It was Netflix that had set off this trend last year, releasing Indian films such as Tikli&Laxmi Bomb and Brij Mohan Amar Rahe exclusively. Now, rival platform Hotstar is following suit, announcing its foray into original films earlier this week.
India’s limited screen count is primarily responsible for film producers deciding against releases in theatres. The Hindi film industry makes around 2,000 films a year, but there’s space for only 200-300 to release in the 9,601 theatres in the country. Around 30-40% of the films made in the past five years have not been released.
“The theatre business in India is star-driven at present and it is almost impossible for smaller films without known faces to be showcased," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema.
There are small-scale films that grab eyeballs but they have to come with exceptional concepts and word-of-mouth publicity. For a film such as Drive, made with a budget of ₹35-40 crore, Dharma would have to additionally spend at least ₹8-10 crore on publicity and distribution to ensure a decent release in at least 750 screens. It is evident that the team evaluated the potential of its product and realized that the box office returns would not justify the investment. However, it is possible for Netflix to have paid anywhere between ₹20 crore and ₹25 crore for the same film.
“The pipeline for distribution in theatres in India is so narrow that it is very hard for non-event films to survive," said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and television, Saregama India, and producer at Yoodlee Films, which has released movies such as Brij Mohan Amar Rahe and Ascharyachakit directly on Netflix.
“Theatre owners work only with numbers and if the weekend numbers for your film are not good enough, they will either start removing it or moving it to obscure shows that nobody will come to," he said.
There is a whole kind of filmmaking that will soon vanish from the big screen, said Kumar. These will be films that are less overt, do not feature popular faces, whose plotlines unfold slowly, and require more time to absorb. This is linked to the broader culture of convenience gaining ground where people look for instant gratification.
Aiding the process of Bollywood moving increasingly to streaming platforms is the wide reach of services such as Netflix that go out to 190 countries in one go. This is an opportunity that did not exist earlier—the space is unlimited and there are no opportunity costs except the viewer paying for bandwidth.
However, the picture is not entirely rosy. Industry experts say that, in some cases, streaming platforms could turn into dumping grounds for films that find no takers. Drive itself was reportedly lying complete with Dharma for some time: In an interview with Mint last year, Johar had said it would release in the summer of 2019. Dharma did not respond to Mint’s queries.
Further, actors sign contracts with producers for feature films that, by design, are meant to release in theatres. When that doesn’t happen, technically the actor can take legal action.
However, given the rapid pace at which digital platforms are growing, most people see them as a lucrative option for a film that may not, otherwise, see the light of the day. About 325 million people viewed videos online in 2018, a growth of 25% from 2017, while video subscription revenues grew almost four times to reach ₹13.4 billion in that period, according to the “Ficci- EY media and entertainment industry report, 2019".
“At Netflix, we want to bring to light new talent and new ideas. Sometimes, we are hooked to a story from the beginning when it’s just an idea, while on other occasions a really interesting, fully developed film finds its way to us. What matters is that the film entertains you. Filmmakers want their films to be seen. They want their work to be out there, seen and spoken about. That happens on Netflix. We help storytellers from around the world to have their voices heard," said Srishti Arya, director for international original film, Netflix India.
Indian multiplex chains do not yet see streaming platforms as a threat.
“We sincerely and totally believe both platforms, theatres and streaming, will co-exist and prosper. Where is the question of cannibalization? Right now, we are more focused on creating a compelling offering in terms of the infrastructure, food offering, and the whole experience so that people develop a habit of coming back to the cinemas as often as possible," Kamal Gianchandani, chief executive officer, PVR Pictures had said in an earlier interview with Mint.