The recent announcement by the US-based Warner Bros. Studios has stirred up quite a controversy in that country, not to mention criticism. Looks like most of creative Hollywood is against the idea.
The idea in question is: Warner Bros. have decided to release all its films in 2021 — numbering 17 — simultaneously on its own OTT platform, HBO Max, as well as the cinema halls. The studio plans to offer better terms than the usual practice as a compensation to cinema properties. Though this arrangement is said to be only for one year due to the pandemic, one never knows what will happen thereafter. So far, the only group to criticise the Warner move is the Directors Guild of America. The actor ‘baradari’ has remained silent despite the fact that a part of their take-home depends on box office revenue. The theatre owners are hoping this move is limited to only till the pandemic lasts.
Unprecedented things are happening in the entertainment industry, borne out of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. Things and trends which took decades to change have changed drastically within these few months! Earlier, changes kept happening gradually over a period, especially with the advent of the television, an additional medium of entertainment if not the alternate one.
There was no competition to the cinema except an intermittent circus in town, a local ‘mela’ or festivals that kept people away from the cinema. While the circus was a seasonal opposition and affected only small cinemas, the stage was for a limited few. Films enjoyed monopoly otherwise.
Since the television and its auxiliaries arrived on the scene, the business of box office has faced multiple challenges and braved them all. In fact, some of these new mediums have only helped to promote the films to cover a wider audience, and what was once a business of some lakh, went on to grow in volume by hundreds of crore.
Through the lockdown period, a lot has been written about the entertainment industry, especially in the way films are made and delivered. The process is in for a drastic change. Of course, the ultimate consumer remains the same, the movie buff.
The Warners have set the ball rolling and, if the other studios follow in the footsteps, it would be bad news for cinema properties. The cinema properties in many cases are already on the verge of bankruptcy following nearly a yearlong lockdown due to the coronavirus. The announcement is so far limited to the United States where Warners also own its OTT platform, HBO Max. (Meanwhile, Disney Studio has announced that its core business will now be Disney+ and has planned a lineup of content for this streaming platform).
Film distributors who planned the release of a film in their respective circuits have lost all control. Cinema chain owners called the shots since the multiplex business came into being, and they have not taken this announcement by the Warners Bros. well. If not sound the death knell, this move can certainly curtail the cinema business to a great extent. What the arrival of the multiplexes did to the single screens, this new arrangement announced by Warner Bros. Studios is sure to do to the multiplexes, if and when other studios do the same. The single screen-business was ruined and thrown out of contention.
The cinema exhibition business in India has changed over the last two decades with the advent of multi-screen cinema. These cinema owners spread their wings rather fast. Encouraged by tax holidays and subsidies, their expansion would seem to be more about borrowed money spent, in most cases on leased properties rather than creating their own assets. So, one can imagine after these nine months of Covid-19 lockdown, and with more to follow as an aftereffect, survival is going to be tough. More so for those who got into the business of building cinemas as a hobby or to invest sudden gains and own only a few properties.
During lockdown, a lot of makers opted for OTT platforms for premiere release of their films. The platforms that cashed in on this trend were mainly Amazon Prime and Netflix. None of them ran a production house. With Warner Bros. it is different. The company makes films and also owns an OTT platform. That means this major production house has decided to opt for an alternate platform to realise its multibillion dollar investments, since there is no saying when the audience will feel safe enough to come to the cinema halls.
AS for Hindi films, the era of crores spent on production seems to be over for the time being. There was a time when films were made for big screen experience in formats like 70mm and Panavision, to finally settle for Cinemascope. Vast expenses and visuals may well take a backseat if films are made with OTT in mind. Filmmaking is not a passion the way it used to be for Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan and other such makers. Filmmaking is a business, pure and simple.
All that the cinema owners can do is be patient. Filmmakers made a lot of noise when television started Sunday evening films followed by video, piracy and so on. But their one campaign worked, and that campaign was about ‘The big screen experience’.
The filmmakers-cum-content makers will not be affected as long as they have a medium to showcase their products. All that a maker needs is eyeballs, be it on the cinema screen or through OTT streaming.
The show will go on.
–ians, Vinod Mirani