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Despite the uncertainty around the future of the cinema house business, a few top stars and makers of big-ticket films have declined offers for direct-to-digital premieres. Late last month, XB Film Creators, producers of Master, the film headlined by Tamil superstar Vijay, and distributors Seven Screen Studios, released a statement to say they would go ahead with a theatrical release despite an offer from an OTT (over-the-top) streaming service. Salman Khan has also preferred the big screen route for his action drama Radhe that is now tentatively slated for an Eid 2021 release while actor Kartik Aaryan has added a new clause to his movie agreements stating that these titles will not premiere on an OTT platform, according to a report by movie website Bollywood Hungama.

Trade experts say unlike the recoveries expected from titles such as Gulabo Sitabo, Shakuntala Devi, Gunjan Saxena-The Kargil Girl or Ludo that have been snapped up by OTT platforms bypassing theatrical release, the budgets of these films are too high for an OTT acquisition to emerge profitable for the makers. Many streaming services are not even making such huge investments in non-Hindi regional language content, as of now. Further, top stars such as Vijay and Salman Khan know their audience base is concentrated in small-towns where OTT penetration is not as deep while new names such as Aaryan do not want to be put in the bracket whose content can be consumed at home.

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“If the budget of a film crosses Rs100 crore, which can happen for films featuring the top stars, their expected price will tend to be higher than what a streaming platform will want to shell out," Shailesh Kapoor, founder and chief executive officer of media consulting firm Ormax said. “Films such as Radhe and Master have a target audience that's very mass, with sizeable presence in small-towns and single screen centres. The paid OTT (SVOD or subscription video-on-demand) consumers are still heavily skewed towards the top 10 cities in India, and stars such as Salman Khan and Vijay probably realize that the film is not going to reach their fan base via OTT," Kapoor added.

In a statement to reiterate its faith in the theatrical medium, the Master team said it awaits the big day (of theatrical release) and deems it right to clarify its stand given the rumours that have been surfacing in the past few days.

“Though we have an offer from a reputed OTT service provider, we prefer a theatrical release, which is the need of the hour for the industry to survive the ongoing crisis," the makers said referring to the shutdown of several theatres across the country having made zero revenues since the lockdown in March and audiences still wary of turning up at cinemas, particularly in metros and urban areas. Trade experts say Master may hit the big screen for Pongal this January, along with a dubbed Hindi version, which would be a huge relief to the ailing exhibition sector.

Further, the mixed response to big-ticket titles such as Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii that premiered on Disney+ Hotstar shows that audiences for these commercial entertainers are not to be found on digital platforms that primarily cater to an urban, elite base. A recent report by investment firm Elara Capital had pointed out that less than 38% of all films released directly on digital platforms due to the pandemic have garnered decent ratings.

“Hardcore, commercial films do not see OTT as a viable option. These services still cater to an upmarket, young audience that possibly has access to good Internet and big screens. Stars such as Salman Khan and Vijay have always been pretty clear about that and their belief has only strengthened now," film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lata Jha

Lata Jha covers media and entertainment for Mint. She focuses on the film, television, video and audio streaming businesses. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She can be found at the movies, when not writing about them.
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