Anirban Roy Choudhury

2021: A blockbuster year for Indian Cinema?

'Sooryavanshi', '83', 'Bell Bottom', 'Pathan Prithviraj', 'Radhe', 'Jayeshbhai Jordaar', 'Brahmastra' and 'Laal Singh Chaddha' are a few big-budget Hindi movies listed to release this year.

Tamil Superstar Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar (Vijay) starrer action-thriller, 'Master' is gently crawling towards a Rs 250 crore worldwide collection. It was the first big-budget film to release after the cinemas were shut in early March, last year, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in India.

The pandemic had forced the cinemas to lockdown. It was certain in a country that, according to economists, took the strictest measures to restrict the outbreak, theatres would be the last to open. October 15, the theatres started opening again. But there was hardly any title to screen. First with old movies and later with Hollywood releases, the cinemas were struggling to attract cinema-lovers.

Producers in the east released a few Bengali movies during Durga Puja. But the "biggest positive feedback," according to Saurabh Varma, CMO, Inox, came from Southern India. The passion for movies in that market is huge he says.

Saurabh Varma
Saurabh Varma

In its recent guidelines, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India announced that cinemas will be allowed to seat more people inside the hall as the cap is set to be reduced from the existing 50 per cent. "For the revival of cinema attendance, removal of capacity restrictions is an important step which can also help reduce the fear factor," opines Ashish Pherwani, partner and media and entertainment leader, EY India.

However, he adds, "A healthy slate of large films will also be needed to get audiences back, but effective vaccination will be the highest factor."

Ashish Pherwani
Ashish Pherwani

Indian theatrical exhibition business with 9,440 (2020) screens of which 3,150 are multiplex screens is one of the most under-penetrated markets in the world. The number of screens has dropped from 9,596 in 2019. Naveen Chandra, CEO, Mumbai Movie Studios asserts, "Ever since production has resumed in the last few months, many more big films have been completed and are now ready for release. Ironically, this will create another problem and take us back to pre-pandemic times when films suffered due to the lack of enough theatres to release them!"

Few big-budget movies that are listed to release in 2021 are: 'Sooryavanshi', '83', 'Bell Bottom', 'Pathan Prithviraj', 'Radhe', 'Jayeshbhai Jordaar', 'Brahmastra' and 'Laal Singh Chaddha'. There are sequels of established franchisees like 'Hera Pheri 3', 'Golmaal 5', 'Satyamev Jayate 2', 'No Entry 2' on the Hindi cinema front.

"Films are a big part of Indian culture and people are eager to get back to the theatres as has been shown by the performance of recently released Tamil film Master. The film released mid-January has collected over Rs 150 crore in 2 weeks at the box office, with 50 per cent seating capacity restriction and with states like Rajasthan still completely under lockdown. States like Maharashtra which make an important contribution to all India box office collections having less than 40 per cent theatres open," says Chandra.

The multiplex chains are burning their midnight oil to convince consumers that the theatres are safe. Securing first visit post-pandemic is the biggest challenge for a marketer today, admits, Saurabh Varma. However, he says, once that first visit is acquired, the consumers are visiting repeatedly. "While earlier, consumers used to visit once or twice a month, we are now witnessing that the repeat visits have increased to once a week," he informs.

When the theatres were shut, some of the studios and filmmakers went on to release their ready to screen titles on OTT. Disney+Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, the three international behemoths with deep pockets were dishing out Rs 60 crore to Rs 110 crore per movie. Indian players like ALTBalaji stayed away from it. Group CEO of the video-on-demand platform, Nachiket Pantvaidya had said, this phenomenon - direct-to-OTT releases is temporary. While Uday Shankar, the former Star and Disney India boss said, Hotstar Multiplex is not just for the lockdowns.

Source KPMG
Source KPMG

Early acquisitions like 'Gulabo Sitabo' were available for Rs 60 crore while recent releases such as Akshay Kumar's 'Laxmii' on Disney+ Hotstar and Varun Dhawan starrer 'Coolie No. 1' on Amazon Prime were acquired for more than Rs 100 crore. "No doubt, the pandemic has accelerated all things digital and has created a home viewing habit and the OTT platforms have used the opportunity to attract some of the ready films in the pursuit of subscriber acquisition," says Naveen Chandra.

Naveen Chandra
Naveen Chandra

He adds, "In the immediate present, for the producers, it was a win, since as theatres were shut, they managed to get an assured return on their investments, meanwhile audiences were happy to get some fresh off the block content to watch as they were locked in at home, but in the film ecosystem, it has created deep fissures. If the HBO experiment is anything to go by, Hollywood is pushing back. Brands are built on the big screen and need theatrical legs."

Films help OTT platforms acquire subscribers. Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video India had said in one of his earlier interviews with afaqs! that Amazon first tests the waters in a market with films and then based on the insights, the team decides if there is merit in commissioning an Original show in that market. The OTT players have acquired paid subscribers on the back of film acquisition during the lockdown.  

According to consulting firm KPMG, there were 22 million subscription-video-on-demand subscribers at the end of FY 20. The number is projected to rise up to 40 million by the end of the current fiscal in March 2021. For the record, there are 400 million online video viewers in India. Despite the growth in the number of paid subscribers, OTT is still a very small contributor to the Indian Cinema business.

The Rs 18,300 crore cinema industry in FY 20 had Rs 12,221 coming from tickets sold in India. while digital rights' contribution was Rs 1,090 crore. In FY21, the industry will contract to Rs 6,110 crore and out of it Rs 1,630 crore will come from Digital Rights according to the KPMG analysis. "For any producer or filmmaker, a film has 60 to 70 rights to exploit, but all the rights can only be exploited once a proof of performance is measured and that measurement happens only through theatrical release," says Inox's Saurabh Varma.

He adds, "Once a film does well theatrically, it complements even the viewing in OTT space. Coolie No. 1, I feel, would have fared a lot better had it released theatrically and then gone to OTT."

Naveen Chandra echoes, "Brands are built on the big screen and need theatrical legs. OTT has only created multiple segments of viewers who will decide, basis the content, what they want to watch with the family at home, what they want to watch with friends in the theatre, and what they want to watch alone on a personal device. In effect, there are more viewers for films now than there were before the pandemic."

Chandra adds, "Only 14.5 crore Indians saw a film in the theatre in 2019, and OTT may have just got many more people hooked onto films which they may want to go the theatre and watch."

Varma is confident that 2021 will be a year of entertainment that will witness many blockbusters. He does not see OTT releases coming in the way of cinemas. In fact, he is of the view that like the advent of Swiggy and Zomato has increased the appetite for eating outside, OTTs will increase the time spent watching films.

"There were two players, one - OTT and one-theatrical out of the two, one player was not playing. So, it is unfair to say that the other player was playing too well just because it has deep pockets. It is just that the second player could not come into action," he concludes.