Home / News / India /  Direct-to-digital movie premieres to phase out as theatres make a comeback

New Delhi: The return of Bollywood to the big screen will mean an end to the aggressive turn video streaming platforms had taken to acquire films for direct digital premieres, said trade experts. Not only have most films, including big-ticket, mass-market titles such as Coolie No.1 performed below par, producers have also realised the returns are higher when a digital premiere follows a film's release in theatres.

Starting mid-March, Bollywood producers have lined up a bunch of films for theatres, signalling the return of the industry to the big screen.

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“OTT platforms are still looking at a slightly up-market youth as their target audience and these direct-to-digital premieres will stabilize (with platforms realising long-format originals appeal better to these viewers)," film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar said, admitting that the trend was on the upside because of the pandemic-induced shutdown of theatres. According to trade experts, Varun Dhawan’s Coolie No.1 and Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii would have made close to 80 crore and 100 crore respectively, had they released in cinemas. In addition, they would have made more from the sale of rights to satellite TV and digital platforms.

Rajesh Mishra, CEO, Indian operations at digital service provider UFO Moviez India Ltd that has recently made its foray into film distribution said producers may have looked at OTT for lack of options for films stuck during covid but both filmmakers and stars ultimately want their movies to be seen on the big screen first.

“Theatrical is the best mechanism to determine price for all other media and the upside will always be higher for producers if they take films to cinemas first. Plus, viewers on OTT are looking for bold and risqué stuff, with the kind of creative freedom that is not possible in cinema," Mishra said pointing out that an original experiment like Scam 1992-The Harshad Mehta Story worked more in terms of subscriber addition for a platform like SonyLIV that anything else.

Sanjeev Lamba, executive producer, Hungama Originals at Hungama Digital agreed digital and theatrical are two different components of maximizing movie rights and while producers were forced into having to give up the latter, as and when theatricals resurrect, they will go back to their old system. “Plus, OTTs will now commission their own films," Lamba pointed out.

To be sure, many video streaming platforms emphasize the importance of both originals and acquisitions.

“We love to invest in original and licensed content, across genres and formats.... The current environment created some near-term opportunities to further bolster our slate -- but there’s no fundamental change to our strategy -- we were already big believers in original films for our service and we’re investing into it," Srishti Behl Arya, director, international original film, Netflix said. The two other platforms investing heavily in acquiring films for direct digital release, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar did not respond to Mint’s queries.

However, media experts point out the pandemic has changed audience habits for good and even smaller filmmakers know they have the option to look at streaming in case they’re denied adequate space in theatres.

“The customer knows he can always watch a film on demand now, and that it will be accessible within a few days on OTT so the level of awareness is much higher now," Mehul Gupta, co-founder and CEO at SoCheers, an independent digital agency said.

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