Multiplex Association of India enforces strict rules for cinemas, will this affect mindsets of moviegoers?
Editorial Team -
Streaming giant Amazon Prime Video may have kicked off one of the biggest socio-cultural debates for pandemic-stricken India. Just last week, the platform announced that the premiere of Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo (starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana) would take place digitally on June 12. Alongside Gulabo Sitabo, was a bucket of several big-budget Hindi and regional films, which any cine goer would have probably flocked to the theatre to watch in the normal course, like the Vidya Balan starrer Shakuntala Devi biopic, or JJ Fredrick’s legal drama Ponmagal Vandhal with Jyothika in the lead, which premieres on May 29.
Most of the films in Amazon’s roster, or the ones that will soon be released via other platforms like Netflix (including Anurag Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai on June 5) or Zee5 were, according to their representatives, eyeing for a theatrical slot. Gulabo Sitabo, in fact, was already locked in for April 17. However, the nationwide lockdown began mid-March and more than two months later, there are no signs of life going back to normal for people’s daily routine… it would seem unlikely that it would for movies at the cinema, which is still a luxury purchase for the purpose of entertainment. It is obvious that this would pinch producers from both a monetary and also a creative standpoint. And while exhibitors and theatre-owners would feel an even bigger pinch and are visibly miffed about this new trend, it is difficult to draw a negative from this news. In an interview with India Today Television, actress Vidya Balan spoke briefly about her opinion about ‘Shakuntala Devi’s’ movement to OTT:
I understand theatre owners being miffed, but Shakuntala Devi has already missed the scheduled release date, and later we may not have gotten the desired window. So we had to do what we had to do. Now, people are reacting to a situation, rather than responding to it. Shakuntala Devi was meant for a theatre release but this is a unique situation, and we have to look at the larger picture. We will, of course, go back to theatres. But I'm also glad we have avenues like OTT platforms to turn to at this time.
And Vidya is right, in a way, about this being a ‘unique situation,’ that, eventually, most movies will return to the theatres, and that we at least have OTT platforms for some of them to fall back upon, not just for entertainment but to ensure that important top-tier content still gets the opportunity to shine. But this has obviously affected the stakeholders of the Multiplex Association India (MAI) which sees this as a beginning of a new and possibly indefinite trend.
On one end of the spectrum is watching a movie at the theatre. In a historical context, gathering in unison to watch a film has always been unique in the way it brings communities together. Once an expensive proposition, it is now a highly accessible art form. And when we speak about it as an art, there are always those custodians who speak of movie-watching as an ‘unmatchable theatrical experience.’ But on the other end, like any other artform, this can also be experienced in isolation. The ability to re-watch your favourite films which you may or may not have missed in the theatre is due to their availability online. Access is easier, cheaper and the viewer is in complete control. The dynamics of it being a social experience may no longer apply. Coming down to brass tacks, revenues from big movies help to recover production costs and run studios, who in turn can produce more content. But OTT platforms are churning out new content as well, which is providing not just opportunity and employment to more people, but a significant standing with viewers for smaller films which would go unnoticed otherwise.
The premiere announcement of Gulabo Sitabo and the acquisition of several other films by Amazon comes right after a letter was issued from the MAI which had urged to keep a 60-day or two-month gap between a theatrical release and an OTT release for a film - the ‘exclusive theatrical window,’ to all producers, artists and content creators, stating it to be a ‘time-tested practice since several decades.’ What needs to be considered is that over the last few years, the practice of even releasing big Hollywood films digitally has become quite normal, including several films which have received critical acclaim. So what makes it a point of such concern and debate in India? Additionally, this is not too far-fetched in terms of how the trend seemed to be moving pre-pandemic as well. Long gone are the days when television and OTT were considered the dumping ground for mediocre content. The concept of quick television premieres started off in the mid-2000s to the extent that now films already have TV and streaming partners before theatrical release. Their box office determines how quickly you will see them in the comfort of your own home and aside from an odd 100-crore churner, most films make it to the shelves of an OTT platform pretty quickly.
What the pandemic may have done is accelerated the momentum at which the transition of films to OTT would have taken place, and taken the debate away from how theatres could draw their audience back in, to the fact that OTT platforms are the new giants who maybe stomping on the multiplex business model. At the moment, roughly 9600 screens (including the odd-3000 multiplexes) around the country have no revenue whatsoever, which qualifies as an unprecedented situation. But the competition that they face from a new medium is not a momentary problem. And while some theatre owners acknowledge that traction and revenue should be back to its best possible level once cinemas reopen, there are some who have articulated their concern in a more extreme manner and taken counterstrike measures. In a statement given by Mohan Umrotkar, CEO, Carnival Cinemas, the chain says:
“The ones who have decided to go ahead with the digital release were possibly in a difficult situation due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is money invested; there may be interest (on it), someone wants to minimise the loss and if they are in a position to monetize it, we can’t stop them. The situation is such that you cannot blame anyone. In this time of uncertainty, some producers have decided to release their content directly on OTT. It is within their rights to decide but we will not release those movies in our theatres.”
“A few small or mid-budget films releasing on streaming services are not really going to impact the theatre business much. We would have lost on releasing a few good films with the new development, but it is not going to be easy to accommodate all the films in the limited window anyway. They have bankable stars but the subjects are unconventional. One is never sure whether they will really work. I understand there will be a rush of movies when the lockdown is lifted. The entire industry needs to stand by each other. Films releasing on OTT is the loss of opportunity. It is not an absolute loss, however. We hope filmmakers stick to theatre format. We were expecting them to stand by us because we are family.”
Chains like PVR, INOX, Carnival are visibly perturbed by the fact that looking at what is happening now, even big-ticket releases may enjoy a greater shelf life on a streaming platform - for a film like Gulabo Sitabo, for instance, featuring two of the biggest stars of the old and new generation, and directed by a much sought-after filmmaker. If one considers the worldwide release scale for the film, it would obviously aim at a larger demographic, but for any film, that comes with the added risk of - costs on publicity and marketing, poor reviews and general lack of interest. Streaming platforms, especially of the scale of Amazon, enjoy the patronage of viewers worldwide who are deeply interested in international content (at the moment, that may even qualify as any new content). Even a film like the Nawazuddin Siddiqui - Anurag Kashyap starrer Ghoomketu (four years in the making, post-production hell, and finally releasing on Zee5 on Eid weekend) may see more people tune in on their devices than those venturing out to the theatre for many reasons. Zee5 is a home-grown service with more rooted content, and its viewership base transcends several social and economic classes which also ties into the theme and nature of the film. It could also be owing to the sheer dearth of new releases at a time when everyone is stuck at home and perhaps with a little more free time on their hands. It is difficult to pick up on whether this is habit formation in the short-term or for the future, but at the moment, this is a great benefit to studios for exposure and digital platforms to gain more premium customers.
No matter which side of the debate you stand on, it is unlikely that restrictions on social and outdoor gatherings will be relaxed any time soon, and within reason. Reliable cures or vaccinations for the COVID-19 outbreak are still a while away. Multiplexes are trying their level best to reopen with the best possible safety, security and sanitation measures maintaining the norms of social distancing in the meantime. But considering the scepticism and fear that has been inculcated in the average citizen in the wake of the pandemic, a direct-to-digital release may be the best way forward, at least for the unforeseen future.
Meanwhile, the MAI’s new guidelines for the reopening of theatres amidst the outbreak could be a call for more debate. Most owners are hoping to reopen in June, and the stakeholders have written to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting calling for new protocols. These include regular disinfecting and deep cleaning of theatres and mandatory implementation of online ticketing and purchase of food and beverage. Within the norms of social distancing, one seat will be left empty between each individual, couple or group booking, and areas for movement will be demarcated. As a mandate, everyone will be checked for temperature, PPE kits and masks, and sanitiser. Staff at the cinema will be checked for medical fitness before being allowed to work on the premises. These guidelines will be implemented and tested for two months, post which they are slated for review and suggested modifications.
In spite of being a very ‘important development’ for the future of film-watching in the country, not to mention a possible sigh of relief for stakeholders in the exhibition industry, these mandates are just a starting point to consider in the massive can-of-worms that has opened up between theatres and OTT platforms. For instance, these mandates do not acknowledge the 6000 odd single-screen theatres across metros and B and C-class centres in the country, many of which still do not have the infrastructure for high-level sanitation or online booking. It is also not mentioned how this would affect patrons’ movements in social areas like malls and food courts, which often surround multiplexes in India. At this point, it would also not be entirely presumptuous to say that cinemas would be trying to get back on track in terms of lost revenue and forthcoming projections. In which case, cost-effectiveness for a single ticket for a regular viewer may be a huge concern. What one can presume at this point is that outside of a general trend monitoring, cinemas are taking extremely proactive measures to not just get the audience back into their seats, but also ensure a sense of security while they are there.
Most OTT representatives still feel that while this is a great time for them to conquer the digital media space, film as a medium can still happily co-exist both digitally and theatrically. Big films, festival releases, A-lister vehicles will see the same demand in the post-pandemic era as smaller films gain clicks online. For viewers, even a pay-per-view concept (where you pay for individual movies in exclusive viewing), may gain momentum as they may see the current scenario as more safe and comfortable - movies can be watched from the confinement of your own home, in groups or individually, with no added costs, and no pressure to socially distance.
So it seems that experts may be betting all peaceful co-existence in the future on the ‘theatrical experience,’ a concept that may or may not exist then. There is still time before exhibitors feel the extreme added pressure of proving their place in a post-pandemic world. In the meantime, whether you choose to venture out to the cinema or not (depending on if these guidelines are, in fact, implemented) is entirely dependent on multiple cultural and socio-economic factors (means, education, access, age, social and financial status) and also how much you love the idea of watching a movie in a theatre, as opposed to on a mobile device.