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Fatal Attraction Or The Transformers?

A few days ago, Paramount Pictures signed a multi-film, exclusive production deal with streaming giant Netflix. In addition to making films like its recent global success Mission: Impossible - Fallout for theatrical distribution, the studio will now also produce films specifically for Netflix to exploit on its OTT platform.

So why does this piece of information feature on the editorial page of this publication instead of the news sections that follow? Simple: because this is not just one of the many partnerships that are announced virtually daily in what is a very collaborative business. This is a potentially transformational development that could have radical ramifications for the film ecosystem the world over.

On the one hand, we have a storied studio whose rich history spans over a century and which, as a member of the ‘Big Six’, is a key player in the global film business alongside Disney, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. This is the prolific producer/distributor whose instantly recognizable logo of a mountain emerging from the clouds appears on some of the most iconic and/or successful titles in film history – The Godfather, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Ghost, Gladiator, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Interstellar, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Top Gun, Catch Me If You Can, American Beauty, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, Beverly Hills Cop, Braveheart, Chinatown, Crocodile Dundee and Rosemary’s Baby, in addition to blockbuster franchise properties like Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator, Madagascar, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Paranormal Activity.

On the other hand, we have – depending on which side of the aisle you sit – either this century’s biggest game-changer or, alternately, most destructive disrupter in the domain of audiovisual entertainment. It is a brand that has become synonymous with the personal/home consumption of filmed content barely a decade after it first started streaming.

And then you have the nature of the association. This is not an output or a licensing deal, the likes of which are commonplace both in Hollywood and here in India i.e. a production house/studio selling the streaming or broadcast rights of its existing library or future slate to an OTT player or a television broadcaster. Instead, the Paramount-Netflix agreement envisages the former producing content that bypasses the traditional theatrical release for exclusive use by the latter.

To really appreciate what makes the deal literally revolutionary (given the word’s genesis in ‘revolt’!), it is important to know the history that precedes it.

The North American exhibition community has always been fiercely protective of its exclusive window i.e. the 90-day period following a film’s release in which it cannot be made available on other platforms like television or OTT services. Hollywood studios, therefore, have been wary of cozying up too much to Netflix, which insists that the films it makes or backs will premiere first on its streaming service, even at the risk of being boycotted by cinema chains. This is in contrast to the more accommodating stance of Amazon Studios, the film production wing of Amazon’s Prime Video, which diligently abides by the theatrical window for the films it produces.

It is this backdrop that makes the Paramount-Netflix deal so momentous, perhaps even sacrilegious from the perspective of some exhibitors – much like the reactions evoked by cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu hugging the Pakistani army chief!

What the new partnership also points to is the growing convergence in the paths of film creators and technology giants, and a shift in the nature of their engagement.

The Paramount-Netflix announcement came just days after two other alliances were made public. Amazon Studios signed an eight-film exclusive deal with Blumhouse Productions that has carved a strong niche in the horror genre by delivering a slew of successful films like Get Out, Insidious, Split, The Purge and the recent smash hit, Halloween.

Apple – which is strongly rumoured to be on the cusp of launching its streaming service to compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video – announced a multiyear deal with A24. A24 is a highly-regarded indie studio that has acquired the reputation of being something of an Oscar magnet, with the films they have produced or distributed – Moonlight, Room and Ex Machina, among others – picking up over two dozen Academy Award nominations.

As film producers work ever more closely with (and become increasingly more dependent on revenues from) digital platforms, the North American theatrical window of exclusivity will come under further strain at a time when most studios have in any case been pushing for a substantially shorter embargo on non-theatrical exploitation.

That’s not the only churn underway at the very highest levels of the global film order. We have the world’s largest film studio, The Walt Disney Company, furiously working away to launch its own streaming service called Disney+ in 2019 and as a prelude to this, the studio’s films will stop being available on Netflix at the end of 2018.

The next few months will also most likely see the mother of all entertainment mergers – Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox – pass regulatory compliances and become operational. And to counter this formidable behemoth, there is frenzied behind-the-scenes action underway at other studios with the grapevine abuzz with various permutations and combinations of possible alliances and mergers.

With virtually all major studios, not to mention the leading OTT players, having a very strong on-ground presence in India, it is a given that the multi-track chain of events now underway in the US will have a ripple effect in our backyard too.

In fact, it will have much more than just a ripple effect. After all, the Indian production and distribution community has typically been rather less reverential of an exclusive theatrical window than our counterparts in Hollywood are. We have already experimented with ultra-short hold-back periods between films and their satellite television premieres, including some with the said films still playing in theatres, besides trying out day-and-date exploitation on DTH platforms.

On the OTT front, we have already had a few relatively small films that have gone straight to streaming as ‘Originals’ and there are a few more in the pipeline. Most major production houses and studios already have output deals with some digital OTT player or the other. How long will it be before an output deal becomes an input deal and a bona fide A-list film’s first-day-first-show plays out on a television or mobile screen rather than the neighborhood cinema?

Especially when, to paraphrase arguably the most iconic line from Paramount Picture’s arguably most iconic film: the digital platforms make an offer we can’t refuse!

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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