Adapt or perish: Why theatres must not stall film releases on online platforms

One cannot totally stop an idea for which the time has come.
Adapt or perish: Why theatres must not stall film releases on online platforms
Adapt or perish: Why theatres must not stall film releases on online platforms
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On Friday, Ponmagal Vandhal, a Tamil film with Jyotika in the lead and accomplished actors like Parthiban and Bhagyaraj in the cast, will be premiering on Amazon Prime Video.  And soon Gulabo Sitabo, a Hindi film directed by Shoojit Sircar and featuring big names like Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushman Khurana will also take the OTT route first, skipping the conventional theatrical release. These two announcements were enough to spook the exhibitors and trigger a larger debate on Theatres Vs OTT in recent times.

Not that these are the first instances of films being premiered on OTT platforms. The big difference is, these are the first instances featuring really big names in the Indian industry.  When small budget films and films made by rookie makers featuring newcomers made their way to OTT platforms earlier, skipping the theatrical route, there was hardly a whimper. Because, all along it was a race to get theatres for the weekend and in the battle between David and Goliath, David always got ambushed.  And for the big ticket films and exhibitors, it was the “you scratch my back, I will yours” arrangement that worked well.

But then, those were normal times. Before a global disruptor called COVID-19 entered the scene (pun unintended). The virus and the resultant lockdown have affected many businesses and activities. Film exhibition is also one among them. And it may be a while before theatres are thrown open for the public. Opening up of theatres may be the last in the government’s priorities for return to pre-COVID-19 BAU (Business As Usual), considering the threat it poses to the concept called physical distancing.

Locked down at home 24X7, people have found different ways to engage, entertain and amuse themselves. For OTT platforms, COVID-19 has been like what demonetisation was to payment wallets. Many of streaming platforms have found their calling during this lockdown period and many of the shows have managed to garner excellent traction. Without too many other choices, viewers are lapping up whatever is on offer. Small films, big films, web series, offbeat content are all able to get some share of the viewing pie today.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that films meant for theatrical release also wanted to board the OTT bandwagon now. In normal times, they would have had wide theatrical releases and after a few weeks, would have released on streaming platforms. Not waiting for the theatres to open and going ahead with the OTT channel has predictably enraged the exhibitor community. And predictably, they would like to seek retribution from the producers when normalcy returns whenever. The exhibitor fraternity is a part of the film industry ecosystem. But, their argument seems to be that when their business is down due to lockdown, producers should also suffer equally and not try to carry out business through alternative channels. This argument doesn’t hold much water.

As of today, there is no evidence that OTT as a platform will finish off theatres once and for all. There is certainly empirical evidences though, that OTT will increasingly eat into the share of the theatres. The question is, what’s wrong in it.  This is part of the evolution of viewer’s choices.  The quest for technology is always to continuously make things better for its adopters.

And we have seen this happening in every other industry. The advent of online travel platforms almost shifted the business out of traditional travel agents. Those who adapted to the change continue to co-exist. Same is the case with the hospitality sector. Let us talk about retail. There is a transformation that is going on thanks to technology. E-retail has in the past few years emerged as the fastest growing channel for delivering goods. The conventional retail formats continue to thrive but only when there is a value addition or niche.  Even in the media space, digital formats heavily pulled by the social media eco system, are eating into the share of conventional media.  Taxi aggregator apps have disrupted local commuting in cities. And have not the food delivery apps changed the casual dining universe? There are more examples galore of technology paving the way for newer channels for delivering a product/service or a convenience.

The film industry has not been an exception. In the ‘80s, I remember vividly, when new films were released every Friday, we used to eagerly look out for the huge banners and cut-outs that were put up in front of theatres. These were painstakingly hand painted by skilful artists who made a living out of this. Even now, those banners and cut-outs appear in my mind when I think of some old films. The advent of technology in large format flex printing has quelled this trade completely. Today, the banners we see are all printed in machines using digital photographs as inputs. The exhibitors are witness to this.

Similarly, the advent of multiplexes with enriched viewing experience has taken away the business from single screen theatres in big cities and towns. Did the exhibitors stop evolving? If they didn’t, they cannot expect others not to evolve. For the producers, theatres, OTT, TV, Cable, DTH, in-flight screens and so on are all different channels available to reach their product to the viewing public. When one channel is facing a short term problem, it is absolutely legitimate for the producers to seek alternate channels.

One cannot totally stop an idea for which the time has come. You can perhaps delay it for a while. Just like how the traditional retail did to online retail. Or just as the exhibitors did to the DTH platform a few years ago. Finally, even DTH as a channel got buried under the OTT carpet.

When normalcy returns, it is a question of viewers exercising their choices. It is not that people may give up their cinema viewing experience in a theatre altogether just because they got used to watching films in the cool confines of their homes for a few months. I doubt if OTT can replicate the first day, first show hair-raising experience of a Rajinikanth film in a Chennai theatre for years to come. Those who still enjoy the theatrical experience and who see film plus eating out as a family’s day out will continue to throng the theatres when the screen comes down on the pandemic. Those who prefer the leisure viewing experience that a TV or OTT gives, may stick to that. And there are those like me who will straddle both worlds.  So, I do believe that it is a matter of co-existence.

The exhibitors therefore must stop losing sleep over this issue of OTT platforms taking their share and work towards adopting the change and enhance viewer experience making it compelling for the discerning audience to throng the theatres. And yes, stopping the fleecing on that tub of popcorn will help.

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and an avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.

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