United News of Bangladesh