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Streaming Platforms v. Cinemas: Winners & Losers in a Pandemic

Written by Aishwarya Ajayan & Ananth Krishna

The decision by the producers of seven films, including those of major Bollywood release Gulabo Sitabo, to release the films digitally sparked pushback from the Multiplex chains. This points to the lasting effects that the COVID-19 pandemic might have on the film industry.The film industry is under great duress due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, so much so that it has its own Wikipedia article.  Film production has almost in its entirety come to a halt  worldwide. This is the case in India as well, but states such as Telangana and Maharashtra  have already announced plans for film production to restart. Hollywood meanwhile maybe moving into virtual production but the prohibitive costs however may deter Indian cinema from following suit. The situation seems increasingly precarious for film theaters as they are a high risk zone for the spread of COVID-19 considering the closed  air- conditioned environment with a significant number of the people. Considering this circumstance, states would be reluctant to allow the reopening of film theatres. However, Drive-in theaters have opened in some European countries for mass entertainment with social distancing

Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bacchan and Ayushmann Khurrana was set to release on the 17th of April theatrically.

The film industry has already undergone major disruptions with the emergence of multiple Over The Top (OTT) Entertainment platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar (Now Hotstar/Disney +), Zee5, Voot and Jio Cinema among others in India. OTT Platforms have experienced a great penetration since the Jio Revolution.  The trend of increasing OTT adoption has only increased in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown. Theatre experience in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic would witness many changes owing to the indeterminate opening of theatres and the limited footfall expected even after the reopening of these theatres, as indicated by a survey. It should also be noted that single-screen theatres have been dying a long, painful death in India with Multiplexes replacing them. 

The film industry in India, with its network of producers, distributors, and theater owners are under great stress in such a situation. The customary prime Vishu and Eid releases in Mollywood  and Bollywood respectively have been deferred, creating uncertainty about the future of these films as well as many others still undergoing production work.  The success of a film in India is in many ways determined by the distribution mechanism of a film. This distribution system as it existed had already taken a hit with the roll-out of OTT platforms and has now been put under increased strain due to the pandemic and the lockdown that ensued. 

OTT platforms provide a level playing field in many ways to smaller releases compared to the bigger, star-studded ones (Though Digital Advertisement and publicity will still continue to be differentiating factors). While some criticism has focused on the limited nature of OTT penetration, increased smartphone usage and the launch of family friendly content on platforms such as Hotstar and Zee5 will surely help in its broader adoption. 

The recent issue regarding the release of movies on OTT platforms is due to the disruptions feared by Multiplex owners in the established distribution system that exists in the industry. The Multiplex industry, having been consolidated between PVR cinemas and INOX cinemas, had significantly more leverage in revenue sharing agreements. While film producers are attempting to make the best out of the current situation with zero theaters and zero shows, they also have to ensure that this does not come at the cost of existing agreements and relationships with production houses and the multiplex industries. Multiplexes, under duress due to the lockdown are fighting to maintain profitability  requesting tax exemptions and waiving of service charges. It will be  difficult for Indians to adapt to a non-theater based film culture as film watching has been a social experience as well. Pandemic or no pandemic, this culture of cinema is unlikely to die. 

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