The plea comes at a time when a big streaming site was supposed to announce the acquisition of a clutch of new films to be released on its platform. Talks of the new Akshay Kumar film Laxmmi Bomb having been purchased by a streaming platform have gained ground.
On Monday, the Multiplex Association of India called for unity among studio partners, producers, and artistes in times of crisis. It said the revival of the sector, struggling with zero revenues, will only be possible when people respect the theatrical window, a norm that is on test as several filmmakers eye direct-to-digital releases.
The threat from video streaming platforms has never been more serious as there is no clarity when theatres will reopen. In its note, the Multiplex Association of India (MAI) sought support for the cinema exhibition sector, calling it “a vital part of the value chain."
Cinema owners across India are likely to incur a loss of ₹80-90 crore per month for every month that theatres remain shut.
“To this end, 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 in a statement.
The covid-19 pandemic has seen the cinema sector suffer massive losses, with thousands of screens countrywide forced to close down, and many employees, not just of cinemas, but those of supply chains and other stakeholders, facing hardships, MAI added.
“Theatre owners are aware that OTT is the future and the next big threat. Plus, streaming platforms are really getting aggressive with acquisitions knowing that they have eyeballs but people will want fresh content constantly while at home," Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema, said.
Producers of big-ticket films such as Sooryavanshi and ’83 (both by Reliance Entertainment) and Coolie No.1 (Vashu Bhagnani), whose investment runs into ₹100-125 crore, have clarified their films will release in theatres first.
But the smaller fish are anxious about not getting enough space once theatres reopen amid a clutter of releases. For instance, Jyothika’s Tamil-language courtroom drama Ponmagal Vanthal has been acquired by Amazon Prime Video. The Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association took strong objection to this decision with the association’s general secretary, Panneerselvam, releasing a video saying films starring Jyothika’s husband Suriya, who has also produced Ponmagal Vanthal, would not be released in theatres if the move is not shelved.
Ponmagal Vanthal will be the first Tamil film to release directly on a digital platform.
The fears were compounded with reports of Akshay Kumar’s horror comedy Laxmmi Bomb, remake of the Tamil superhit Muni 2: Kanchana, being considered for over-the-top (OTT) release on Disney+ Hotstar, now unlikely to meet its Eid date in theatres.
Director Shoojit Sarkar has said that given the situation, he is open to releasing his Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Gulabo Sitabo online.
Kamal Gianchandani, CEO at PVR Pictures, said they had received no official updates on a direct-to-digital release for a Hindi film yet.
“But we need to put speculation at rest, especially at a time of crisis like this, and also stay in constant communication with our content partners," Gianchandani said.
Film exhibitors have been emphasising that releasing films on OTT will make theatres irrelevant. Big names doing so may even open the floodgates for others to follow.
“It is crucial that the entire industry unites in rallying against the existential threat to our collective well-being, and that we tackle the crisis unitedly for the sake of our audiences as well as our supply chains and other stakeholders," the MAI statement said.