The two biggest questions facing the movie industry right now are – when can movie theatres open for business and when can shoots resume. No one knows the answer to either. Also, as much as we may love the movies, the truth is that in order of priority, reviving the entertainment business features right at the bottom. But this we do know – both movie watching and movie making are going to change dramatically in a post-Covid world.
Movie theatre chains are already talking about a future where we sit far apart from each other, and get temperature checks at the entrance. At a recent webinar conducted by Comscore, Telugu producer and movie theatre owner Suresh Babu warned that they need to be extremely prudent about the timing of this re-opening because even a single person falling sick on their watch could make people distrust theatres.
As far as movie shoots go, producers are trying to come up with safety guidelines but how does one social distance when there are over a 100 people on set? Also, even if the crew is armed with masks and gloves, how do you protect the actors facing the camera?
Even as these complicated matters are being worked out, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that the streaming giant added a staggering 15.8 M subscribers during this time. It’s, in fact, a great time for all streamers. They are after all our only source of entertainment during this lockdown. But while they’re thriving now, they too will eventually need to shoot to keep their libraries stocked.
While so much is unknown about the future of movies, let’s look at the little that we do know and the changes we can expect to see in the coming months.
It’s a good time to be a screenwriter
Let’s start with the good news – it’s a great time to be a screenwriter. Almost every writer we contacted is overwhelmed with assignments and tight deadlines. While film producers are being relatively tentative and waiting to see how the crisis unfolds, OTT platforms are being more bullish about developing more shows so that they can hit the ground running when shoots resume. “Thankfully, the writer’s kitchen is running. Every writer has many opportunities. I’m also strangely getting messages for shoots for the end of the year so that means everyone is very optimistic. But these are all for OTT platforms,” says writer-filmmaker Vasan Bala (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota).
Producer Nikkhil Advani, who just released his show Hasmukh on Netflix, says he currently has four more shows in development and two others in pre-production that normally would have to go through stages of market research and focus groups before being released. “Surprisingly platforms are asking us to quickly finish the edit and send it to them,” he says.
The mad rush for content has both pros and cons. Chaitanya Hegde of Tulsea, a talent agency for writers, says the silver lining is that studio heads who are infamous for being averse to reading are finally looking at scripts. The downside is the unrealistic demands on writers. “Everyone tells them, ‘You have the time now. Write something.’ They don’t realise it’s not a vacation. These are challenging times. I think people are expecting writers to churn out brilliant ideas one after the other, forgetting that it is not exactly an environment that is conducive to that,” he says.
That said, his advice to writers is to use this time to create something original. Most writers are busy adapting material or working on commissioned projects, and not enough are creating something that’s purely their own.
Straight to digital releases for smaller to mid-sized films
We were always headed here, but the current crisis has only fast-tracked this development. Even in a pre-pandemic world, films of a certain category were struggling. There were doubts over whether it made financial sense to give them a theatrical release and even if they did, finding an appropriate release date was hard. Let’s take Dibakar Bannerjee’s Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar which YRF pushed around for over a year. Producer Karan Johar has often re-iterated that we’re now at a time when only big event films and high concept movies will get a theatre release – everything in between goes to digital.
However, the situation right now is slightly different. There’s a dire need from both ends – movie producers as well as digital platforms – to get movies out. Mid-sized films that were to release over the next few months can’t afford to wait indefinitely for theatres to open because even when they do, they may have to wait months for a release window. Meanwhile, digital platforms are having a great time now but will also need a steady stream of original content before their content banks dry out. Therefore, acquiring movies is the only way out.
Serious conversations are underway and there’s already talk of Akshay Kumar taking the lead in selling his Laxxmi Bomb to Disney+Hotstar. Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar has said he has no qualms releasing his film Gulabo Sitabo starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan on streaming. There are also murmurs of a big film like Sooryavanshi caving and going digital if theatres remain shut indefinitely. Now that would be a massive move that could change things irreversibly. That said, at this point, this is all conjecture.
Expect to see A-list actors defect to digital
Leading Bollywood filmmakers were quick to embrace the digital wave. Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Kabir Khan, Raj and DK and Ali Abbas Zafar all have shows to their credit. But they’ve been fewer A-list actors who’ve made the switch and a post-COVID world may force them to jump ship sooner than later. Over the next few months, as films go straight to streaming, many may make their unplanned digital debuts.
A-listers were probably holding out because they were afraid doing a web show would be viewed as a step down or an admission of a dwindling big screen career. “I’m seriously waiting for Akshay (Kumar) to come with his Amazon show and I hope it’s a blockbuster. It will break that glass ceiling when a guy who’s at the top of his game says ‘I’m also doing an Amazon show not because I didn’t have the option of doing films but because this story could only be told in a longer format’,” says Nikkhil Advani.
He adds that when actors have a change of heart, digital platforms who’ve been trying to lure them will have the last laugh. “Today the buyer has the upper hand. Therefore platforms will say why should I pay you a premium when there are newer actors we have taken risks on, spent money on and built as brands for so many years now,” he adds.