Where does OTT vs exhibition stand after a rough 2020?

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the entertainment industry to the point of no return. Equations between OTT platforms, exhibitors and film producers have changed. Who had the upper hand and who will be the underdog of 2021?

Published: Jan 20, 2021 02:16:25 PM IST
Updated: Jan 20, 2021 07:56:20 PM IST


ott vs exhibition bgFrom Dil Bechara to Paatal Lok, a look at a few of the movies and shows that released on OTT in 2020

One of the biggest industries to be impacted by the changes brought about by Covid-19 was entertainment. When theatres were shut down to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in the race to win the attention of viewers, streaming services—that emerged as the alternative distribution channel—took some major strides. These disruptions raised problems for producers and filmmakers whose movies were scheduled to release in theatres. However, it also allowed the industry to innovate and forge a new path. It changed the equation between producers, studios, streaming services and exhibitors and distributors.

At the beginning of the lockdowns, filmmakers across the world were figuring out ways to release their movies. Universal Pictures took the first leap with Trolls World Tour, a sequel to Trolls (2016). Instead of releasing it in cinema halls, the film was made available for digital purchase on platforms such as Apple TV and YouTube. The movie reportedly received the biggest opening for Universal's digital title release, assuring producers that cooped-up people want entertainment in their homes. As 2020 came to a close, the confidence reached unexpected heights as Warner Media announced that its 2021 slate will have a simultaneous release in theatres and on its streaming service—HBO Max.

box office success_2It’s a bit different in India though. Producers in the country have realised that putting films on streaming services can no longer be bundled with selling satellite rights, neither do they have to be exclusive to exhibitors. In May 2020, Amazon Prime Video announced the global premiere of director Shoojit Sircar’s dramedy Gulabo Sitabo starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana. Vijay Subramaniam—director and head, content of Amazon Prime Video tells Forbes India that they banked on the platform's ability to provide the producers with the option of releasing their movies in 200 territories in the world. "We were fortunate because of the strategic relationships we have with every film producing community in the industry across the country. Whether it's Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada—given the amount of work we do in each of these communities—it was relatively easier for us to sit down with the producers in each of these industries. We asked them if they would like to consider a worldwide premiere on Prime Video considering since cinemas were not an option. They responded pretty enthusiastically."

The announcement attracted criticism from the exhibition industry. PVR Ltd issued a statement saying, "We are disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to the streaming platform/s. We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopen." The statement by Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures, had hoped that 'on the other side of this crisis, there would be enough and more pent-up demand from cinegoers who were cooped up in homes’. Something Alok Tandon, CEO INOX Leisure Ltd, agrees with.

"With major strides made by our health authorities on the vaccine front, 2021 is surely going to be better for a lot of reasons. The seating restrictions should return to normal sometime during this year. With an extremely long list of titles in Bollywood, Hollywood and other Indian languages, we are going to see a heavy flow of blockbuster content. The pent-up demand for cinematic entertainment and the urge for recreation would provide additional impetus. Additionally, we believe that with a large part of the employed population working from home, the pull for cinema visits will get evenly distributed across all seven days of the week, and all days of the month, and we will see our guests opting for flexibility, leading to a growth in footfalls," Tandon tells Forbes India.

Vaccine rollout has just begun in the country and it will be a while before commoners get their jab. However, earlier this month, the Tamil Nadu government tried to change the rules on theatre capacity after actor Vijay met the state's chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami ahead of the release of his film Master. Producers were hoping to cash in on the Pongal celebrations. The decision was overturned after a letter from the ministry of home affairs. Turns out, that did not have an impact on Masters's box office performance. According to reports, it has entered the coveted Rs 100 crore club. Master is the first Indian big-budget movie to release in a theatre after the cinema halls were shuttered in March 2020. Against an investment of Rs 80.50 crore, The Thalapathy Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi thriller has become the highest-grossing film of the week across the world with earnings of Rs 155 crore (gross) so far.

box office success_1

The success of Master is a positive sign for producers and exhibitors who have been waiting for theatres to reopen. Another sign came from actor Salman Khan who broke his silence over the release of his movies. He tweeted, “Sorry, it has taken me a long time to revert to all the theatre owners… It’s a big decision to make during these times. I understand the financial problems that the theatre owners/exhibitors are going through and I would like to help them by releasing Radhe in theatres. In return I would expect them to take utmost amount of care and precautions for the audience who would come to the theatre to watch Radhe. The commitment was of Eid and it will be Eid 2021, Inshallah. Enjoy Radhe this year in theatres on Eid. God willing.”

Director-producer Karan Johar believes that cinema will never die. Despite releasing Dharma Production's Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl releasing on Netflix, he said in an interview in May 2020, "Both (streaming and theatres) have strong powers of their own. OTT is a writer's medium and that empowerment will help writers create better cinema. Both platforms will coexist and I believe that the next decade will see a resurgence in Indian entertainment. Also, most importantly, cinemas are going nowhere. They are the place where we go and experience large-scale films. Let me be clear, there will be no end to theatres. They will never die." 

Alok Tandon of Inox shares Johar's belief. "I strongly believe that 2021 will be a treat for movie lovers across the country, and therefore we are calling it the ‘Year of Cinema Entertainment’. There will be a heavy flow of top quality content across genres and languages with some amazing storytelling concepts. We will see massive movies… established franchisees would come out with sequels."

Subramaniam of Amazon Prime Video also does not dispute the importance of the cinematic experience. "It was never an either-or. Theatres have always existed and always will. The cinematic experiences are necessary. There is a great sense of community and celebration that the cinematic experience allows," he says, pointing out that the consumer could always choose the platform. He emphasises on the difference of reach between streaming services and theatres, saying it is not a binary situation either. "Even as theatres reopen, there is one other thing we must not lose sight of. India has one of the lowest theatrical screens per million. We have some 9500 screens compared to China which has 55,000 screens… the US has 35,000 screens. Barely two or three percent of our population actually watches a film in theatres. If you look at the biggest film in Hindi—Dangal for which I think 30 million tickets were sold—what is that concerning the size of the population? What we (Amazon Prime Video) are able to do is give these amazing stories tremendous reach. That's strategic for the creators even under normal circumstances."

In 2020, streaming services emerged as a strong distribution channel as the traditional model was severely disrupted. They opened up the possibility of creating stories without the pressure of scheduling, programming in theatres or box office performance. Bringing big movies to OTTs was one of the smart moves streaming platforms made. After APV's announcement, Disney+ Hotstar made a big noise with its Multiplex section. Netflix also announced a slate of 17 new titles in July 2020.

As theatre owners were waiting for the unlocking of the economy, these 'acquisitions' enabled streaming platforms to grab a bigger slice of the entertainment pie. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, there was a 30 percent rise in the number of paid subscribers—from 22.2 million to 29.0 million between March and July 2020. This was possible because of the growth in smartphone and internet penetration. According to a report by the Internet & Mobile Association of India and Nielsen, as of November 2019, rural India had 227 million active internet users—10 percent more than urban India's 205 million users. OTT penetration was further enabled by India-specific plans from international streaming services. Netflix took the early leap in 2019 by introducing a mobile-only plan at Rs 199 per month. Last week, APV announced its mobile-only plan, in collaboration with Airtel, at Rs 89 per month. Its traditional pricing remains at Rs 129 per month or Rs 999 per year. While Disney+ Hotstar offers free service that comes with advertisement and no access to their original content and live sports entertainment, its VIP plan at Rs 399 per year has found many takers. Measures like these have made India the world's fastest-growing OTT market. According to the Media and Entertainment Outlook 2020, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, OTT subscriptions are now considered as utility hence a non-discretionary expense. While the majority of this subscriber base is still in metro cities, Tier I and Tier II cities are also seeing growth thanks to the regional content on the services.

Theatres, on the other hand, are staring at massive losses. The shutdowns and producers withholding their movies have resulted in the number of India's screens shrinking by 1,000 to 1,500, bringing down the count to 8,000. Indian film industry makes roughly 200 movies a year and the box office earnings go a little over Rs 3,000 crore. Currently, they stand somewhere between Rs 500 and Rs 600 crore. Therefore to make a solid comeback, theatres need 100 percent occupancy and a robust release calendar.

While exhibitors are optimistic about the audiences packing theatres with a vengeance, OTT platforms are looking at fierce competition in the industry to attract producers and subscribers alike.

Ferzad Palia, head-Voot Select, youth, music and English entertainment, Viacom18-expects a couple of key trends to unfold in the coming year.

  1. The first being that currently you have around 65 to 70 percent paid subscribers coming from the top 10 cities. Going forward we expect a lot more penetration beyond the top 10 cities. We will increasingly see people from the mini-metros and even beyond willing to pay for content

  2. The next trend that we envisage is a surge in subscription and subscribers from regional markets with more and more platforms creating content in various regional languages

  3. The third will be that the OTT bundle will become a reality where different platforms will allow subscribers to have one master subscription in which they get multiple OTT services. This will give subscribers the convenience of not having to manage various subscriptions themselves giving them all the services that they need under one bundle

Subramaniam talks about expanding the OTT horizon with the inclusion of live sports. APV has already done live broadcast of Laver Cup, a few matches of the Premier League in the UK and the latest one was acquiring the broadcasting rights of New Zealand’s cricket matches in India beginning later this year.

"Streaming is going to become a mainstream vocabulary for customers because a lot more people have come into the steaming environment in the last 12 months. Second, you are really your own programmers. The third thing that is definitely going to happen is, while the competition is going to be fierce, quality is going to be the determining factor. It is going to compel creators to tell better, interesting, more pertinent stories across the board,” he says.

"I think production infrastructure will be time-stressed. So I believe that very interesting, innovative technologies will be embraced to meet the rising demand for production. The production and post-production infrastructure will undergo an overhaul. Because we Indians are damn enterprising in these areas. Finally, I think more people are going to discover non-diaspora cinema. I think that is going to be a big shot in the arm overall for creativity. So you are no longer going to be looking at just remakes. You are actually going to see original content coming from everywhere. It is encouraging visionary producers and creators to take that additional risk because they now know it is possible. They also know that now they have streaming opportunities that can also complement these efforts. I don't believe they (innovations) are all only for 2021. These are going to be a super exciting bunch of years and I am really very happy for the customer. They are going to be spoilt for choice. Because I am pretty sure they are a great judge of quality."

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