New Delhi: Earlier this month, American streaming service Netflix released the latest of its original feature films, a romantic drama titled Once Again starring Shefali Shah and Neeraj Kabi. Along with the much acclaimed Love Per Square Foot, drug tale Zoo and crime drama Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, the new Kanwal Sethi film is the most recent example of a Hindi movie that though, not technically made for the over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, decided to go the digital route instead of seeking a conventional theatrical release.
The logistics of Indian film production, distribution and marketing, industry experts say, are clearly responsible for filmmakers increasingly looking beyond theatrical showcasing.
“It’s a market-driven system and often, theatrical release is only meant to please yourself," said Sanjay Gulati, producer of Once Again. Statistics point to the same—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. A film like Once Again, that was made for a modest budget of around ₹ 9 crore, has to spend at least ₹ 50 lakh on publicity and another ₹ 25 lakh on distribution to get a meagre screen count of 100. Considering the clutter in theatres, GST on movie tickets plus exhibitor share, Gulati said the producers would perhaps be able to make in the range of ₹ 10 lakh and the film would be labelled a flop in an instant.
“That is nothing. For whom are you releasing the film then?" questioned Gulati who admitted having considered a conventional theatrical release but was more charmed by the wide reach and smooth access of streaming platforms like Netflix that come without a complicated distribution system and whose young, discerning audience base was perfect for the niche, coming-of-age love story and needed no additional marketing. Gulati said there was no point in streaming the film post a theatrical release because the eight-week window between the two, that is the norm as of now, would have killed interest in the film.
“Getting a theatrical release for your film in India is a struggle," said Brij Mohan director Nikhil Bhat. “You have to make sure there are no big releases in the weeks before and after your film, the timing has to be correct and the project has to be given its due marketing even though theatrical audience is limited. Netflix, on the other hand, took our film to 190 countries which was the best thing that could have happened to it. The point of making films is that people watch them, that may happen in theatres or on these platforms."
Netflix remained unavailable for comment but according to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix films released in 2018 have been viewed 850 million times by more than 120 million accounts globally. The recommendation engine of a service like that ensures that films are available to people across the globe in languages and devices of their choice at a time convenient to them.
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To be sure, it’s a win-win situation for both the streaming service and the filmmaker. Industry experts say the movies can be bought for anything between a few thousand to a few lakh dollars paid in instalments over a period of time.
“It’s an opportunity for the OTT service to go beyond mainstream blockbusters and showcase good quality independent cinema and provide consumers the option to watch different kinds of content," said Girish Dwibhashyam, head-content at movie streaming service Spuul. “Plus, because these are small films that are unlikely to earn theatrical or even satellite revenue, the cost of acquisition is much lower and the producers are willing to negotiate."