Opinion: Stream or Screen – The future of movie theatres in OTT times

Shailesh Kapoor

Ormax Media’s Shailesh Kapoor evaluates the way forward for the movie business in  the state of normalcy and the impact of ever growing popularity of OTT platforms

It’s been a tough year for most sectors of the economy, including the media & entertainment sector. Television and print’s almost-unhealthy dependence on advertising revenues meant that when the economy went into a pause mode from March onwards, so did these sectors. Even as things begin to slowly recover, it may take months, if not more than a year, for revenue numbers in these two sectors to limp back to any kind of normalcy.

Nine months into the lockdown, theatrical business for films continues to be impacted. Theatres have been allowed to open in many states with a 50% capacity cap. But a state that’s at the center of the theatrical business in India, i.e., Maharashtra, has taken a more conservative approach, extending the closure till November 30 at least. This effectively rules out the release of any major Hindi or Hollywood films in India, as Maharashtra contributes upward of 25% to the box office of national releases. It will be a long road ahead for exhibitors like PVR and INOX, and the smaller players, especially the stand-alone single screens, may not be able to face the brunt of this crisis.

One category that has managed to remain unaffected, and has, in fact, prospered in this period is the streaming video on demand (VOD) category, popularly called OTT in India. With the audience locked down in their homes for a sizeable period of time, and no original entertainment content available on TV till June, VOD players got a major boost, acquiring new subscribers at a rate faster than ever before.

The VOD category itself has two components: SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand) platforms have paid users, while AVOD (Advertising Video on Demand) platforms rely on in-content ads to make money. While the advertising business was impacted, the boost in subscriptions more than made up for it. In any case, the VOD category in India is at an early stage, where the user base and watch time are more important metrics than revenue itself. So, whichever way you look at it, COVID-19 has brought windfall gains for streaming platforms in India.

Dil Bechara, which Disney+ Hotstar made available as an AVOD offering as a tribute to its lead actor, recorded an estimated viewership of 80-100 million viewers in India alone. Other releases like GulaboSitabo, Shakuntala Devi, and Gunjan Saxena have clocked more modest numbers in the 5-15 million range, from behind the paywall.

No Bollywood producer, director, or star who conceptualized and produced a film for a theatrical release would want it to release any other way. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. With no certainty of release in sight, releasing their films digitally was a pragmatic compromise. This, however, has led to a fallacious debate titled ‘OTT vs. theatres’.

This debating topic is only marginally less silly than the one that reads ‘OTT vs. TV’. False binaries such as these are easy candidates for headlines in the cluttered media space. The truth, though, is not as simplistic.

All three media have a unique identity, especially in the Indian context. Television is a collective consumption medium for the family and forms the bedrock on which ‘family time’ is spent in India. Theatres are visited more for a social, outdoorsy experience, than for the love of films per se. In a country where outdoor entertainment options are relatively scarce, watching movies in a cinema hall is arguably the most ‘mass’ form of entertainment, especially in smaller towns and South India, where ticket prices are still in check.

OTT, on the other hand, thrives on the idea of solo choice and intimate, personalized consumption. The medium, despite lockdown exposure to older members of the family, is seen as unfit for family consumption because of strong language and sexual imagery.

The decision to watch a film in a theatre vs. on OTT, when both options are available in the near future, will be taken based on a combination of content and context.

Content that feeds the context of theatrical consumption will find footfalls in plenty. This amounts to films that are worthy of outdoor entertainment (e.g. a family film on Diwali) or offer big-screen entertainment that cannot be experienced on a mobile screen (e.g. the 3D superhero films, the Bahubali franchise or a Bhansali magnum opus).

It’s the other type of cinema, which is more intimate, story-led, and contained in its visual ambition, which will slowly get diverted to the small screen. This trend has been evident in the West for a few years now, where the list of top box office grosses almost entirely comprises of franchise films featuring superheroes or larger-than-life characters.

Also Read: Opinion: Role of videos in driving commerce post COVID-19

The Indian theatrical market was beginning to move in the same direction over 2017-19, and the lockdown has accelerated this shift in preference. The divide between big-screen, outdoorsy cinema and the story-led, visually-modest cinema will continue to widen. This also means that Hollywood will make even greater inroads into the Indian market, signs of which are more than evident over the last 3-4 years.

Indian filmmakers, especially in Hindi, have to introspect about going back to their roots. Cinema, through the 70s, 80s & 90s, was always about larger-than-life portrayals. With the advent of premium multiplexes, this notion was challenged, and new genres and styles of storytelling began to work in theatres.

But the rise of the OTT platforms now means that cinema has to rediscover its original core, and offer compelling big-screen experiences.

If filmmakers manage to understand and implement this well, not only will theatrical consumption survive, it will thrive and find more and more takers in a market that’s been operating far below its full potential for years.

Streaming platforms will anyway continue to thrive, not just on the back of their kind of cinema, but also on quality original series, which are being produced in plenty over the last two years at least. It’s an exciting period ahead for creators, who now have three strong media, each with its own unique context and strengths, to serve.

(The article has been authored by Shailesh Kapoor, CEO & Founder Ormax Media)

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