Over the past three months, as most small and big movies made their way to OTT platforms, there has been an ongoing conversation about the future of entertainment, particularly cinema, in India.

Smaller, more independent movies had already begun making their way to OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Zee5 and increasingly, Disney + Hotstar. But it was the premiere of Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar’s elegy to Lucknow of the past and its decaying Nawabi culture, starring legend Amitabh Bachchan and the successful star Ayushmann Khurrana on Amazon Prime in May that set the industry, exhibitors and theatre owners on edge.

In July, came Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film, Dil Bechara, on Disney + Hotstar and August saw a high-profile premiere of Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi, on Amazon Prime and Nawazuddin Sidiqqui’s cop drama, Raat Akeli Hai, on Netflix. Other Hindi movies have followed the trail laid out by these two, as have the Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam-language film industries.

The legal drama Ponmagal Vandhal (Tamil), mystery thriller Penguin (Telugu), comedy-drama French Biriyani (Kannada), and Sufiyum Sujatayum (Malayalam), written and directed by Naranipuzha Shanavas of Karie fame, starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Jayasurya in lead roles, have done well on various OTT platforms.

“Sufiyum Sujathayum is the first Malayalam film to have only a digital premiere,” says producer Naranipuzha Shanavas. “I had to take the decision to cope with the financial losses caused by the pandemic and help those who depend on cinema for their daily wages. I see more movies releasing on OTT platforms in the next six months. Later, when things settle down, filmmakers will pursue both, cinema release and special content for OTT platforms, which attract a largely younger audience.”

Amazon Prime Video has signed up seven films from Hindi and south industries while Netflix has added six, and Disney + Hotstar has seven in its kitty. Among them is Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak 2, Laxmmi Bomb starring Akshay Kumar, Anurag Basu’s Ludo (an ensemble drama about four couples in a city starring Abhishek Bachchan and Rajkumar Rao), Janhvi Kapoor-starrer Gunjan Saxena and Dinesh Vijan’s Mimi.

Producer Mahesh Bhatt says he was compelled to approach an OTT platform. “A production house has to survive. We can’t see any end of the road right now; there is no light at the end of the tunnel just yet. How long can you hold on to a movie that is ready for release?”

The OTT platforms themselves are evolving to keep up with the times. For instance, ShemarooMe has pioneered a new concept, Transactional Video on Demand, or TVOD, where people can pay just for the content they watch. Hiren Gada, CEO Shemaroo Entertainment and ShemarooME, says, “As a standard norm, people subscribing to a streaming service need to involuntarily purchase the entire list of content, a lot of which they are not even interested in. Imagine walking into a restaurant to have your favourite dish but being forced to eat a huge buffet instead!? With TVOD, rather than paying for a whole cluster of titles just to watch one movie, viewers can directly pay for thaat particular film. It is like ordering à la carte.”

The rise and rise of OTT platforms

The signs of their growing clout have been visible for a while now. Boston Consulting Group has predicted that the OTT segment in India, right now pegged at $0.5 billion, is poised to grow to $5 billion by 2023. Khushboo Solanki Sharma, founder of Zero Gravity Communications, a marketing and branding consultancy that works with filmmakers, says, “Cinemas will depend more on technological revolution, offering movies that are high on VFX and 3D elements. Audiences will head to theatres for that special experience or to watch a movie with family and friends. OTT platforms will be popular for other kinds of content, interesting movies and good storytelling.”

The interest in OTT platforms was fuelled by the millennials and Gen Z’s love for consuming content on-the-go and an interest in independent, free of taboo kind of programming. Netflix is said to have over two million subscribers, Hotstar, which is now part of Disney, claims eight million, while Amazon Prime lays claim to 10 million (consultancy firm RedSeer’s research states that only 40 per cent of Amazon’s subscriber base is paid, the rest are members because of bundled subscriptions, with platforms such as Vodafone).

None of the OTT platforms we reached out to agreed to speak to us. Many in the market say that OTT platforms are in a state of flux: on the one hand, they are trying to woo major Indian film industries to release their big-ticket movies straight to their platforms and make original content for them, and on the other, they face regulatory threats from the Indian government, which has taken umbrage to some of the programmings, thought to be either too bold or too radical.

Ripe for disruption

Will OTT platforms disrupt the Indian film industry then?

With cinemas shut for over four months now, the industry is facing huge losses. Sircar, whose movie was the first big one to make it to the OTT platform during the pandemic, says financial constraints made him choose the medium. “The magic of cinema can never be recreated on OTT platforms. But a lot of technicians depend on me. I had to pay for them. I had to get this film released and move on to the next project.”

Producers are looking at bringing their movies to the OTT platforms, as cinemas struggle to open. Cinema owners are none too pleased with this development. Inox’s executive director Siddharth Jain says that owners have to deal with the financial might of platforms such as Netflix. “They are global businesses and have the financial clout and deep pockets. But it is a fact that the magic of cinema is lost on the small screen. We are hoping as we open, people will come back to the cinemas, attracted by the entire movie-watching experience on the silver screen.”

Cinemas don’t just offer the pleasure of watching a film on the big screen with zero disturbances. The experience is lavish: modern theatres in cities are glamorous spaces with chandelier-dominated lounges, recliner chairs and gourmet meals, many-a-times delivered on the seat.

“Add to that the cutting-edge technology by Dolby Sounds and Imax theatres,” says filmmaker Imtiaz Ali. “For me, the best experience is to watch a movie in a theatre. However, OTT as a platform is more democratic compared to cinema. No art form kills another. I believe all of them can co-exist. Many thought the cinema would take over the theatre or stage, but there is still a very vibrant theatre scene. And the same can be said about television.”

Ali says that big-ticket movies releasing on OTT platforms are a transitory phase due to the matter of paying their staff and technicians. “Once people can come back to the theatres, different kinds of content will be produced for cinemas and OTT. I see a lot of mainstream producers and directors making content especially for OTT platforms, and a content that requires a bigger canvas for cinemas.”

A view backed by Sircar. “What the lockdown has done is to accelerate the success of OTT platforms. Their popularity began much before the lockdown. What the lockdown has achieved is to get even the older generations hooked on to these platforms. They have been able to widen their fan base.”

The cinemas are nowhere close to losing out. Bhatt says that people are social creatures who need an outing and big-screen entertainment is fun. “Right now, people need to protect themselves but once the nightmare is over, cinemas will be back.”

Even now, the kinds of movies making their way to OTT platforms are more middle-of-the-road cinema. Trade analyst Komal Nahta contends that bigger commercial films, on which rides huge money and huge reputations, will wait for the world to open up and release straight in cinemas. “The smaller movies, the more independent cinema, which would have seen theatrical release before the lockdowns, will find a home on OTT platforms. Top actors don’t want their films to release on OTT directly even now.”

Instead, producers may sign up with OTT platforms to be the second-in-line for a release, after a theatrical one, instead of heading to television. Superstar Salman Khan’s production house has struck a 5-year multi-crore deal with Amazon Prime video for exclusive rights to stream his movies on their platform post its theatrical release. This means, only Amazon Prime will stream Khan’s movies and they will get on to our television screens much later, an indication of the times to come.

There is no rulebook here. As Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures, states, “The situation is rather unique because of the lockdown and the spread of the infection. There is very little to predict how the consumer will behave once things open up. Maybe they are so tired of sitting at home and will flock to theatres. At PVR, we have been in touch with the producers and they are unanimous that theatrical is the most important exhibition arm for cinema.”

Perhaps film trade analyst Akshaye Rathi’s analysis is most apt for the current situation. He compares the rush for release on OTT platforms to be inspired as much by the eyeballs they are attracting, as forced by the pandemic. “Back in 2008, satellite rights had seen a similar wave. Television channels were paying a great amount of money to buy a film’s satellite rights. But they soon realised that they are paying too much money and are unable to make profits from it. They backed out from hosting big TV premieres, waiting for the producers to come to them with the film. The revenue earnings for a film shifted back to the theatre. I see the same thing happening. It is in the interest of producers to keep the exhibition sector rolling since the box office accounts for 65 per cent of a film’s income.”