New Delhi: Online streaming platforms could soon tilt the balance in favour of niche, non-commercial films that have been struggling in the country so far. Small, content-driven films continue to battle big-ticket, big-star Bollywood offerings for theatrical space and audiences’ eyeballs in a cluttered market where the shelf life of movies is extremely limited. But in an age where content can be watched at one’s own convenience without paying exorbitant ticket prices, these films stand a much better chance.

“In the last five years, I feel more encouraged because the avenues have quadrupled and you can get word about your film out not only through the theatrical screen," said filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor, referring to the advent of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and local players like Hotstar and others.

Kukunoor’s romantic comedy, Hyderabad Blues, widely considered India’s first indie film, completed 20 years of release this month. But the journey of non-commercial cinema hasn’t been easy.

For starters, these small films have always been squeezed for space. The Hindi film industry makes around 2,000 films a year, but there’s space only for 200-300 to release in the 9,530 theatres in the country. While a Newton may have been lucky to have made it to theatres, hundreds others are wasted, industry experts claim.

To be sure, more than 50% of a film’s box office revenue comes from multiplexes, driving even the commercial, big-ticket, star-driven films to focus on them instead of the single screens. As a result, a Shah Rukh Khan film like Jab Harry Met Sejal hit 3,200 screens while the critically acclaimed Gurgaon released in the same week notched up a screen count of 75.

Today, smaller films grow only by word of mouth. But, given their limited shelf life, everything depends on the business managed within the first three days, before another film is ready to take over next Friday. “If everyone wants to have a theatrical release, you need marketing and distribution, which small films can barely afford," said Utpal Acharya, founder of film company Indian Film Studios, who also worked on the distribution of Hyderabad Blues.

Today, however small a film is, you need at least 2.5-3 crore for a release in at least 200 screens. That is often as much as, if not more, than the film’s entire budget. Given these restrictions, niche cinema—even with the impressive numbers of films like Hindi Medium ( 63 crore), Shubh Mangal Saavdhan ( 41 crore) and Newton ( 22 crore)—makes up only 10-12% of India’s annual box office revenue.

That is where the digital platforms come in. Cheaper data and a country increasingly abandoning the idea of appointment viewing make these services a viable option for smaller films. According to a Ficci-EY report, digital/OTT rights currently make up about 5.5% of films’ overall revenue.

Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra said that the challenges of the exhibition space are encouraging a lot of filmmakers to look towards the web and that India needs to learn a new way of watching films.

Acharya cited the example of Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj,that made about 25 lakh in theatrical revenue but was bought by Amazon for 5 crore.

“In five years, multiplexes will become redundant for movies like Hyderabad Blues," Acharya said.

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