As more number of Indians test positive for COVID-19, with citizens being advised to avoid public gatherings, the film industries are trying to absorb the impact. Kerala was the first state to shut down its theatres, and in the last 24 hours, it has been followed by Mumbai, Delhi, Karnataka, Orissa and Jammu and Kashmir. (Baaghi 3, which released last week, had a significant drop in collections over the weekdays, and Angrezi Medium, which released on 13 March, opened low.)
The release date of Sooryavanshi, one of the biggest Hindi films of the year, has been indefinitely postponed. (Hollywood films such as No Time to Die and Mulan had already pushed their release dates a few days back). Expensive, star-driven films such as Sooryavanshi aim for holiday slots so that they can maximise the initial collections. The Rohit Shetty directed film, starring Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Katrina Kaif, was looking to cash-in on the mid-week holiday of Gudi Padwa; the delay will now have ramifications on the film calendar. The Kapil Dev biopic 83, the other big film, which was supposed to release in April is expected to be postponed as well; so is Coolie No 1.
Sooryavanshi's change in release date has been followed by a series of announcements by other films in a matter of less than 24 hours. Yash Raj Films' Jayesh Bhai Jordaar and Excel Entertainment's Toofan has been moved to 2 October and 18 September respectively. KGF 2 will be out on October 23. Shoojit Sircar's Udham Singh, which was scheduled to release in 2020, will now release on Jan 15 next year. Telugu films such as V — earlier scheduled for a 25 March release — and Nishabdham — 2 April — will most likely get postponed.
Even if states such as Tamil Nadu remain less affected by Coronavirus, releases such as the Vijay-starrer Master, scheduled for April 9, are likely to get pushed as well because US is an integral part of the Tamil film market (a factor that must have played a part in Sooryavanshi's postponement). Similarly, the business for Telugu films will be affected because the Karnataka theatres are closed.
With more such announcements expected in the next few days, and with no clear picture of when it'll be safe to go to the movies again, the film industries are looking at a lockdown period that could extend till May. "The first half in Hindi film industry will get impacted by 500-700 crore. That's what we had expected the 2-3 big films to collectively earn," says Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media. According to Kapoor, whereas the studios — both Sooryavanshi and 83 are co-produced by Reliance — are going to recover the money once these films release in the second half of the year, the worst hit stakeholders in the business will be the exhibitors. A person associated with a big multiplex chain, who didn't wish to be named, said that "to minimise losses, cinemas theatre employees in Delhi are being given Leave Without Pay (LWP)."
But the biggest losers may be the single screens, and the many small businesses that are dependent on them. "Everyone will face losses. There are people who are connected to us, like the canteen in our theatres. I will sit with them and see what is to be done," says Manoj Desai, executive director, G7 Multiplex and Maratha Mandir.
With bigger, star-driven films now jostling for space, the smaller, independent films will suffer. Akella says that several small producers are in talks with OTT platforms for direct-to-streaming releases.
Rajkumar Akella Managing Director, Comscore Theatrical, says that a prolonged spell of no business could spell death for a number single screen theatres. "Cineworld, one of the top chains in the world, are saying that if this continues, they will have to shut down the company itself. If that can happen to a big company like Cineworld, what would happen to small players? They won't be able to sustain for too long as it is a daily wage system for some of the theatres," he says.
With bigger, star-driven films now jostling for space, the smaller, independent films will suffer. (Rohena Gera's Sir, which was scheduled to release on March 20, also postponed its release.) Akella says that several small producers are in talks with OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime for direct-to-streaming releases. "A lot of people are considering other options like direct OTT release, some cases partial OTT releases. They will have a fix date premiere on the platforms which in fact you know, Chinese films have also done that."
But it may be more complicated than that for the smaller films, given that streaming sites emphasise that they should have a theatrical release before they land up on the platforms. "OTT platforms are not keen on buying films that are not promoted theatrically—unless they are commissioning themselves. YRF is getting a minimum-release for a film like Dibakar Banerjee's Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar so that it can eventually come out on OTT. A lot of deals mention that if you don't have theatrical release, it won't be valid," says Kapoor.
While the travel ban in many parts of the world has meant that film shoots in foreign countries, such as Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaran's next, which was to be shot at Abu Dhabi, have been delayed, there is no official word on the films being shot in India – Amit Masurkar's Sherni, which is being filmed in a forest in Madhya Pradesh, Dibakar Banerjee's Netflix film being shot at Madh Island, Mumbai. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, everyone is assessing the situation, and the common refrain seems to be, as Akella puts it, "We cannot apprehend the long term effects."