PATNA: With the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) taking its toll on most Bollywood releases this year, the Indian film industry, which was anticipating revenues worth INR183 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2019, is now staring at losses of INR24 billion ($330 million), experts told Arab News on Monday.
If the nationwide lockdown, which was imposed two months ago, continues, it would have an even more devastating impact on the bottom line.
“The overall revenue loss … for the industry will translate to significantly lower profits for companies despite cost-cutting measures,” excerpts from a report released by Credit Rating Information Services of India Limited showed.
With such gloomy predictions in place, experts are mixed in their opinions as to whether releasing movies on a digital platform is a viable — or perhaps the only — antidote to the blow dealt to the Indian entertainment industry.
Internationally acclaimed film director Shekhar Kapur poses a pertinent question to the debate: Would the average moviegoer be willing to brave a visit to cinema halls under the current circumstances?
“Let’s say movie theaters were to reopen now,” he said. “You would first have to go through a COVID-19 testing screen, followed by security. Then only every fourth seat could be occupied, as we need three empty seats to make for a 6-foot distance. Imagine someone were to start coughing in the middle of an emotional scene. Would you stay? Now tell me whether you would rather or not stay home and watch Netflix.”
Kapur, whose claim to fame includes films such as “The Bandit Queen” and “Elizabeth,” told Arab News that drive-in theaters “could soon make a comeback.” Moviegoers agree.
Sudhir Patwari is an entrepreneur and movie buff from Patna, capital of the northeastern state of Bihar, who said that although he loved the experience, he would not risk going to a movie theater anytime soon.
“I love watching movies on the big screen only. In fact, before the lockdown, I never watched movies at home. But now, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to theaters until the end of the year at least. I can’t risk it,” he said.
In response to the pervasive sense of anxiety among the movie-loving public, several filmmakers are switching to over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, to release films.
India is currently home to more than 30 streaming platforms, including American players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and home-grown ones such as ZEE5, ALTBalaji, VOOT, Disney+ Hotstar and others.
Revenues from digital platforms, however, are hard to estimate because they depend on how many movies OOT platforms purchase — and this is just the tip of the iceberg of potential obstacles facing the industry.
“I’m afraid the film industry, like other industries, is facing huge losses. We don’t know yet how many film and theater workers were part of the unorganized labor sector, so even completing films may be an issue,” Kapur said.
Akshaye Rathi, a prominent movie exhibitor in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and home to the Indian film industry, feels that it is too early to throw in the towel.
“Watching movies in cinemas is not a luxury for a majority of Indians; it’s a necessity. And honestly, for most Indians, a movie theater is the only place they can go out to have a good time with their families. There aren’t parks or beaches everywhere in India,” Rathi said, adding that he has taken measures to ensure “audiences feel safe.”
“Everyone’s temperatures will be checked. There will be staggered seating, and movie halls will be disinfected after every show. We will have to win moviegoers’ trust, initially. But eventually, I’m certain that it will be business as usual,” he added.
Taran Adarsh, Bollywood’s most respected trade analyst, feels there is no need for the movie-theater business to feel threatened by OTT platforms.
“We keep hearing of several films going straight to digital, but there hasn’t been any official communication to that effect. We should wait and watch before speculating,” Adarsh said.
Trade analyst Girish Johar agrees, reasoning that the “anxious leap” into the digital domain is a “short-term phenomenon.”
“OTT platforms are only for films that are almost ready to be released. Furthermore, going digital is a step being actively considered by individual producers, who have financial constraints.”
In contrast, producer Ashoke Pandit views digital platforms as the future of the movie business.
“As a producer, I have a right to release the film wherever I want to. Things change as per the situation and time. Producers’ investments have to be fulfilled. Digital platforms are the future,” Pandit said.
Filmmaker Hansal Mehta, who has dabbled into both feature-filmmaking and directing digital content, feels there is ample space for both platforms.
“OTT is a welcome addition. It cannot replace cinema halls, but it can bring some excellent cinema to audiences. I welcome the trend without ever writing off cinema halls. The magic of the big screen will always be there,” Mehta said.