Since more than a month, there have been speculations that Disney+ Hotstar, one of the biggest streaming platforms, has acquired more than a half-a-dozen films for a direct OTT release due to the Coronavirus-induced lockdown. Today, on June 29, the suspense was finally unveiled and it came to light that as many as 7 films will skip theatrical release and arrive straightaway on the internet. These films are Akshay Kumar’s horror comedy Laxmmi Bomb, Ajay Devgn’s war saga Bhuj – The Pride Of India, Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film Dil Bechara, Mahesh Bhatt’s directorial comeback Sadak 2, Abhishek Bachchan’s stock market drama The Big Bull, Kunal Kemmu’s comic caper Lootcase and Vidyut Jammwal’s action love story Khuda Hafiz.
As expected, the exhibitors are disappointed with this historic announcement. Already, they have been suffering since cinemas are shut since more than 3 months. And with the lockdown getting extended in most major states to July-end, they are all set to suffer more. In such a scenario, to see 7 films going straight to OTT, including few star-studded ventures which could have drawn audiences to cinemas in big numbers, have not just saddened them but also infuriated the exhibitors. While the representatives of multiplex chains were unavailable, the single-screen exhibitors have openly made their displeasure clear.
Akshaye Rathi, film exhibitor and distributor, says, “We all saw it coming since 1 ½ months. Hence, we were all prepared to see this happening. As an exhibitor, I’d say that it’s a bit disappointing because some of these films could have actually played a role in resurrecting the very medium that made them such big stars.” A very angry Vishek Chauhan, owner of Roopbani Cinema in Bihar, angrily tells, “I think Bollywood has jumped the gun and have pressed the panic button too early. This will have a very bad long-term impact on the Hindi film industry.” Raj Bansal, the owner of Entertainment Paradise theatre in Jaipur states, “I am not very happy with this announcement. They should have waited for some more time, at least two more months. I understand that they have invested heavily in these films and they must have had their reasons. But in this time of crisis, we should support each other.”
Vishek Chauhan makes it clear that “Bollywood is in danger, theatres are not” and also adds, “People feel that right now that the theatres will suffer if Hindi films will arrive on TV or OTT. Hollywood started this trend of releasing films on streaming platforms in the lockdown and the first film to do so was Trolls World Tour. But that film could be accessed through PVOD (Premium Video-On-Demand) and not SVOD (Subscription Video-On-Demand). So you have to pay $19.99 to buy the film and then you get to watch it. In our case, the accessibility is so easy for these new films that these films would be counted in the same breath as Aarya and Chaman Bahaar. Look at Gulabo Sitabo – it came and it went in no time. My point is that, what makes actors stars is when people take the trouble of heading to a cinema hall, standing in a queue and then watching them perform on the big screen. So if Akshay Kumar’s film will be accessible online without any effort at home, Akshay Kumar is then no longer that star! He and Ajay Devgn just killed their own stardom. Disney has kept its Hollywood film, Black Widow, ready. Even James Bond’s No Time To Die is ready for release. But these films are being held back for theatrical release. Toh fir yeh log kyun apni film online release kar rahe hai?”
The thoughts of Sandeep Jain, an exhibitor from Indore and Bhopal, are in sync. He states, “What they are doing is wrong. They are trying to destroy the medium that made them such big stars. Has there been any star from OTT? Alia Bhatt became a craze because she debuted in Student Of The Year, which released in cinemas. Same goes for other actors.”
Vishek Chauhan further adds, “Suriya is not giving away his film on the internet. Vijay hasn’t given his finished film Master to an OTT platform. Same goes for Dhanush, Chiyaan Vikram and Mahesh Babu. They have all declined the offer from OTT because they know where their stardom comes from. And look at our Bollywood actors. They are killing their stardom which they painstakingly cultivated over the years. They are forgetting that stardom jaane mein time nahi lagta hai.”
Other exhibitors too agree that they’ll now give preference to films of other languages. Akshaye Rathi opines, “Theatres have survived a hundred years and will survive long enough. The only thing that might change is the content that reaches the theatrical medium. If you see, in every other industry, from Southern to Hollywood, all the tent pole films have been held back for theatrical. So if these Hindi films don’t release, there will be enough Hollywood and Southern films in dubbed Hindi versions and also regional films that will take that space and keep bringing people to cinemas so that they keep getting their share of entertainment.” Manoj Desai, executive director of G7 multiplex in Mumbai, popularly known as Gaiety-Galaxy cinema complex, agrees as he says, “We’ll now give preference to South films which are dubbed in Hindi. Also, we’ll show dubbed Hollywood flicks. And I am sure audiences will come to these films as these films have lot of entertainment. The action in Hollywood films is amazing. As for South films, their action too is a visual delight. Also, their songs make for a great watch.”
Vishek Chauhan also argues that OTT won’t give these films the desired and the deserved viewership. He says, “Uday Shankar (The Walt Disney Company [Asia Pacific] and Chairman, Star & Disney India) is claiming that there are 50 crore smartphones in India and hence the reach is tremendous for these 7 films. If that’s the case, then why does your platform have just 80 lakhs subscribers? At least, Akshay Kumar’s films in cinemas gets footfalls of 2 or 2.5 crore. Your subscriber base is less than half of that. Bollywood has to decide for whom they are making the film. If they give films on the internet, then Bollywood will become an OTT industry.”
Thankfully, not all is lost. There are still many big Bollywood films which will come directly to theatres. Akshaye Rathi exults, “There are quite a few Hindi films as well like Sooryavanshi, ’83, Coolie No 1, Radhe etc which will make it to cinemas.” Raj Bansal in agreement says, “Those who will hold their films will get more benefit. It’s a matter of time.”
However, the other industries are already all set to take advantage. Vishek Chauhan reveals, “The day Disney+ Hotstar announced and hinted about releasing 7 films on OTT, Warner Bros sent a mail to all the exhibitors in the country that their Hollywood films Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 releasing only in theatres. Universal Pictures also regularly tells us that they are releasing No Time To Die only in theatres. The idea behind these messages is that if Bollywood steps aside, then Hollywood will have a free run in cinemas of India. Similarly, down South, producers have asked us to let their films release simultaneously in North and Western belt.”
As of now, exhibitors are suffering immensely and the Disney+ Hotstar announcement has added to their woes. Manoj Desai rues, “Barbaad ho rahe hai hum log aur digital platforms aabaad ho rahe hai. Aaj Maharashtra mein July 31 tak lockdown extend ho gaya lekin Uddhav Thackeray ji ne theatres ke baare mein ek lafz nahi bola hai.”
Sandeep Jain has the last word and he is confident that once the lockdown is lifted, exhibitors will benefit. “Once things get back to normal, viewers will forget OTT and will come to cinemas. Even when VCR technology had arrived, we had faced some problems. Right now, with theatres shut, these platforms are getting so much importance. But later on, audiences will flock to theatres just like old times.”