Home > Lounge > Features > Amitabh, Ayushmann, Akshay: Will all movies come directly to digital?

Technically, the quality of a film at home can now equal or exceed the quality at a multiplex," the legendary editor Walter Murch (known for The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation) declared in a recent column in The Guardian. Indeed, Ultra High Definition television sets and speakers often ensure a more consistent cinematic experience than our neighbourhood multiplex.There lies whimsical colour balance, butchered audio levels and—thanks to our puritanical censors—not a curse-word or cigarette left alone.

Some members of the audience will, invariably, arrive late and use their phone torch to usher themselves in, others will loudly advertise their inability to tell characters apart and—that most egregious of Indian theatre sins—someone who has ordered a dosa to their seat will rifle through their wallet as a (frustratingly opaque) waiter stands by patiently.

Why do we go to the movies? Principally because the big screen comes first. Films are born in theatres, so to speak, and we want to watch them larger than life, the way their creators intended. Beams of light making up magical, everchanging Sistine Chapels for our collective awe. Queueing up for an anticipated movie is an event—one that feels too faraway. I would kill to once again have my life beset by moviegoers bad at telling time.

Instead, we are the ones getting increasingly bad at telling time, while movies are doing what we once did and making their way to us, coming home and forming endless queues for our consumption.

Amazon Prime Video is bringing seven Indian releases directly to streaming—including Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, on 12 June—while Disney+ Hotstar is bringing major international releases like franchise-starter Artemis Fowl and a theatrical edition of Broadway smash-hit Hamilton. Netflix will premiere Anurag Kashyap’s next film, Choked, on 5 June and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods on 12 June.

Globally, Apple TV+ has won a bidding war to bring Greyhound, a $50 million (around 375 crore) war film starring beloved coronavirus survivor Tom Hanks, directly to their service, instead of waiting for theatres. Oscar eligibility rules have “temporarily" been amended so films without a theatrical release can qualify—and now reports say the Oscars themselves may have to be delayed beyond their February 2021 date.

The Gulabo Sitabo announcement on 14 May ignited war between exhibitors and producers. There are points to be made for both but it’s hard not to side with the producers, trying to get their films to an audience. We don’t call it no-show business.

Gulabo Sitabo, while my most eagerly awaited Hindi film, is merely the first mover. Bigger spectacles are raring to go. An Economic Times story says Akshay Kumar’s forthcoming Laxmmi Bomb may come straight to streaming. If theatres are not embraced in the next six months, Disney may be forced to release the Marvel superhero film Black Widow digitally and we may even see No Time To Die, the forthcoming (and optimistically titled) James Bond film, in our living rooms.

Films need room. Producers can’t simply save their movies for later because when—if ever—things go back to relative normalcy, there will be a deluge. India makes nearly 2,000 films a year but has less than 10,000 movie theatres. How will a movie make itself seen when everything reopens? It doesn’t make sense for big projects to languish in the cans endlessly, waiting not only for that unforeseeable day when theatres open, but when audiences flock to them again. This is the year the Olympics got shelved, and when sporting events do return, they will do so without spectators. Restaurants and pubs are choosing to stay closed over serving a sparse, socially-distanced crowd.

A future where we watch movies exclusively at home is frighteningly feasible. Larger screens, crisper sound, 3D, VR. The numbers don’t line up yet but studios will assuredly figure out how to make money without selling tickets. Without question, cinema will be piped direct to our streamers—you can’t rebottle a fizzy drink. The main has come to the stream.

I am surprised no streaming service has yet introduced some gold-tier, or pay-per-view, pricing for brand new releases. It is a move that, while a touch predatory, seems reasonable in these times. Imagine watching the new Akshay Kumar movie for 20, 50 or 200—paid per household. A pay-per-view format might alienate an Indian audience at first but we are inching towards a new normal. It is obvious that pristine digital releases will immediately be pirated but I believe a percentage lost to piracy will be accounted for in overhead costs—the way big department stores expect shoplifters.

Perhaps we should kick off big releases with simultaneous broadcasts. A heavily hyped virtual premiere where we congregate on our own couches and chat rooms, turning up the 007 theme at the same time. The way television has always worked. Ramayan’s recent success on Doordarshan reveals our need for a more passive viewing experience: one where we don’t have to choose what to watch where but are merely summoned in front of our TV sets at an appointed time. At least it gives us an excuse to look at the clock.

We need the movies. We need the stars, the characters, the empathy and the escape. We need lines to quote. And—as is painfully evident now, while we curate our own festivals—we yearn for an audience to share a film with. In that Guardian column, Murch writes about “the mysticism of collective consciousness" and evokes “the deep human need to leave the isolation of home and gather in the fire-lit dark with like-minded others".

This is the need that will propel us. Exclusivity should not be the sole reason we go to theatres. Now we will actively make a choice. We will brave the odds and risk what we can, the way we once took on time, traffic and exorbitant ticket prices. We will consciously seek the deep, delicious intimacy only found in a darkened theatre. Even if we have to lower our masks every time we want popcorn.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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