COVID-19 Crisis: Multiplexes lose from OTT as Amazon Prime Video announces Direct to Digital releases in India

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Nationwide lockdown has resulted in many uncertainties. As offices and factories were halted, theatre and multiplexes were too shut down, thus film releases were on hold. In fact, the films already running were forced to bow out which increased the pinch pennies among producer and content studios. 

Delay of every single day is equal to the additional costs’ liability by the film studios. There is only one way to escape from such hazard is to release films that bring revenues in. This induced producers to switch to OTT platforms for direct to digital platform.

Last week, Amazon Prime Video announced the premier of Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushman Khurana, on its platform on June 12, which is a memo to opt its direct to digital releases.

As OTT is growing extensively, Multiplex association of India has demanded producers and studio partners to honour the “exclusive theatrical window” of a film i.e. 60 days gap between theatrical and OTT releases. 

“We urge all studios, producers, artistes and other content creators, to kindly respect the exclusive theatrical window, which has been a time-tested industry practice, agreed to by all stakeholders, not just in India, but even globally, for several decades,” MAI said.

But things turned out to be different. Amazon Prime Video not only announced the premiere of Gulabo Sitabo but revealed that six other Indian films have lined up for its ‘direct-to-digital’ slate. This happened just within a week of MAI’s letter, ruining its concerns over Multiplexes.

Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head, Content, Amazon Prime Video India, says, “We believe in listening to what our consumers want and working backwards from there. This belief is the genesis of our latest offering. It is the first step in our endeavour to bring superior cinematic experiences to our customer’s doorstep.”

Amazon Prime Video will premier Shakuntala Devi biopic soon, starring Vidya Balan in 5 regional languages in the next 3 Months across 200+ countries. Following this, Netflix announced too to premiere Anurag Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai on June 5.

In 2019, Martin Scorsese opted to detour theatrical release and dropped The Irishman directly onto the Netflix in India. Hence, direct-to-digital release is not unheard of globally. So, Amazon’s decision can be a Pandora’s box but stand to affect all stakeholders in showbiz such as OTTs, film exhibitors, multiplexes, producers, studios, and even viewers.

New era for Indian entertainment

Often, OTT is called a store for unreleased titles or inferior quality contents that get pulled out of theatres fast. Hence, it is considered the poorer cousin of theatres when it came to films. But by signing up Bollywood celebs like Bachchan, Khurana and Balan, Amazon Prime Video have turned the table at the same time.  In fact, director Sircar called it “the dawn of a new era for Indian entertainment”.

A direct OTT release will be advantageous for Indian films to go global instantly to every market where Amazon Prime Video operates in. More eyeballs, more audience which ultimately leads to more investments in the domestic film industry.

Gaurav Gandhi, Director and Country General Manager of Amazon Prime Video India, said, “Prime Video with its deep penetration in India, with viewership across over 4,000 towns and cities, and its worldwide reach in more than 200 territories, will give a large global release footprint to these films.”

OTT releases will serve the demand of those audiences who have been deprived of new film releases for two months and counting. Hence, viewers will enjoy fresh content from their homes and fulfils social distancing norms.

Surprisingly, ZEE5 India also jumped into this race. It has premiered Nawazuddin Siddiqui-Anurag Kashyap starrer Ghoomketu on May 22 which was slated for an Eid release on Friday. Moreover, ZEE5 India has lined up15 direct to digital releases for next year. The homegrown OTT operator is positive and believed that consumer habit formation and behaviour will influence this trend post the pandemic.

Aparna Acharekar, Programming Head of ZEE5 India, commented, “This is a consumer-centric industry where the audience drives the trends as well as growth. The OTT sector in India is a steadily growing market and is one segment in the entertainment industry which has done significantly well in the current situation. Given the scenario, OTT provides the relief and tremendous reach that filmmakers and producers need to keep the show running.”

Within the first month of lockdown, ZEE5 has recorded 80% growth in subscription and 92% surge in movie streaming. According to the company, “The winds have shifted in the favour of a digital world for entertainment, according to the company. The numbers reflect the immense potential and reach of this segment.”

Aparna said, “Digital releases are convenient to schedule and are promoted as extensively as a theatrical release. Economically too, digital rights are something which production houses can benefit further from and for platforms, these convert into new subscribers and streaming hours.”

Interestingly, direct to digital releases grow app downloads, convert non-paid users to premium ones and bring new unique users to OTT platforms as well. Moreover, this will bring more fresh films in the libraries which will expand the content and make them more diverse.  This opens new routes for monetization of films. This can also fetch top-tier advertisers and brands to OTT platform in the long run.

New strategies, new models

Many stakeholders in showbiz believed that direct to digital releases will open the way for newer business models and content strategies. PPV (Pay per view) model is one of the things that OTT operators are deliberating right now. But this has not achieved much success in India.

In India, no video streaming platform offers PPV except Google Play Movies and Youtube.

In PPV, users pay for only one title at a time. This democratises content access, generates a steady stream of revenue and audience interest for the OTTs as well. Apple TV turns on green light for users to watch non-Apple content on a single-title basis only if they already have an Apple TV subscription. Therefore, existence of PPV is limited for now but can change in future.

Aparna commented, “Movies are a great source of customer acquisition as well as retention. We do expect newer revenue models to emerge in the near future, one among which could definitely be PPV,”

PPV with fuss

However, PPV has its own set of challenges.

Mahendra Soni, Co-Founder and Director of SVF (eastern India’s biggest film studio), informed, “We tried releasing films through PPV. But the single biggest threat to PPV is piracy. Otherwise, I think that’s the best model.”

SVF also operates one of the largest regional language OTT platforms, Hoichoi, which is accessible in India and Bangladesh. SVF has held back two big-ticket releases since the lockdown Despite of having its own OTT service.

So, there is a shirk among producers that regional language films will not gain as much attention as Bollywood titled can.

Programming heads believed that a direct-to-digital release that was already slotted for a theatrical release would be valued differently and higher. This means when OTTs shelled out more money for acquiring new films, it could impact their content budgets for other projects, including their own original shows. The grapevine suggested that both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix are slashing budgets and re-negotiating deals that were closed pre-lockdown.

OTT executives give credits to film’s cast, content, and production budget for the mode of a its release in a long run.

SVF’s Soni demonstrated that If I would have a big cast, popular songs, and a well-mounted film, I would definitely like to market it to maximum people, have as many brand associations as possible, do dozens of  TV integrations, and create that Friday buzz to get an opening. On the contrary, if I would have a non-star cast film with strong content, I might end up directly on OTT as I would get the desired viewers over a period with strong word of mouth.

He also added, “We are not going to release straight on OTT just because it’s a trend. If we have a good business case, then why not?”

Good-bye to Multiplexes

India has approximately 9,600 screens including 3,000-odd multiplexes. According to a FICCI-KPMG study, theatricals which is also known as box office accounted for the largest share I.e. 50%-55% of a film’s overall revenues.

In 2019, films’ digital revenues raised by almost 30% whereas theatricals were upto 15%. This shows slow expansion of physical screens which ultimately surge in OTT consumption shifting the balance towards digital.

Multiplexes and film exhibitors have their work cut out with the pandemic expected to put brakes on the launch of new screens because of stringent sanitisation and social distancing guidelines.

PVR Founder and Chairman Ajay Bijli informed, “Our business operates in confined spaces. So, we were the first ones to be told to close and will probably be the last ones to open (along with food courts and malls). As a businessman, you can forecast volatility, but you can never forecast a zero-revenue situation. We have shut all our theatres since March 11, and there is no cash flow.”

Obviously, PVR is not too happy about OTT premiers as they were hopeful that a line-up of “brand new films” will bring audiences back to the theatres.

Kamal Gianchandani, CEO of PVR Pictures, stated, “We are disappointed with producers deciding to go straight to streaming platforms. We were hoping that they would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopen. That said, this is not the first-time films are being premiered on streaming platforms. Cinema exhibition has regularly faced competition from new emerging distribution platforms over the last many years, and it has continued to enjoy cine-goers’ patronage and affinity.”

Even, INOX called an ‘alarming and disconcerting’ and strongly against to direct to digital releases. It has also warned producers and studios with a vengeance. This polarisation will not calm down as early as expected, not until the pandemic is over. But when it gets over, it may have disrupted many long-existing business models.

ZEE5’s Aparna nailed it, “With the probability of restrictions on outdoor activities and gatherings continuing for quite some time, direct-to-digital releases is the best option for producers. This trend is a necessity given the current circumstances. But in future, we hope to nurture a healthy relationship between OTT platforms and theatres by providing good content to everyone.”

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