Post pandemic, cinema halls will witness a resurgence with more people flocking to the theatre and streaming platforms cannot compete with this despite their popularity in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis best evidenced by the Indian Premier League — played without an audience in the stands in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi — that has seen its biggest ever viewership in its history, top entertainment industry executives Uday Shankar and Ajay Bijli said.
Speaking at the 18th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Friday, Uday Shankar, chairman, Star & Disney India, said we should be mindful of making a binary argument of streaming platforms versus theatre. “After the pandemic is over and people return to normal life, theatres will become bigger because people will want that… and streaming [platforms] cannot compete with that.”
Shankar’s statement comes in the wake of the IPL — the biggest cricket property for Star India with Disney+Hotstar as its official streaming venue — recording its highest ever viewership as it wrapped up this month.
In March, when the IPL was suspended, people were hopeful that things would return to normal within weeks. However, as the lockdown progressed, people were “starved of content and live sports,” Shankar said. “That’s when we realised that whenever the IPL happened, it would be a really big one. However, we also knew that there would be huge challenges. This would be the first time that the IPL would be played in empty stadiums. So we knew that it could be the biggest or it could be the most disastrous,” he said, adding that this time’s IPL viewership is over 25-30% higher than the previous iterations. “It’s about power of cricket, people’s desires to let life prevail over everything else,” he said.
“Humans are not hardwired to sit at home. That is what gives me a lot of hope and confidence. Once the surge comes down, the vaccine arrives, new films start coming on to the screen, this is going to revive and the pent-up demand is going to be huge,” chairman and managing director PVR Ltd Ajay Bijli said.
With cinema theatres being some of the first public spaces to shut down and the some of last to get permission to reopen, box office collections and the film exhibition business are at their lowest points. Though the absence of new content and surge in Covid-19 infections has delayed the recovery of the sector, both Bijli and Shankar agreed the sector is poised for comeback.
“The human race always bounces back,” Bijli said adding that 6.25 million people watched movies in theatres worldwide last year. Even though a few Tamil and Bengali language films have arrived in theatres, the big Bollywood spectacle is some time away. The trend of filmmakers taking their films directly to streaming platforms is an aberration Bijli said.
The film industry knows that theatrical release still comprises 60% of overall movie revenues, he said. When films go straight to OTT, they lose the monetisation journey.
“Theatres also provide the filteration process…in how much should be paid for a film (by OTT),” Bijli said.
“Cinema is an incomplete experience till you get brand-new movies. The single-digit occupancy is not bothering me, what is making me happy is that people are so keen to get out. We are not hardwired to stay at home,” Bijli said.
Brahmastra, which is touted to be the biggest movie made in the country (Shankar pointed out that it’s well over 300-crore) “cannot be denied the most intense experience that only theatres can generate”, Shankar said.
Other big-budget Hollywood films like Tenet (directed by Christopher Nolan) are also best suited for a theatrical release.
Covid-19 may have dealt a blow to the entertainment industry but there was a lot else ailing the segment even prior to the pandemic, both panellists pointed out. For instance, niche general entertainment channels on television, such as those in the English language, or belonging to genres such as lifestyle and infotainment, are facing a huge business challenge owing to the new regulation introduced by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The new tariff order introduced by TRAI prevented bundling of channels by broadcasters and asked viewers to opt for individual channels instead of the pre-determined bouquets. The tariff order was expected to make channels cheaper but on ground, the opposite happened on ground and the cost of price of like-to-like entertainment went up.
“The business case (for niche channels) has come under huge challenge and that’s not something you can blame on Covid-19. It’s because of the regulatory dispensation we are operating in India. Television has been a huge victim of regulatory thoughtlessness,” Shankar said. The mechanism has ensured only the mass market channels get visibility and while there is an audience section really passionate about niche channels, for them to access and discover it is becoming increasingly difficult.
The panellists felt that while content streamed on Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms and digital news portals will eventually be regulated but what mattered was the regulatory lens — “Do we want to be over prescriptive or do we want to let creativity and imagination to have a role,” Shankar asked.
Bijli agreed, stating that while he was in favour of a certification process (which classifies films on the basis of age suitability), “The sanctity of what was created must not be compromised. Certification is fine, but the creative fraternity’s ability to create what they want to should not be affected,” he said.
Shankar, however, struck a note of caution and said that global streaming services must not be insensitive to India’s diversity and culture by offering gratuitous content.
“I’m not a fan of censorship, I don’t believe in it,” he said but added, “The kind of gratuitous content, the amount of sex, abusive language or violence, even though it is part of all our lives…a lot of the times it just done to pander to attention,” he said.
Shankar said that Indian consumers are far more open and mature than most regulators deem them to be and do not need filters to be applied to everything they watch. Further, it will be a challenge to regulate the huge volume of content available on some of these global services that curate programming from across the world.
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