By Vinod Mirani
The yearly and half-yearly summaries of the box office performance of films has been a ritual followed over the years. It serves to put on record the way the industry has performed at the box office over a year and check trends. A bit late, but still it needs to be put on record, since the first few months of the year have changed the film industry forever.
The first half of the year 2020 started off on a positive note. But, as things happened in mid-March, before the first quarter could come to a close, things changed. The pandemic of Covid-19 led to the closedown of all activities all over the world, which included not only the film industry, as in shootings, studios, cinemas and all the other auxiliary activities.
Barely into 10 weeks into 2020, and the things came to a complete standstill. The period has not been productive and, hence, not very lucrative for the film industry. The box office has been dormant for the most part of this phase.
There have been many strikes and closedowns in the film industry over the years. But, they were the industry’s own and not enforced due to any extraneous circumstances with no end in sight, as is the case this year due to coronavirus.
While we discuss the fates of few films that released before the Covid-19 and the resultant closedown, it will be very pertinent to discuss about how the way entertainment is served to the target audience has changed in the few months following the lockdown in March till date.
The period saw the release of over 30 films. Rather an oversupply as has been happening all these years.
The first Friday of a new year is considered to be unlucky and no major film is released during that week. Hence, small films get the play time during this week. Films like “Ghost Stories”, “Bhangra Paa Le”, “Sab Kushal Mangal”, “Shimla Mirchi”, and “Chhapak” were among over 30 films that released in the first 10 weeks till the lockdown.
That was till Ajay Devgn’s “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior” released on January 10. This was followed by “Street Dancer 3D” on the 24th and it looked like the year promised to be good for the industry.
Besides “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior”, the other film to do well was “Baaghi 3”, released on March 6, though the film could not enjoy its full run at the cinemas due to the lockdown. “Angrezi Medium” was expected to do well, being a sequel to “Hindi Medium”, as well as the fact that it marked Irrfan’s return on screen despite his failing health at that point of time. However, soon as the film was released, a lockdown was imposed.
The film was slated to begin a trend, which a lot of filmmakers were to follow soon; that of opting for OTT release. There was no alternative for the makers but to continue with the film’s exploitation through whichever medium was available. It was a bold step but it went on to set a trend and opened an alternate medium for films that were ready for release. With uncertainty looming over the reopening of cinema screens, many more filmmakers followed and chose the OTT to release their films. No filmmaker likes his film to linger and would wish to cash in and move on to next project. All a maker seeks is his work being taken to the viewer.
What has happened in the last four months is an exodus of films to OTT platforms, not waiting for the cinemas to reopen. The OTT platforms are buying film content in bulk, leaving nothing for the cinemas when they reopen!
When the filmmakers started opting for OTT platforms, some multiplex chain even threatened them with retaliation! Rather strange for a business house. These corporate houses with their marketing wizards, it seems, have never understood filmmaking or filmmakers. And, filmmakers chose this option only when it dawned that this corona lockdown could be indefinite. Besides, even when cinemas are allowed to reopen, it would be with many restrictions, which would tell on the box office collections.
What has happened during this period is that, video streaming platforms that were an additional source of entertainment have filled in for the cinema halls. Along with the streaming episodic programmes and already-screened films, it started acquiring films for premiere release. The move has changed the way the film business worked. The OTT buyers are many, which creates a competition among themselves. This works well for the filmmaker.
The multiplex owners have been making representations to the authorities for an early withdrawal of lockdown since the price of their shares has gone down drastically while the rentals for the properties are a recurring liability. They expected lockdown on cinemas to end, even if conditionally, by first week of August, but that does not seem likely as of now. The cinemas, even when they are allowed to open, will find it tough initially owing to lack of supply of new films, but incurring the running costs.
Film producers have heaved a sigh of relief as an alternate market has been created, with streaming platforms willing to buy films. For them, the show will go on.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)