Inside The Box: With Bollywood Heading Back To Theatres, What Happens To Streaming?

Analyzing the slew of major release date announcements across Bollywood, what it means for OTT and what lies ahead for the viewers
Inside The Box: With Bollywood Heading Back To Theatres, What Happens To Streaming?

'Inside The Box' is a series in which we will take a deeper-dive into the Box Office collections and web numbers of major Hindi films released across India.

Hours after Uddhav Thackeray, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, announced the reopening of theatres in the state from October 22, it almost seemed as if the Hindi film industry went into a frenzy of sorts. With one date announcement after another, social media was buzzing over the course of the weekend – and the beginning of the week – as over 20 theatrical slots were quickly blocked, up until January 2023. Such has been the response from the film industry that it won't come as a surprise if by the time this column is published, the number touches the 30s.

The commonality in all these films? Almost all comprised a big star cast, a big production house, a mass director, or all of the above. "Everybody is overjoyed that the movie industry has found its backbone back with Maharashtra reopening," says entertainment industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai. "Since Maharashtra was not reopening, there were no big Hindi film announcements, and now, so many films are announcing release dates. They don't even have to look at the calendar anymore, they just want to block a slot."

Mumbai and Maharashtra, being the top market for the Hindi film industry, churned 30-35% of a Hindi film's revenue, and with its absence, producers and distributors were reluctant to release any big budget films. However, as soon as the news of the state's unlock came about, no one wanted to wait any further. The enthusiasm, though, is also a case of once bitten twice shy. "The last time theaters opened in October 2020, we didn't see major theatrical announcements coming in because everybody kept waiting to see how things would go. They couldn't decide whether they wanted to release their films then or whether they wanted to wait for the situation to improve further," says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media. This indecision led to the loss of a key business period, in which several films from the South, including Jathi Ratnalu, Master and Vakeel Saab not only released but did exceedingly well in terms of Box Office collections.

More recently, the opening numbers of films such as SeetiMaarr and Love Story have further encouraged producers to take the leap instead of continuing to wait for normalcy. "It's not like all these films are racing to beat each other. It's just that the industry has waited for so long and now that things are finally put into perspective, they want to give a message that they are ready, that they want to release too," explains Kapoor. Many of these films had been shot, either in majority or in completion, by 2020 itself. All the industry waited for was the market, which will now be at its best possible scenario, given the conditions. "Pre-covid, it was normal to see theatrical announcements every week. But now, because everybody was holding back, it's a collective 1.5 years of backlog which is being cleared."

What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that this move wouldn't essentially ensure the resumption of the pre-pandemic Box Office numbers just yet. With theatres in Maharashtra only reopening after a month, a sense of normalcy can only be ensured once the decision settles in for the public. The coronavirus numbers, at large, will also play a big role in pulling the crowd. Furthermore, it's likely that the theatrical protocols, yet to be laid out by the Maharashtra government, will remain strict with its measures. "There will still be restrictions. Theatres will likely run with 50% occupancies, night shows won't be allowed," says Kapoor. "But it is a start. In the next 2-3 months, one can expect that slowly things can start coming back to normalcy and films can earn 80-90% of what they normally used to earn." Targeting the festival period then – Diwali and Christmas, to begin with – may prove to be a profitable move.

And a start it is. With the announcements in place, and several trailers and songs now potentially on their way, it'll be a good time to make the viewers aware of a shift in environment. The more the buzz, the better it is for the market overall. "Last year, when Ormax Media spoke to the audience, they were keen to go back as long as they got a film of their choice," says Kapoor. "It's a good thing that multiple release dates are coming out because it creates an overall atmosphere that theaters are open. It's an environment where every announcement helps all other films also."

What's even more interesting is that aside of a few clashes, these dates have remained scattered and largely clash-free. This would ensure not only a steady influx of big theatrical releases but also an opportunity for every film to do relatively well. "Nobody wants to clash, which is also why a superstar like Aamir Khan has opted for a Valentines Day 2022 release for Laal Singh Chaddha instead of December," says Pillai. "One of the biggest South Indian films, Allu Arjun and Fahadh Faasil's Pushpa is slated for a release around that time. That would mean that it would book all the major release slots across South India. So, Khan has avoided that competition, moving to February at a time his film can enjoy its own limelight."

Amidst this chaos of who's releasing what, where do the OTT platforms stand? With theatres more or less being in the background, the OTT space has been booming like never before. But now, with this sudden movement over the last couple of days, what happens to these platforms that have otherwise made a significant impact on the viewer's consumption over the last couple of years? "Nothing. OTT is here to stay," says Pillai. "There haven't been any big-star Hindi releases in the OTT space in the longest time. Be it Bell Bottom or Thalaivii, they have had theatrical releases first. Not much is going to change there."

Moreover, a large of chunk of OTT content consists of web shows, the popularity of which has seen, and will presumably continue to see, a steady growth. "Be it Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, their primary content is series, not films only," says Kapoor. Moreover, there's only so much an average viewer will be able to watch in the theatres. "If 15 films are coming in three months, obviously nobody will watch all those 15 films in theatres. Say if someone is watching 3-4 films out of these in the theatres, they will consider watching the rest on streaming in a month or two," explains Kapoor.

This move back to the theatre, may in fact, even be helpful for the streaming platforms. While they have been able to buy the direct-to-OTT releases of some big production films like Dharma Productions' Shershaah and the upcoming Shoojit Sircar film, Sardar Udham Singh, not all big-budget movies that had been kept on hold could be afforded by these platforms alone. "That would have been very expensive. Now, we can go back to something that was similar to the older model of film releases – a theatrical release, followed by the streaming release a few weeks on," Kapoor says. However, it is likely that smaller films, or films with low to medium budgets, will continue opting for a digital release. This automatically becomes a safer bet for films with lesser star power or audience pull.

The big question though will be the window between the theatrical and digital releases of these big films. With the audience interest peaking in star releases, Pillai is expecting the window to actually lessen going forward. "If Sooryavanshi releases for Diwali, it'll come to OTT faster than Bell Bottom did. The latter had a four-week window. Originally, there used to be a 56-day gap for a star movie. If that can come down to 28 days for Bell Bottom, it can also come down to 14 for Sooryavanshi," says Pillai.

Kapoor, though, has a different take. Taking Thalaivii's example, wherein the multiplexes opted to not go ahead with the release of its Hindi version as the producers opted for a two-week window instead of the pre-decided four-week span, he believes that at this point, filmmakers will look into avoid any further clashes in their bid to seek a return of normalcy in their businesses. "The question now will be whether four weeks are too less or should it be eight weeks, which will vary from film to film," he says. "For example, a film like Sooryavanshi may even have a window of 8-13 weeks, while other films may have about four weeks. But anything below that wouldn't be practical. Now that theatres have opened, one can expect four weeks to be a minimum and 8 or 13 weeks to be the norm for bigger films."

While what will happen next can only be determined in the weeks to come, many viewers that have missed the grand theatrical experience for a while now, are likely to be spoilt for choice if things go as planned. With a mix of mass films like Rohit Shetty's Sooryavanshi, Kabir Khan's 83 and Aamir Khan starrer Laal Singh Chaddha as well as franchise and youth-centric films like Bunty Aur Babli 2, Jersey and Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui releasing over the next six months, the Box Office is set to provide a hearty mix of genres after a significant period of time. "There something in store for both the single screen as well as the multiplex audience. The range of films just gives them more of a variety," says Kapoor. "At this point, every film is a good film from the point of view that they allow one more option for the audience to take into consideration when they choose to go back to the theatre."

That being said, if all goes as per schedule, the future seems like a win-win, for the theatres, for the audience, for the OTT platforms, and finally, for Bollywood at long last.

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