Disney+ Hotstar, the video streaming service owned by Walt Disney, has announced the seven Bollywood titles directly on the streaming platform featuring top stars like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt.
Estimated to be a whopping Rs400 crore, the big bulk acquisition busts the myth that only mid-sized films are skipping a theatrical release during covid-induced lockdown. At least three of the titles that the Hollywood giant’s streaming service has notched up are big-ticket films--Akshay Kumar's Laxmmi Bomb, Ajay Devgn's Bhuj: The Pride of India and Alia Bhatt-starrer Sadak 2 with budgets of at least the first two over Rs100 crore, according to trade experts.
Apart from these, Disney will also premiere Abhishek Bachchan’s crime drama The Big Bull, romantic action thriller Khuda Haafiz and comedy thriller Lootcase. The VoD (video on demand) platform had announced the release of Sushant Singh Rajput’s Dil Bechara last week. The move comes close on the heels of high-profile films like Gulabo Sitabo and Gunjan Saxena-The Kargil Girl going directly to OTT platforms like Amazon and Netflix respectively.
While Dil Bechara is available free to viewers as a tribute to Rajput, all the other titles will be available to Disney+ Hotstar VIP and Premium subscribers with screenings starting 24 July.
“These are all compelling films which we believe will be of significant interest to our subscribers. Of course, Hindi films have a core audience base but we have widened the access to these films and hopefully many more will experience them," Uday Shankar, president, The Walt Disney Company APAC and chairman, Star and Disney India, said.
The move is strategic for Disney that rebranded Hotstar, the video streaming service of the erstwhile Star network to its current name, to compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others in India. Expected to command 18 million subscribers in the country according to a report by research firm Media Partners Asia, media experts say big Bollywood titles will help cement Disney’s library as a formidable force among the clutter of foreign and local players.
Shankar declined to comment on the acquisition cost of the new titles. Industry experts say VoD platforms have consciously paid a premium to take films directly to digital to meet increasing consumer demand as OTT (over the top) viewership has spiked to unprecedented levels over the past three months. For Laxmmi Bomb, Dil Bechara and Lootcase which are Fox Star productions, Disney already owned the satellite TV and digital rights, having paid their co-producers in advance. For the others, a 25-30% premium on the production budget is likely.
“The output and potential of the Indian film industry has always been limited given the number of screens and the kind of release windows we operate with. This is a growing opportunity for more films to be made in the country," Shankar said adding that the company will continue to look at taking films directly to digital even after the pandemic subsides.
Experts are quick to point out that the more films go directly to OTT, the bigger the challenge it will be for cinema owners to bounce back to business. Especially in case of films starring stars like Akshay Kumar, theatre owners have publicly said that their bypassing theatrical release “will justify digital as the main medium of film consumption and make theatres irrelevant."
An exhibition industry player said on condition of anonymity that it is disheartening to see big stars who are not starving for money in any way to go the OTT way.
"They could have easily waited. This will destroy the business," the person said.
“If there are no big films, audiences will take that much longer to come back to theatres. It just means that the whole cycle of ticketing, and other sales will go further for a toss and recovery will get delayed when there are zero revenues already," film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar said.