Box Office Shock: Bypassing Theaters, Coronavirus-Hit Bollywood Producers Experiment With Releasing Films On Streaming Platforms

In normal times, Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan’s movie Gulabo Sitabo, billed as a family comedy, would have premiered on April 17 in more than 2,000 theaters across movie-mad India

Amitabh Bachchan
Photo: Depositphotos.com/creativei
Amitabh Bachchan

But with cinemas shuttered since the end of March, when a countrywide lockdown was imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the producers of the much-awaited film have opted to bypass the traditional box office altogether.

Gulabo Sitabo will premier this Friday on streaming platform Amazon Prime Video, which having acquired the global rights to the film for an undisclosed sum, will make it available across 200 countries globally. In India, the film’s digital reach will cover 4,000 cities and towns.

The producers of the film, which has been ready since February, say that they just couldn’t afford to delay the release any longer. Co-producer Ronnie Lahiri of Rising Sun Films said, “We are not a big corporate house. We make one film at a time. We sell it and release it and then put the money back into our next film. We also have to pay all our technicians. There is a lot of money riding on this”.

Gulabo Sitabo is the first major Bollywood film to go straight to audiences’ homes since the pandemic began but certainly not the last. It’s the second of seven new films being released by Prime Video starting from May and going into August. The first one to be released was a Tamil courtroom drama Ponmagal Vandhal on May 29, The upcoming portfolio also includes a biopic on Indian math whiz Shakunthala Devi, starring award-winning actress Vidya Balan.

“We believe in listening to what our consumers want and working backwards from there,” said Vijay Subramaniam, head of content at Amazon Prime Video in India in a statement released by the company. “This belief is the genesis of our latest offering.”

Other streaming platforms are reportedly piling on. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar’s upcoming  Laxmmi Bomb, described as a comic-horror film has reportedly been sold for a direct release to Disney+Hotstar, but Disney+Hotstar would not confirm or comment. Askhay Kumar is one of the most bankable actors in Bollywood and was the only Indian to be included in the recently released Forbes 2020 list of the world’s highest paid celebrities at No. 52 with earnings of $48.5 million.

This trend of digital movie premiers has polarized film producers and multiplex owners in the world’s largest movie-making nation. Filmmakers contend that they are facing millions of rupees in losses on a daily basis due to rising interest costs, cancelled shoot schedules and expensive sets that have been built but are lying idle.

Streaming services, they argue, provide them with a lifeline.

Multiplex owners, who want to see a steady stream of movies in their pipelines, have recently been hit by plunging revenues due to the lockdown. Traditionally in Bollywood, there was an eight-week window wherein a new film ran exclusively in theaters before it was allowed to stream on a digital platform. With pandemic-spooked producers now striking deals directly with streaming platforms for digital premieres, this tradition is under threat.

Multiplex owners have not minced words on this issue. Mumbai multiplex chain Inox Leisure, which operates 626 screens across 68 cities in India, slammed the digital release of Gulabo Sitabo in a statement in mid-May expressing its “extreme displeasure and disappointment.” (Inox Leisure is part of the $1.7 billion Inox Group controlled by Devendra Jain, who appeared on the rankings of India’s richest people in 2019.)

The statement, which was not attributed to any particular executive within Inox, called the move “alarming and disconcerting.” It even warned of “retributive measures” against such producers.

“It is a well-established fact that content gains huge brand equity with a robust theatrical run and can therefore command greater value from other platforms,” said Alok Tandon, CEO, INOX Leisure in an emailed response to Forbes. “It allows the creators an opportunity to extract the best from all available mediums. In these times of an unparalleled crisis, we want the entire ecosystem to show solidarity, stand together and respect and assign value to each other’s significance in the ecosystem.”

PVR, India’s largest film exhibition company, which operates 845 screens across 71 cities in India and Sri Lanka and ushers in 100 million movie goers a year, also denounced the move.“The theatrical distribution platform has always been the first and the most exclusive and the most important distribution platform for the film makers,” Kamal Gianchandani, PVR’s head of business planning and strategy, said during an analysts’ call in May. “We are definitely disappointed.”

The Multiplex Association of India, an industry body, has also requested all producers to delay their releases until cinemas reopen. While the government has allowed malls, hotels and restaurants to open their doors starting June 8, cinema halls can’t do so as yet.

Producers on their part say that when theaters do open there will be a huge backlog of new films and smaller films will get lost in that crowd. That’s why opting for a streaming release is logical. The exact finances of each deal are not public, but analysts estimate that it could be at a 15% to 20% premium to production costs.

In this melee, OTT players (over-the-top media services offered via the internet) like Prime Video, Netflix, and Disney+Hotstar have emerged as clear winners as they woo subscribers with new content. As per a pan-India study by market research outfit Velocity MR, Amazon Prime and Netflix have seen subscribers surge by close to two-thirds during the lockdown.

But some analysts say that Bollywood’s digital-first approach won’t last long.  “This is a short-term trend driven by the liquidity constraints of movie producers who cannot afford to wait for theaters to open,” said Jinesh Joshi research analyst at Mumbai investment firm Prabhudas Lilladher. “I don’t see any big ticket movie banners going this route.”

Anu Raghunathan

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