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The covid-19 pandemic has escalated tension among stakeholders in the already battered film industry. With many new films getting released on digital platforms, multiplexes are refusing to allow their screening in theatres, fearing this it will be a step down and will become a norm going forward, wrecking their business. However, smaller, single-screen operators are more than happy to fill the content lag in a bid to get the audiences back.

Telugu film V, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video this September will hit the big screen on 1 January. Also, Zee Studios released its action comedy Khaali Peeli in theatres soon after cinemas reopened, although it had had a digital premiere on its pay-per-view service Zee Plex earlier. Trade experts say a limited release in 700-800 screens should be ideal for these films and more releases should be lined up to help the exhibition sector at this time of crisis when people are still wary of stepping out of home and Bollywood producers refuse to line up any new movie.

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“The decision to screen an OTT release can only come from an individual cinema, probably the single screens, since bigger chains are unlikely to allow their showcasing at all. However, a film releasing in theatres requires a censor certificate that wasn’t a mandate when the same may have premiered on streaming services," film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar pointed out.

Johar added there is no reason for streaming services to complain since they have already emerged as the premiere platform for the movies in question. Further, while V and Khaali Peeli may be finding legitimate release in theatres, pirated versions of OTT releases such as Laxmii and Coolie No.1 have already been playing in small-town theatres. However, multiplexes have remained averse to the idea, fearing it may become the norm for film producers and insist on screening only exclusive content and are willing to delay recovery in the process.

“The trend of films going directly to OTT platforms (during the pandemic) was an aberration. In India, movies still make 60% of their overall revenues from theatrical releases and the monetization capacity of a film is much higher when it releases in cinemas. So there is an economic rationale for films to release theatrically," Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director, PVR Ltd had said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last month. Only big Bollywood films such as Sooryavanshi and ’83 will be an adequate indicator of how ready people are to come back to cinemas, Bijli had added.

To be sure, films such as Khaali Peeli and V are considered relatively small-scale films. While PVR declined to comment on Mint’s queries on V, INOX confirmed it would not be screening the film.

Amazon Prime Video did not respond on reasons for going ahead with a theatrical release for V but in an earlier interview with Mint, Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video had said that decisions such as simultaneous digital and theatrical premiere of a film would depend entirely on the individual case, that there are many nuanced elements to such conversations and no such options have existed so far.

“Single screen owners and multiplexes come from two completely different places," Vishek Chauhan, an independent exhibitor in Bihar had said in an earlier interview to Mint. Like several others in his fraternity, Chauhan does not see a problem in screening films that have had a digital release. “They (multiplexes) cater to an elite, metro audience that is already on the verge of moving out of theatres," he added.

The educated, urban middle-class, trade experts such as Chauhan say, is well exposed to content on video streaming platforms and far too paranoid about the spread of the virus to go back to cinemas anytime soon. Many small-town audiences, on the other hand, may not even be aware they are watching films that have had a digital premiere, he had added.

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