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Goodbye 2020: A year the film industry would like to forget (but can't)

With shooting schedules disrupted and movie halls struggling, the question on everyone's minds is whether the entertainment industry can return to a semblance of normalcy in 2021.

The Cinestaan Team

The end of a year is usually time for journalists covering cinema to take stock and figure out which films did great business and which to look forward to in the new year. But the pandemic-struck 2020 has been unlike any other year in recent memory, delivering a punch in the gut to the film industry, particularly those involved in distribution and exhibition.

With theatres forced to remain shut for most of the year and only a handful of films having been released, this yearend is a time to assess how bad the scenario is and how long it will take for the industry to get back on its feet.

With the year having been dry, it is no surprise that the film industry has faced huge losses. According to trade analyst Atul Mohan, “The losses have been very high this year, of the order of Rs3,500 crore."

Siddharth Anand Kumar, managing director, film and events, at Saregama's Yoodlee Films, said, “The obvious hit has been on cash flow and budgets. Given that everything had come to a standstill with no releases or shoots, the studios found themselves in a situation where they would have to be prudent on projects that were expected to be bankrolled, and relook at the budgets of films that were on the floor.” 

With no access to theatres or even the outside world, audiences had to remain content watching films and web-series on OTT (over-the-top) platforms on their laptops and mobile phones. With theatres slowly reopening in the final quarter of the calendar year, will they be ready to overcome this newly acquired habit and venture into cinema halls as they once did?

Mohan has no doubt. “Definitely they will go," he said. "Why won’t they? For example, in every household, there is a kitchen, but people still visit restaurants, right?” When his attention was drawn to the huge difference in the cost of watching a movie in a theatre as against in the comfort of one's home, he said, “We have been debating about ticket prices being high for long. But I feel that you can treat yourself once in a while. If there is a good film which you feel has value for money, you will go to see it.”

Rahul Puri, managing director of Mukta Arts, agrees. “The experience of watching a film on the big screen is unparalleled," Puri said. "Yes, the OTTs have offered us a varied portfolio of content across genres. They have been serving us much-needed entertainment during such testing times. However, visiting the theatre and watching your favourite stars in larger-than-life fashion is an incomparable proposition. It has been and will continue to be a pivotal medium for cinema in our country and the world.”

Citing the advantages of watching a film in a theatre, he said, “Technicalities aside, the joy of community viewing is truly special. To be engulfed in emotion with a bunch of people is a distinctive feeling available only at the cinemas. The state-of-the-art sound and sight features of our Mukta A2 properties across the country only help to elevate this movie-viewing experience.”

Mohan added, “You might not see a film properly at home. You pause when there is a phone call or take a break for a meal or your kid might disturb you. But a cinema hall is an escape from all this. You know you will be sitting there for two hours after paying for the ticket. You don’t even pick up your calls and just concentrate on the film. The charm of a cinema hall is such that it can be an outing with friends and family.”

Regal cinema in Colaba, South Mumbai

Siddharth Anand Kumar also believes one can truly enjoy a film only with a large number of people, something that cannot happen at home. “Cinema watching in theatres is a communal experience," he said, "one where you watch, react and express what’s happening on-screen with a gathered audience. The fact that people in a theatre clap, sing, laugh and cry along with you gives a sense of being bound by a common thread for those three hours, irrespective of divisions of caste, status and beliefs. I certainly miss that.”

Producer Anand Pandit plans to release his upcoming Abhishek Bachchan-starrer The Big Bull on an OTT platform. But even he misses watching films on the big screen. “The sense of community and the electric energy that flows all around as you watch a moment that you know is going to be remembered forever... who can forget the excitement of watching cult classics like Don (1978) and Deewar (1975) in a packed theatre? That thrill of watching magic unfold on the big screen! That is what I miss the most,” he said.

The lockdown has seen numerous small and independent films being released directly online. As such films have always struggled to find enough screens and proper slots in the face of competition from bigger films and the low number of cinema screens in the country. It remains to be seen whether producers of such films end up seeing OTT platforms as the best option for their films.

Mohan, however, says that contrary to popular belief, releasing a film directly on an OTT platform is not a viable option even for smaller films. “OTT players generally look for films with known faces, good reviews and box-office collections,” he said. “These small films hardly have these factors. These films are made in Rs3 crore or Rs4 crore and get hardly Rs20 lakh or Rs25 lakh from OTT players. The producers feel that something is better than nothing and agree. But only a few films are lucky whose content is strong.”

However, Yoodlee's Siddharth Anand Kumar has a different point of view. “At this point, that might seem like a viable option," he said. "In a niche film, budgets are limited, and holding the film for a theatrical release, or expecting it to perform magically at the box office given the associated marketing and distribution costs may not be feasible for those producers.”

Pandit said, “There are no hard-and-fast rules to decide which film will be released in theatres and which on OTT platforms. Films like Laxmii and Coolie No 1 and my own The Big Bull are big-budget entertainers but chose OTT platforms. But the industry thrives on big-screen experience and soon, hopefully, theatres will be buzzing with great entertainers, regardless of whether their budgets are big or small.”

Actor-filmmaker Vivek Vaswani believes the OTT scenario is slowly veering towards what happened with multiplexes. “When multiplexes were launched," he said, "everyone thought, ‘Now there will be place for all films. One screen will play short films, another independent cinema.’ Then one fine day Salman Khan’s film is released and all screens are given to it. Ultimately, they are all companies. As companies go, the key thing is to keep salaries going. You are playing safe. But the rule in cinema is that you don't play safe if you want to be safe.”

Yet, Vaswani believes releasing some big-budget films on OTT platforms during the pandemic was a wrong move. “Housefull 4 is arguably not better or worse than Laxmii, but audiences gave Housefull 4 a rousing reception while Laxmii was dismissed," he pointed out. "Such films cannot be watched alone at home. They have to be seen with the masses in theatres.”

Atul Mohan agrees with this assessment. “The consumers for these South remake films are in the Hindi belt in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh," he pointed out. "The film [Laxmii] would have done well in these centres. It would have become hot because of its clash with [Salman Khan's] Radhe [which was supposed to be released on Eid]. It would have also benefited from the controversy over its title."

With every film set now having to put strict COVID-19 safety measures in place and even deploy separate sanitizing teams, the question of added pressure on the film's budget arises. Mohan believes some revision in artiste compensation is inevitable. “You will have to compromise if you want to fit everything in your budget,” he said. “Suppose you have Rs100 and decide to spend Rs50 each on two items. But later you want to have something for Rs80. You will have to compromise with the remaining Rs20. When such costs increase, producers may request artistes to charge less or reduce the shooting days.”

Pandit, however, feels the extra cost of COVID-19 precautions may be managed differently. “The expensive publicity tours have been done away with naturally," he pointed out, "and while post-COVID-19 expenses have gone up, we now have to think of themes that are logistically easier to shoot, more personal, intimate, with smaller crews, which help cut costs. We also have to manage our schedules more efficiently and that saves time and money.”

A health professional checking the temperature of a crew member on the set of Zombivali

Explaining how Yoodlee Films managed the extra COVID-19 costs, Siddharth Anand Kumar said, “I can’t speak for others, but at Yoodlee, we won’t compromise either on safety or the quality of our production. We have always prided ourselves on being smart about our budgets, so while the additional costs of mandatory safety measures will have to be borne, our team will work out best where the same can be adjusted, without any compromise on the essentials.”

Hollywood studio Warner Brothers caused some eyebrows to be raised earlier this month when it announced that its entire slate of 2021 films would be released simultaneously in theatres and on its homegrown OTT platform HBO Max for a month. Would something like this be possible in India?

“I do think it’s possible here for large studios to do a similar thing,” said Puri. “We must remember that the cost of streaming in India is much less than in the US, so the commercial implications need to be weighed. The HBO experiment will also need to be watched. Will it attract enough people to the platform (it's free for existing subscribers, so there will be no extra income) to make up for the numbers that drop out of relatively more expensive theatre tickets? It remains to be seen.” 

Mohan feels the trend may come to India a little later. “Right now I don’t think everyone will agree to this,” he said. “But whatever trends take place in countries like the US are later adopted by us. So, this might not happen now but with time this might become a possibility.”

Theatres have reopened and more film shoots are taking place now. But things are far from normal. Asked what could be in store for the industry over the next six months, producer Pandit said it all depends on whether we find the solution (read: vaccine) for COVID-19 and how it reflects in the industry.

“More theatres will reopen, audiences will return in bigger numbers to big-screen entertainment, OTT will continue to expand its content pool, and we will continue to dream of the old normal," Pandit said. "My ardent wish, though, is that tens of thousands of our workers who get paid by the project, from actors to dancers to technicians, get more and more work as time goes by.”

A post-COVID-19 film screening with patrons distanced from one another

Puri believes fans are raring to return to theatres after having watched films and web-series at home for close to nine months. “If COVID-19 safety protocols and adequate hygiene measures have been adopted, I don't see why film buffs will refrain from returning to the cinemas to enjoy their favourite movies,” he said.

But with the pandemic still posing a threat, Mohan believes it will be a long time before we see ‘houseful’ boards outside movie halls again. “As it is, it had become rare to see a ‘houseful’ board," the trade pundit said. "Now it has become almost extinct. We don’t know how much time it will take. Only 50% occupancy is allowed right now. And we don’t know when it will go to 100% and when people will actually show up in large numbers. In fact, we don’t even know how many theatres will survive. First, let the house be saved. Then we will think about it getting full!”

Speaking at the Confederation of Indian Industry's ninth Big Picture Summit, producer Siddharth Roy Kapur stressed the importance of saving single-screen theatres. “Thousands of single screens had to be shut down over the last few months," Roy Kapur said. "We need to figure out whether there are ways in which we can support them. They could be allowed to access loans at easier rates. They need light-touch regulation in terms of the measures they have to take. I think these points should be taken into consideration or the singles screens may shut down, which will be a loss of a massive heritage.”

Siddharth Anand Kumar also believes audiences will return to theatres only slowly. The return will also depend on when some much-awaited films are lined up for release. “I see it happening very gradually," he said. "I don’t think audiences will come back to theatres unless there is fresh new content that is mounted on a big scale, which implores you to watch the film in theatres. The recent Hollywood release Tenet did get a decent reception in select theatres, given that the format of the film demanded big-screen viewing. I do think it will take another six to nine months for theatre occupancy to get to pre-COVID-19 numbers.”

All in all, 2021 may also not present a rosy picture.

A film shoot amid the pandemic

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Year in review Indian cinema Indian independent cinema