When in a state of siege, stay OTT

Even if things ease up by the month-end in Bollywood, the losses will pile up because the interests on investments will add up anyway, experts tell Rajiv Vijayakar
Last Updated 28 March 2020, 20:30 IST

The natural and unavoidable calamity that the film industry in India is going through is perhaps the most daunting ever. Shoots and post-production and allied processes have shut down, the central and state administrators and decision-makers have issued directives, and everyone within the industry is taking a forced rest at home.

Unwavering in their support of the government and the Prime Minister’s initiatives to combat coronavirus, the industry is looking beyond its self-interest. However, it does know that following this ‘better safe than sorry’ dictum will, paradoxically, actually be in their self-interests.

The losses have mounted astronomically, and their ill-effects are very likely to be felt and seen over the rest of the year. It is thus ironical to note that there has concurrently been, unlike in the last two years in Hindi cinema, a dull phase box-office-wise. In the strict sense, it is worse, for when things were normal, there were still unforeseen losses. But we use the word “better” only because, of the two Hindi films whose runs were interrupted, Baaghi 3 and Angrezi Medium, only the former might have just about made it to the hit bracket. So, it is not that many successful films have been affected.

To get a lowdown on this dismal state of affairs, we spoke to Atul Mohan, editor, Complete Cinema, a leading trade journal, and a movie business analyst.

Says Atul, “Obviously, though everyone is suffering, the maximum affected is the exhibition sector, or movie hall business. Business has been affected at every level — money earned from ticket sales, parking, publicity and their food sales.”

He adds, “PVR, Inox and Mukta Cinemas are listed companies in the stock market. As of now, PVR shares have dropped from 2,100 to 1,100, Inox from 500 to 250 and Mukta from 35 to 15. Add the fact that Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior has been 2020’s only hit and no other film made money. And while Baaghi 3 has been stopped in its tracks, Sooryavanshi, which was expected to correct the state of things in Q1 of 2020, is now postponed.”

Atul says that even if things ease up, the losses will pile up because the interests on investments will add up anyway. “We also must take into account the fear factor within the audience which will limit people from going into theatres for at least a month after everything is called off.” The exhibition sector, he points out, is facing an estimated loss of Rs 125 crore or more per day. And that, Atul points out, is only about ticket sales. The food and beverages section, is seeing almost an equal loss. “Today, ‘plexes form the major source of income for the entertainment industry,” he points out.
Even after films start releasing, there will be problems. “The complete calendar has been disturbed,” exclaims the veteran trade analyst. “Everything will go haywire. There will be many film clashes. And the smaller films will suffer.” What about competition from Hollywood biggies? “That will continue to be another major factor,” he answers.

But can’t Indian theatre-owners give preference to homespun movies? Very candidly, Atul replies, “It’s been a phase of losses. So why should exhibitors suffer more? The Hollywood market in India is growing: in 2018, we earned Rs 850 crore from their films. In 2019, that shot to Rs 1,300 crore. How many Indian movies can match up to the scale of, say, an Avengers film? The ‘plexes, in particular, will always give first preference to Hollywood.”

The additional mess factors include the chaos in the new shooting schedules when things return to normal. Combination dates will be a big source of trouble.

After all, there are just a handful of stars. “The April to June season is normally one of the peak phases in the year. That is ruined,” sums up Atul. Agrees Yusuf Shaikh, Business Head—Film Distribution, Acquisition and IPR management at Percept Picture Company and also a producer and exhibitor, “April to June is a normally great season. But this is a natural calamity and there is a spiralling effect leading to cost escalation. Salaries, for example, have to be paid, but interests pile up. Everything is chaotic.”

He points out that in the immediate times to come, a big film can potentially destroy the fortunes of three or four small ones. So is there any silver lining anywhere in this dismal scenario? Says Yusuf, “Well, everybody is sitting at home, so a small positive is the boost this will give to the fare on television and the OTT (web) platform. Here is where we lack vision. We can launch many new models by being dynamic. So many movies can be launched directly on such digital platforms, especially small movies that cost Rs 5 crore or so and need another Rs 3 crore for publicity and advertising. Platforms like Netflix can take such films for Rs 6 crore or so. Such disruptive models are followed abroad. This will also ease the traffic when things start normalising.”

Meanwhile, an update is that official film bodies like the Film & Television Producers’ Guild of India (FTPG) have swung into action to lend financial assistance to daily wage workers affected by the suspension of shoots. The Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) will also distribute 15 kilos of essential food items to them as well. So when will the tide turn? That is something not yet known.

But when we look at Nature’s benevolent law, we are sure of one thing: after the dust (chaos and clashes) settles down, we can surely expect boom-time in showbiz.

(Published 28 March 2020, 20:25 IST)

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