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One of the worst industries to be hit by the pandemic lockdown is the cinema industry. And even within that industry, it is the exhibition sector which is bearing the maximum brunt of the losses which the film industry has been subjected to. With not a single cinema open, the losses to the exhibition trade is cent per cent. Producers have at least been allowed to resume shootings (albeit under controlled conditions), and carry on post-production activities to the fullest, but the box-office windows of theatres across the nation are shut. Much before the government announced the resumption of production activities, producers were also able to liquidate their investments in completed films by selling their premiere rights to OTT platforms. In other words, despite the lockdown, producers were lucky to conduct business. This is not to say that producers have had it easy. They’ve also borne a good part of the brunt of the lockdown despite shootings having been permitted since two months. Their interest meter has been ticking with no revenues in sight, other than the streaming prices in the case of the 18-20 films sold for premiering on OTT platforms. Delays in shootings, and staff salaries are only two of the other problems producers have had to live with through the lockdown. And when two sectors — production and exhibition — have suffered heavy losses, their interaction cannot be smooth when they finally decide to interact — in this case, when cinemas will be permitted to reopen and, therefore, producers will be free to release their films theatrically. Each sector will emphasis on the losses it has suffered and the sacrifices it had to make during the lockdown.
Even otherwise, cinemas have still not been granted permission to reopen whereas most other businesses have been allowed to resume either fully or partly. As if this were not bad enough, the cinema industry’s tale of woes is far from over. They would have to face a shortage of playing programmes when they are asked to reopen, because a lot of films have already been premiered or have been committed for premieres on streaming platforms. Also, the flow of the public to the cinemas cannot be estimated. It is anybody’s guess that people won’t be in a hurry to visit the cinemas for fear that they may contract the coronavirus despite the best sanitation and hygiene procedures followed by cinemas. Till a medication or a vaccine comes in the market, people will continue to live in fear and may continue to opt for the OTT platforms as a preferred and safer choice for their dose of entertainment. In view of this, some cinemas may actually realise that their losses would be higher after they reopen than while they were shut because post-reopening, they would be incurring variable costs too, besides fixed costs which have to be incurred irrespective of whether cinemas are operational or closed. But that’s not all. There may be tension brewing between multiplexes and producers although nobody wants to talk about it at this stage because the tension of the lockdown is already bogging down the industry like never before.
Producers, especially those who have stood in solidarity with the cinemas and refrained from opting for the streaming platforms for premiering their films, may ask the multiplexes and single-screen cinemas to give them a higher percentage as their share of the box-office collections (revenue pie). Instead of the present, say, 50% or 52.5% of the net collections in the first week, producers might expect multiplexes to part with, say, 60 or 65%. Likewise, for the subsequent weeks. Ditto for the sharing terms vis-à-vis single-screen cinemas. Although showing solidarity has to be selfless, producers may forget such niceties because, all those who’ve shown grace by not biting the OTT bait, have done so despite paying additional interest for the lockdown period on their huge investments blocked in the film. Of course, one cannot deny that if some producers have not succumbed to the streaming temptation, it is also because they themselves believed that their film was meant for the big screen rather than the small screen. But it is human nature to underplay one’s own need and underline the gesture part if there are both involved. So also, here. If producers make this demand, will the cinemas be willing to give them a higher share than that pre-decided between the production-distribution sectors on the one hand and the exhibition sector on the other? Why, the more money-minded among producers may also demand a share in the revenue from concessionaire sales from the multiplexes. Soft drinks, samosas, nachos, pop corn, water bottles are all usually sold at higher prices than usual in multiplexes. Producers may also be eyeing a percentage of those sales because, as one producer, wishing to remain anonymous, said, “The sale of eatables and drinks is directly proportional to the sale of movie tickets. If our film attracts more footfalls, sale of concessionaires in the interval or at the start of the movie is much more. Shouldn’t we be now getting a share of that revenue too?”
Aware that the public may take months to return to the cinemas in large numbers, producers may also demand the reduction of the 8-week window between theatrical release on the one hand and satellite/OTT release on the other. The smaller the window, the greater the price a satellite channel or OTT platform would be willing to pay for a film. Producers would expect the multiplexes to compensate them for having waited for cinemas to reopen by allowing them to stream/telecast their film in, say, four or six weeks instead of eight weeks from the day of theatrical release. In that way, producers could at least make a few extra crores which they would expect to lose due to lesser footfalls in cinemas. In fact, before finalising the OTT premiere deal for his Coolie No. 1, producer Vashu Bhagnani actually asked the national multiplex chains whether they would permit him to reduce the holding period for the film if audiences came in smaller numbers. The multiplexes declined, which was only one of the reasons why Bhagnani opted for a streaming premiere for his Varun-Sara starrer.
Frankly, it shouldn’t be a surprise if producers even demand a simultaneous release in cinemas and OTT platforms (pay per view) for their films. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But will these measures find favour with the multiplexes and single-screen cinemas? Only time will tell.