OTT vs Cinema: It is complicated
By Vinod Mirani
After my column, “OTT wants first strike: Bad news for cinema” (Column: B-Town, published on 28.6.20), the question that I am asked is: will the OTT continue to be as interested and active in buying films for premiere release; or, will the producer still opt for the OTT instead of cinema?
Now, that is a million-dollar question. It is too early to answer that question. As the phrase goes, ‘Take it as it comes. Aage aage dekha jaayega’. If the OTT content platforms continue to chase premiere release, there will be implications and side effects. In that, it will change the way films are being budgeted, made, marketed and viewed.
If the OTT platforms plan to continue to buy film streaming rights for premiere release, will the cinema houses still screen them? Will there be some sort of understanding that films are released on both mediums, as it was done with Pay TV or Pay Per View? These two formats did not become very popular in India, though some satellite disc operators offered this option. Abroad, it was not feasible to release small Indian films without big stars on this mode.
Due to corona putting a stop to film production activities for almost three months, and with some nearing-release or ready-for-release films having been grabbed by the OTT providers, the situation will be tough for the cinema properties for quite some time in days and months to come. And, this OTT competition has come for cinema chains the way video piracy of films came and ate up in the box office business of films during the days of piracy. Albeit, this is legit and pays for the rights.
The competition between the OTT platforms buying Indian films and the Indian cinema chain holders is grossly uneven. In that, the OTT platforms cater to over 200 countries worldwide, while the cinemas screening Hindi films, all together, may amount to a few thousands at best. Let alone the other advantages like worldwide release with sub titles. It is, hence, surprising, that cinema chains did not foresee the threat from OTT players and the way they were going on multiplying over the past few years!
And, not only will the cinemas screening Indian films in India will be affected but even those which depends mainly on Indian films in the traditional overseas market, like the Middle East, UK, USA, Canada etc, but also the non-traditional markets where Indian films have limited exposure. This is because the filmmakers in India are opting for an OTT premiere release of their films made mainly for cinema halls.
Now that Amazon Prime has set the trend by streaming “Gulabo Sitabo” in 213 countries with subtitles in many languages, this will encompass the overseas market and there will be no theatrical rights to sell.
The OTT is gradually breaking the barrier of language. A Spanish television crime drama was much watched in India and earned a lot of hits. And, this is just one example that a programme need not be only in English language to find viewers.
The cinema screens won’t be the only medium that will be affected and will need a rethink. The satellite rights, for instance, will have a market limited to those not yet introduced to the smartphones or the TV apparatus needed for OTT streaming. OTT penetration is too small to finish satellite channels.
So far at least, OTT platforms that buy movies outright do not include commercial breaks, and depend only on the number of subscribers. In which case, their existence will depend on the quality of movies/content they bring to a viewer. Because, only that will attract more subscribers. If they start accepting ads that again will depend on the number of subscribers.
That assures one of quality content. If you have accepted a subscription for a year, you are committed to that subscriber to provide worthy and varied fare. Shortchanging is not an option.
But, these OTT platforms are not startups. They have been around catering to a clientele for a long time. Take for example Netflix. The platform started out in 1997 with selling and renting DVDs. While keeping the rental business going, it got into the streaming business in 2007. The natural course of expansion followed as the company expanded its streaming to more countries and, eventually, creating its own content by 2013.
What works for the company is that it provides content from various countries. For example, “Money Heist”, a Spanish serial, was most talked about in India when the corona lockdown came into effect.
The Shemaroo story is similar to Netflix. Having started with a book renting business to CD/DVD renting, Shemaroo started buying video rights of not only Hindi fare but also other languages. It can claim to have one of the best libraries of the classics from old banners.
Amazon Prime Video, on the other hand, has 15 years of content making and buying experience behind it. Launched in the US in 2006 as Amazon Unbox, and has been active in India since 2016.
Amazon Prime already has a deal going with T-Series, a major film production house. There are a lot of other OTT players active now and none of them is a fly by night prospect hunter. All of these have a solid media background, be it Sony, MX, Zee, Disney+ Hotstar, Eros Now, Voot and so on.
The entertainment has invaded homes, your drawing room or your bedroom. Television did so, much earlier. But, the choice of what you could watch was not entirely yours. OTT, on the other hand, will spoil you for choice.
In India, nothing works like a movie to get you hooked and some OTT providers have decided to steal a march during this lockdown period when the cinema chains are not even in contention and the filmmakers want to encash their product. Also, the closing down of single screens and the advent of the multiplex system has deprived many movielovers of their favourite pastime. The OTT may again make it affordable for them, though one will have to choose a favourite depending on its repertoire and tariff.
Some more major deals are in the pipeline and are expected to be announced soon. Buying OTT rights is big-stake business and not all content buyers can compete. Amazon Prime, Disney+ Hotstar and Netflix can pour in money and acquire rights in lots, the way Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex did recently.
What are the possibilities for the cinema halls to stay in contention? Some sort of an arrangement with the OTT players?
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)