When Salman Khan-starrer Radhe released on ZEE5's pay-per-view service ZEEPlex this Thursday, the platform's servers crashed within hours. According to media consulting firm Ormax Media, the film garnered 8.9 million views over the long weekend, outperforming the platform's previous pay-per-view Bollywood release, Khaali Peeli, which had 0.8 million views in its three-day opening weekend. Radhe is now the the third-most watched OTT release in its opening weekend after Dil Bechara (40 million views) and Laxmii (15 million views), both of which dropped on streaming service DisneyPlus Hotstar and were available to users at no extra cost.
While Zee5 users with an annual Premium subscription could watch Radhe for free, it was also available to rent on ZEEPlex for Rs 249, or to buy in combination with an annual ZEE5 subscription for 499. All three options entitled users to watch the film just once, within four hours of hitting play. Only one account user could watch Radhe at a time. The second Coronavirus wave meant that the film could not have a wide release in Indian theaters as originally planned. It did, however, release in select theatres overseas, netting close to $2 million in its opening weekend.
What does the response to the film mean for the pay-per-view model in India? "Even though there's been a 30% to 40% increase in the number of OTT subscribers over the past two years, here's a barrier to watching paid content here," says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media. "Earlier, people would torrent movies, now they use apps like Telegram." A day after Radhe's release, Khan tweeted that Cyber Cell would take action against sites streaming it illegally.
While there's no real precedent by which to establish what kinds of films do well on per-view in India, an obvious advantage would be to cater to the metro cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, where the majority of India's OTT users are located. "This is where Radhe missed out as Khan's fanbase primarily comprises single-screen goers and people from the rural parts of the country. Even if rural Indians have internet access, they usually don't stream anywhere but YouTube," says Kapoor. Still, he estimates that the film's star cast and the aggressive marketing strategy of Salman Khan Films and Zee Studios worked in its favour. Other films likely to find an audience on pay-per-view models include those that are part of established franchises, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or KGF, he adds.
Even then, the pay-per-view model is still a long way off from being a substitute for a theatrical release. "There are currently 50 million paid subscribers of OTT content in the country. Assuming that each person's family also uses that account and multiplying by three, this adds up to 150 million, which is just 10% of India's population," says Kapoor. And while the pay-per-view model is a short-term solution to the pandemic and the resulting theatrical shutdown, box-office gains are too lucrative to pass up in the long run. ZEE5 issued a statement saying that Radhe garnered 4.2 million views on its day of release, but there's no way to determine what percentage of viewers paid to watch it. On the other hand, think of how much money Radhe's 8.9 million views online would have translated into at the box office. While a family of four can watch the film together on a single account for Rs 249, they might've each bought a ticket of Rs 100 to Rs 200 had the film released theatrically.
Kapoor isn't optimistic about more Indian films releasing on pay-per-view anytime soon. If the Telugu film industry's four back-to-back theatrical hits — Krack, Uppena, Jathi Ratnalu and Vakeel Saab — since January this year prove anything, it's that South Indian audiences will brave a pandemic if the film is entertaining enough. "Big commercial Bollywood films like Sooryavanshi and 83 will expect a streaming service to pay Rs 100 to Rs 200 crores, which it can't afford," he adds. While ZEE owns the satellite rights to Radhe and can earn back its investment by monetizing it through its television channel, ZEE TV, over the next few years, that's not an option for platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
For now, the test of pay-per-view in India is how long Radhe continues to be watched. "There was the initial excitement and Salman fans showed up for him, but will it sustain itself over the next few weeks? Let's see," says Kapoor.