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Digital streaming services are storming movie-goers in India. How is this impacting the theatrica experience?

 Not so long ago, going to the movies for an evening of fun and entertainment was the thing to do. Not even cable television, which brought us American television shows and reality TV, was able to take away from that all-encompassing, immersive experience that often included family, friends, a partner or a spouse. And, yeah, the popcorn and kathi rolls were sooo good!

From the business perspective, distributors and exhibitors had no problem balancing their books, thanks to the Indian audience’s love affair with Bollywood.

Now, the Internet is changing all that.

The world of cinema has not lost any of its charm but with the Internet making streaming services possible, digital platforms are impacting content, consumption patterns and the business of movies. All one needs to get one’s fix is a mobile phone. It’s nothing short of a revolution.

When international digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and Indian ones like ALTBalaji made their debut, they were initially viewed as an additional source of entertainment. But they gave the audience a chance to experience programming in a whole new way. And, as the audience’s appetite for digital increased, streaming platforms went from offering shows and serials, to original series and releasing movies after their run in cinemas.

Now they’re upping their game. They are reaching for the Holy Grail – original movie content.

Should Hindi filmmakers be concerned? In keeping in with the trend in Hollywood, Netflix entered the Hindi film arena by premiering Love Per Square Foot on February 14. It was a first – the first Hindi Netflix original feature film.

The response to the film has been phenomenal as people not only across India, but across the globe have watched the movie and appreciated it. This result could have been a little difficult to achieve if the film had a traditional theatrical release.

This begs the question: while the cinematic experience is still unbeatable for certain films, are smaller-budget films more suited to the digital medium? Does it give them a chance to reach more people and make more money? Or are cinemas still the better way to go?

We spoke to a diverse range of people – Hindi film producers, executives from digital platforms, writers and directors – to get their perspective on this subject.

Ronnie Screwvala, Producer, RSVP

Our film, Love Per Square Foot premiered in 160 countries. That is an absolute first for a Hindi movie and gives it a head start. It’s been less than 72 hours so one cannot quantify the response, except to say feedback has come in from around the world. Audiences of South Asian origin have seen this like a premiere movie they can watch on a week night or weekend in their home, so that’s good.

Overall, on a digital platform, it’s not about the first weekend or first week, but about how the viewership gains strength. Offline promotions in the media start only next week, to build on the strong word-of-mouth. This is a very different approach to marketing versus that for a theatrical release.

Releasing it on Netflix in this way happened not by design. We never set out to make a movie that we thought should premiere on a digital platform. We showed it to platforms and potential partners. Netflix loved the movie and was the most proactive and proposed a worldwide digital premiere. All of us thought this would be a great one to do.

There is no trend or pros and cons here. There is no pattern here. Movies are meant for viewing by an audience and eventually they will be screened as the audience desires.

We have no plan or target to premiere any more films on digital. It will be a movie-to-movie call that we will have to take. I do not know how others view this and hence do not know whether this will become a trend but I can say that technology does not change things; viewers and consumers do. If the consumer wants this as a new trend, it will happen and everyone will need to move in that direction. But it does not mean that movies in theatres will be affected. That’s too myopic a view. In fact, everyone, including cinema owners, should see this as an opportunity to work together with directors and producers rather than be protective or defensive about this. It’s all about accepting and reading what the audience wants.

Ashish Patil, Vice-President – Talent & Brand Partnerships, Business & Creative Head – Y-Films

It’s getting tougher and tougher to make and release films. As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, it’s either the high-spectacle, tent-pole films (Tiger Zinda Hai, Baahubali) that are getting the numbers or the high-concept, passion projects (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, hopefully Hichki, Hindi Medium, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan) that are working.

Mid-range films are going to get harder and harder to put together. And, business-wise, it will make way more sense to screen them directly on digital platforms. Of course, that will mean compromising potential satellite/ music/ in-film and box office (both India/ overseas) revenues. But that may be the most practical way to get those films made, by mitigating your risk and making a table profit besides having it reach a wider global audience.

Having said that, given how crazy our business is, no matter what the experts, pundits, analysts, industry insiders and trade gurus say, a Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety will suddenly pop up and surprise everyone by contradicting every formula and hypothesis. This is why we love this mad, mad, mad world of movies, after all! Bollywood baba ki jai!

Apoorva Mehta, CEO, Dharma Productions

OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, etc are the harbingers of the here-to-stay digital age. User content consumption patterns have undergone a drastic change with the lean towards digital platforms. This is becoming evident. As for content creators, depending on the scope of the project and budget, releasing an offering directly on digital platforms is far more feasible as opposed to releasing it in cinemas. These digital releases also allow filmmakers to experiment with newer content, which may not have a pan-India appeal or when they find it difficult to sustain heavy marketing and promotion costs.

However, at this point, this trend is far more popular in the West than in our country, where a large segment of the audience still prefers the comprehensive cinema-going experience. At the end of the day, every platform has its advantages and disadvantages but we are excited about the developments on the digital front and look forward to seeing if and when this trend catches on in India.

Jessica Lee, VP, Communications, Netflix Asia

We are thrilled to premiere a film like Love Per Square Foot. Today, content creators in India have a lot more choices with regard to how and where they want to release their shows or movies. While this is great for digital platforms like Netflix, it is even greater for the consumer because now they can watch what they want, when they want and how they want. We released Love Per Square Foot on Valentine’s Day and it didn’t matter if you were in Lucknow, Mumbai or Manhattan; our 117 million Netflix members, across India and around the world, can watch it in their homes on any Internet-connected device.

Our library catalogue at Netflix has been doubling every year since we launched in India in 2016 and our content strategy in India is two-fold:

1) We want to create the best of Indian entertainment - by investing in Indian originals - for India and the world, and we want to grow our Indian catalogue through top quality, big-budget licenced content. For movies particularly, there isn’t a single genre or act that we focus on. Our basic aim is to look out for films that can find an audience on our platform and are in genres that have historically worked for us and are meaningful. Love Per Square Foot is a perfect example of this.

2) We also love working directly with independent filmmakers to bring their personal vision to the world. For example, films that premiere at top global festivals with/without awards or just great stories with no theatrical window for e.g. award-winners Brahman Naman; Visaranai, India’s Oscar entry in 2017, exclusive to Netflix; and a gem like Umrika, a Sundance favourite in 2015.

Vijay Subramanium, Director, Content, Amazon Prime Video India

Our goal is to change the way Indian customers consume premium entertainment in India, and to change the way content creators create content for consumers in India and across the globe, by focusing on what the audience wants and delivering it consistently. We know that not having the latest movies and TV shows is an unmet demand; there is no affordable or reliable service where customers can get movies within a few weeks from their theatrical release or US TV shows on-demand. Hence, we are focused on securing latest content with the earliest possible window.

We have focused on securing the latest movies from top Bollywood and regional studios like Salman Khan Ventures, Yash Raj Films, Dharma, Excel, T-Series, Shree Venkatesh Films, Everest Entertainment, V Creations and Dream Warrior. And from international studios we have the latest movies and TV shows from Warner, Paramount, Lionsgate, CBS, etc. And we are only getting started! With the introduction of video streaming services to the mix, more diverse content will be available for an even broader audience. This is an exciting time for the media and entertainment industry, and we are proud to be a part of it!

Ali Hussein, COO, Eros Digital

I believe digital adds a fantastic dimension to the distribution of Indian films. It is because the niche content films and short filmmakers are able to deliver their creativity to the audience whereas they might not have got a theatrical release. Also, potentially, digital platforms offer a global reach and hence geo boundaries are breaking down. Social media also plays a key role in content discovery, hence the potential of building a greater audience for a film.

This isn’t a sweeping statement for all films based on economics, but it will definitely be a trend going forward, which ErosNow is deeply invested in.

Mahendra Soni, Co-Founder & Director, SVF & Hoichoi

I believe that digital platforms in India are at a nascent stage and it is not right on our part to decide what the right model is. For any successful business model, both parties should be in a win-win situation but at the current subscription fee, it is impossible to recover the cost of films through a digital release only.

Everyone including us at Hoichoi is trying to find what the audience is looking for. However, one thing is sure, that films made for the web are going to be much more experimental than conventional. Theatrical films offers huge opportunities for story tellers to tell new stories with fresh artists and technicians. This will not only take our industry forward but the audience will also get to watch different stories.

Manav Sethi, CMO, ALTBalaji

For filmmakers, the web platform is absolutely more beneficial. The movie theatre business is a capex intensive business and hence has limited reach. The unit cost per consumer is also high. From a filmmaker’s POV OTT platforms give them reach in excess of 100 million in one stroke and gives them the ability to gather huge data, as the consumer is diverse and consumption patterns are available unlike an offline movie release. Also, small budget movies don’t get the number of screens that they want, as P&L doesn’t stack up from exhibitors’ POV! But OTT platforms work on long tail and hence it’s a win-win situation for both if the content is good.

Rajiv Raghunathan, CEO, Vista India Digital Media

We believe that both systems can co-exist, i.e. direct to consumer via theatre and/or digital. The nature of content however will dictate the choice of the correct release strategy. At this stage, a fair amount of experimentation will continue to happen as digital matures. It will be interesting to look at this once again in five years.

Subhash Kapoor, Director

Digital content is the future, it is changing audiences’ viewing habits all over the world. It is an attractive platform for filmmakers where they can tell stories without worrying about box office content, censorship or investing a lot of money on promotions and advertising. It also gives you an opportunity to tell stories that may not have been possible in a theatrical release. I see it not only as a welcome change but also a medium that is going to revolutionise how varied content is consumed.

Atul Agnihotri, Actor-Producer

I think films that release on the web platform and those that get a theatrical release are two different kinds of films. Sure, every filmmaker makes films for entertainment, whether on the digital platform or for release in cinemas. These are merely different avenues, and with the invention of different platforms, it just encourages the creation of more content. It helps the audience to directly connect with content they are looking for. It was the same buzz when satellite was invented. But the visual treat in a theatre is different from that of a film that releases on digital.

Tanuj Garg, Managing Partner, Ellipsis Entertainment

It will be a while before we actively start producing full-length movies to premiere on the web but the process has been initiated with a recent Netflix original. Cinema and web will continue to co-exist but there is no doubt that the rapid emergence of new mediums and technologies will keep filmmakers on their toes to create content that is compelling enough for people to watch in cinemas.

Sumeet Vyas, Actor-Writer

Traditionally speaking, everyone who makes a film or acts in it wants to see it on the big screen. That is one thing you don’t get when you release on a digital platform. But there is so much more you get in return. The biggest gain, especially for small-budget films, or small slice-of-life films, is that there is way less pressure on becoming profitable because web platforms do not involve the large marketing spends that a film incurs when it seeks a theatrical release. Better still, when you release a film on digital platforms, chances are more people will watch it there than watching it in the theatre.

Also, you don’t have to struggle to get screens. It is very difficult for small-budget films to compete with big-budget films in terms of screens. Since they have so much money riding on their films, they want to take over all the screens. When you opt for a digital platform, you are sparing yourself an unfair battle.

Through digital, the film is accessible to people across the globe; it is phenomenal. The number of people who have watched Love Per Square Foot on Netflix is growing day by day. It is definitely more than the number of people who would have watched it in cinemas.

It takes that much more time for people to get to know about smaller films. And if you don’t get the right numbers at the box office in the first week, cinema halls will take down your film. For example, if Newton had not got the opening numbers that it did, followed by a good 2 to 3-week run in cinemas, it wouldn’t have made the kind of money it made. But this doesn’t happen with every small film. In this sense, I think digital is going to be the future of small and mid-level films.

One should not look at it as a step back but as a step forward. In today’s times, when you venture out to a cinema hall, you expect something extraordinary, like Avengers, for instance. When you brave traffic and spend 2,000 bucks on one film. you want to see something that is larger-than-life. Unless we give the audience that cinematic experience, digital is a better bet. The target audience of digital is also growing now. More and more people are adapting to it.

Milap Zaveri, Director

While we welcome the entire digital boom, I firmly believe that it is not possible for every film to survive on a solo digital release because the digital platform cannot replace theatres. For example, you will never want to watch Baahubali: The Conclusion on a mobile phone. You would prefer to watch these movies on a bigger screen. Whether it is Baahubali: The Conclusion, Judwaa 2 or Marvel or DC series, you will always want a bigger screen to watch films of this kind. In the last year, the biggest films were the ones that catered to your big-screen experience. The movie Padmaavat became a huge hit and earned profits because it was screened on a large screen. Personally, I do not like watching movies on the digital platform and would rather watch a movie in a theatre. But it would be wrong to say that I don’t consume content on the digital medium; I do, on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. These platforms provide the audience with rich content but I feel that there are certain restrictions on what you can watch on these platforms. I think both these platforms will co-exist and one will not wipe out the other. Ultimately, if the content is good, people will watch it anywhere, whether on Netflix, Amazon or in a theatre near your house. But the ultimate movie-going experience of watching movies on the big screen will always remain the privilege of the theatre.

Shaailesh Singh, Producer

Right now, there is chaos but a structure will eventually evolve. The digital platform wants everything to be exclusive because they want this platform to be available to their target customers and, at the same time, we have movies that are screened in theatres or that offer a theatrical experience. I think both mediums need to exist together and have a dialogue. This is happening in the West too, and in Hollywood. Maybe after two to three years, they will have a huge reach but right now we cannot see anything like that happening. Also, they are catering to Indian audiences and not to international audience.

Q, Director, Producer

We were the first to release our show on a digital platform, and as a company, we were hoping for this for the last six years. In the last three years, the makers levelled the playing field; and in the last two years, the distribution process has become very old school and irrelevant. The way people look at things has changed, which is why this change has taken place.

I am obviously all for it. The audience is large; the library is huge on the social platform. It also depends on the distribution strategy because being on Netflix doesn’t guarantee that you will be noticed. There is also the danger of getting lost amid the sea of content. The merit of the film decides how word of the film gets out. The opportunity of reaching out to a large audience is always present and there is a good chance of recovering the money that small, independent films invest. It also needs to be seen how this pans out and what kind of audience will view the content.

Omung Kumar, Director

Releasing films online is definitely an avenue to consider, especially for films that don’t have a P&A budget. Let’s be honest, having an exhaustive print campaign and a theatrical release not only requires time but a considerable amount of effort and financial backing.

It makes a lot of sense for films which don’t have big budgets to release online. This way, the film is out for the world to see. As far as returns are concerned, it takes time to build revenues online, but it is possible. With a theatrical release, not every film is guaranteed returns. With so many movies releasing, it’s tough for producers and directors to keep their hopes up with a theatrical release. Having an online-only release is something a filmmaker should consider in the face of constraints.

Tinku Singh, Group President & CSO (Chief Strategy Officer), SRS Group

In today’s world, there are a handful of directors and producers who are slowly focusing on releasing their movies on digital platforms. The reason they are doing this is to develop a greater mass reach and also because of budget constraints as it is cost-effective to stream a movie on a digital platform.

However, this activity has its limitations. People in India have a sustained habit of watching movies in cinemas. Not going to cinemas will take away from the delight they experience when watching movies. Though digital platforms like Netflix allow viewers to watch movies at home and from anywhere in the world, it doesn’t offer movie-goers that cinematic experience.

Also, movies specifically designed in the 3D format or with an enriching sound and visual effects are best watched in movie halls. LCD screens with powerful Dolby digital sound systems craft an exceptional environment that lets the audience enjoy movies in full throttle while munching on meals.

Ankit Kapoor, Head Of Business Development And Operations, Movietime Cinemas

The business of cinema is witnessing a radical change in all aspects. One major shift is that many filmmakers are choosing digital platforms to release their films. These platforms are becoming an intrinsic part of filmmaking as it provides the audience with the flexibility to choose how and when they would like to watch a movie. But this does not give movie-goers realistic sound and visual effects and the experiences that theatres provide, especially in the case of 3D movies.

Movies like Baahubali and Padmaavat are made with big budgets in terms of presentation, ideas and visual effects that guarantee a certain experience to their audiences. The digital audience is also deprived of the huge variety of food, ATMOS and Dolby digital sound when watching movies at home.

The growth of the digital platform is not an alternative option to releasing movies in multiplexes. Rather, it is an addition to new-age entertainment and both can co-exist. Producers of small-budget movies like Love Per Square Foot are choosing to launch their movies on digital platforms as it is cost-effective and reach a global audience. For many producers, releasing a movie in theatres and on digital platforms goes hand in hand.

Rahul Kadbet, Head Of Programming, Carnival Cinemas

Cinema has always meant to be the medium for the masses. Every filmmaker’s dream is to show his/ her creation on the big screen, which is a larger-than-life celebration of events. Though digital penetration is increasing, so is the number of multiplex screens all over the world and especially in developing countries like India, because there is still a lot of scope in Tier II and III cities.

OTT platforms also cater to a certain segment of the audience but you can’t compare the experience of watching a Baahubali, Padmaavat or Dunkirk on the 3D/IMAX/big screen to your 5-inch mobile phone or LED screen at home. Watching a film in most parts of India is still a complete family outing. Producers are making enough content to simultaneously cater to cinema screens and digital platforms. There is no substitute for theatrical release revenues for a moderate or big-budget film to just the digital release. Both these revenue streams are encouraging more and more producers and directors to come forward and make better content for patrons to enjoy.

Bylines: Soumita Sengupta, Bhakti Mehta, Suranjana Biswas

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