5 min read.Updated: 04 Dec 2020, 05:37 PM ISTLata Jha
Industry and trade experts say the move could relegate theatricals to a secondary viewing medium and make recovery from the covid-19 pandemic impossible
New Delhi: Cinema owners and filmmakers across India are in panic mode after Hollywood studio Warner Bros announced a unique, hybrid distribution model for its 2021 movie releases, all of which shall hit cinema screens the same day as their premiere on the company’s video streaming platform HBO Max. The move could prove to be a game-changer for film business across the globe.
Industry and trade experts say the move could relegate theatricals to a secondary viewing medium and make recovery from the covid-19 pandemic impossible.
The move, announced late Thursday, has been termed by Warner as "a consumer-focused distribution model...created as a strategic response to the impact of the ongoing global pandemic, particularly in the US." As cinemas struggle to restart operations despite reopening permits in many parts of the world, that is, if they haven’t have shut shop completely, several media and entertainment industry experts say the Warner move, sounds the death knell of the theatre business, in many ways.
“It's the beginning of the end of movie theatres, as we know it in the motion picture value chain. Theatres are being moved from the centre to some niche corner. They will exist, but not be the centre anymore, OTT will acquire that place," independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan said.
With Warner setting the trend for a simultaneous theatrical and digital release as soon as this Christmas for its superhero sequel Wonder Woman 1984 (that it had announced earlier), anxiety bells have been ringing in Indian film industry corridors for a while now. In the case of Wonder Woman, releasing on OTT too, Warner will give a higher share of the revenue to theatres, trade analysts point out. While this ensures more content available to cinemas, but it may not make up for the loss of reputation as the premiere platform for movies.
In fact, Indian multiplex owners have remained adamant on exclusive theatrical windows and not premiering movies that have either had an OTT (over-the-top streaming platform) release or would seek one on the same day.
“The national chains are clear they will not be treated as second fiddle to the streaming platforms and that they are the premier platform for movie release in the country. Accepting an OTT release is akin to shutting their own shop. What will the difference between the two screens be if they agree to this?" a film industry executive had earlier said to Mint on condition of anonymity.
Spokespersons of theatre chains and film production houses like PVR Cinemas, Viacom18 Media Pvt Ltd and Sony Pictures Entertainment Films India declined to comment on the story while those of Yash Raj Films, Dharma Productions and Carnival Cinemas did not respond to Mint’s queries.
“Let’s face the fact that more people watch films outside theatres, be it at home, on TV or on mobile and the desire to watch it is highest in the initial weekends. You can’t force them to go to cinemas but if you don’t want to encourage piracy, you need to give them access to content," Chauhan pointed out.
Some others are more optimistic.
“I think it’s a sensible 2021 strategy, exhibitors need top-quality blockbuster content to draw audiences back to the theatre experience. The concurrent streaming mitigates risk and helps in revenue recovery for the studios," said Sameer Nair, media veteran and chief executive of Aditya Birla-owned content studio Applause Entertainment. “And I believe by 2022, with widespread vaccination in place, we will rebound to our ‘outdoor and travel’ lives with a vengeance," Nair added.
Shibasish Sarkar, group chief executive officer, Reliance Entertainment called it an interesting development.
“First and foremost the Studio has shown conviction and confidence of releasing all its films on due date as also on the big screen. It will be interesting to see how chains react and how their commercial terms are reworked and restructured with the Studio. But it's a dynamic time....I am sure both sides will find out an equation to ultimately bring the stories on big screens for audiences," Sarkar said.
The trend of films going directly to digital platforms is an entirely short-term phenomenon, Rohit Jain, managing director for Lionsgate south Asia and networks-south east Asia had said in an earlier interview to Mint.
“India is highly underserved as a theatrical population and I don’t think that market is going anywhere. Large movies will go back to the big screen given that it is a family experience and cases like Wonder Woman are arising out of very unique situations," Jain had said.
Many entertainment industry specialists see the theatre versus OTT film battle as a temporary one.
“We should be mindful of creating a binary argument here (between theatres and streaming platforms)," Uday Shankar, president of the Walt Disney Co. APAC and chairman, Star and Disney India had said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last week.
After all of this is over, theatres are only going to get bigger and streaming is not competing with them. There is an intense experience that only theatres can generate, he said.
Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director, PVR Ltd had emphasized that the trend of filmmakers taking their films directly to streaming platforms is an aberration that he doesn’t blame anyone for, and the industry realizes that theatrical still comprises 60% of overall movie revenues, helping films not just monetize better but providing direction to how other rights may be valued.
“We are not hardwired to stay at home," he had added.
Warner’s 17-film slate, including titles like The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In the Heights, Reminiscence, Malignant, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard and Cry Macho, will be available for a month on HBO Max after which they shall “continue theatrically in the US and international territories, with all customary distribution windows applying," the company said in a statement.