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BW Businessworld

Resurrection, Rethinking At Tinsel Town

The film industry in India slipped on its 2020 revenue target but embarked on a digital shift that will find realignment of content, distribution and marketing

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Between the year that has been, and the New Year that beckons, one thing is for certain – the world cannot do without entertainment.

The year 2020 witnessed a na­tionwide shutdown of cinema halls for over seven months, permanent closure of at least 500 single screens, investments stuck in delayed movie releases and halted film productions. 

The upshot of the developments induced by a pandemic of global proportions, was losses that ran into thousands of crores and had daily wage employees struggling for survival. The situation also led to proliferation and adoption of new distribution mediums and unusual audience consumption patterns.

Year 2021, industry experts believe, will be marked by new ways, backed by new learnings. The calendar will have a slate of big releases across languages and gen­res. Content will be para­mount. Formats will be re­viewed and budgeting will be smart. Evolution of the dy­namics of film distribution will continue and film marketing will tilt more towards digital. 

Pent-up audience demand will contribute to footfalls. The changes in the air will be numerous. One can safely say there’s light at the end of the tunnel after what industry bigwigs describe as an “unprec­edented, unfortunate and disastrous” year for the Indian film industry – which incidentally, is a key contributor to the country’s Rs 1.82 trillion media and entertainment (M&E)landscape.

Viewership At A Peak

Siddharth Roy Kapur, President, Producers Guild of India, points out that the need for entertainment, especially in hard times, is underlined by how television and OTT view­ership went through the roof, and how the Indian Premier League drew a record number of eyeballs. A latest BCG-CII report reveals that in 2020, the number of paid OTT subscriptions increased by nearly 55 per cent-60 per cent to about 100-125 million, up from 49 million subscriptions in 2018. 

Television consumption went up by approximately 20 per cent over pre-Covid times till September, and even peaked at 37 per cent at one point. “It is just that the source of entertainment has changed. In the long run, we are sure that things will come back to normal for the film in­dustry, but it is navigating the short-term and medium-term impact that we are looking at right now,” Kapur explains.

The questions staring at the Indian film industry are numerous. How to bring out a film today not knowing when nor­malcy resumes, for instance. Will the audience come back to theatres to watch a film since they are now so used to watching it in the comfort of their homes? How to green light a film for a theatrical audi­ence today. Should industry players release a film directly on OTT? How to manage shoot­ing while ensuring the safety and security of all and sundry, etc.

Theatre Releases

At least two dozen films have been re­leased and another dozen were lined up for release directly on OTT over the past few months. At the same time some of 2020’s highly anticipated Bollywood blockbusters, includ­ing ’83, Sooryavanshi, Radhe, Maidaan, Prithviraj, Laal Sin­gh Chaddha, were pushed back to hit screens in 2021. 

Theatres are still shut in some states in the country. Elsewhere they are functioning at only 50 per cent of their audience capacity. 

Even so, Emmay Entertainment chose to release its Kiara Advani-led Indoo Ki Jawaani on 11 December, notwithstand­ing the looming uncertainty at the box office. Justifying the decision, Monisha Advani of the banner, which has tentpoles like Akshay Kumar’s Bell Bottom and the John Abraham-starrer Satyamev Jayate 2 lined up for release in 2021, says, “We wanted to see if we could stimulate the return to nor­malcy because somebody needs to see their commitment through to the theatres. They have been struggling to get content. Even though our outcome was nowhere near what we were hoping for when we made the film, we have got great goodwill because theatre owners today are reassured that filmmakers like ourselves are not going to look at abandon­ing the medium.”

Multiplex owners and associations have been sparring with producers for locking direct to OTT deals for their projects instead of respecting the exclusive six-to-eight-week the­atrical window system. While a workable solution is in the works, the single and common goal of each member of the ecosystem – OTT players, theatre owners and producers – is to expand the overall revenue for the industry, says Kamal Gianchandani, President, Multiplex Association of India.

The challenge, according to Gianchandani, right now is to get big commercial films to release in a big way. But that, he says, is a chicken and egg situation, considering the fact that everyone’s waiting for audiences to return to theatres.

According to Kapur of the Producers Guild of In­dia, one of the top agendas of 2021 is to ensure that all stakeholders support the theatrical experience. “It is very important to work together as a fraternity, to iron out any differences between anyone in the value chain, and to ensure that we come together to bring the audi­ence back when there is some semblance of normalcy in the attendance in cinemas,” says Kapur.

Optimism in the Air

The green shoots are already visible, and once things bounce back, industry players even foresee a clutter at the box of­fice.Christopher Nolan’s big-budget Hollywood film, Tenet, featuring Indian actor Dimple Kapadia, has minted over $1 million in ten days since its release, recording the best col­lections any film has seen since the reopening of theatres in October.

Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Ltd, admits that the current occupancy is low at roughly 10 per cent of the total allowance, but says it was a “brave move” to release Tenet as the reaction to it would set the stage for oth­ers to get encouraged. Gal Gadot-starrer Wonder Woman 1984, with its comparative mass appeal, has amplified that presumption further since it released on December 23. 

Then comes the Telugu film Master, starring Vijay, in early January. These releases, and a likely announcement regard­ing the availability of a vaccine in India, are likely to create a domino effect, turning the tables for the Indian film exhibi­tion industry in FY 2021, after having lost approximately 80 per cent of the anticipated revenue this year. 

“Producers will slowly get the confidence to release their films, and at the same time, if the government also starts relaxing some of the protocols, a family can sit together for a film. They live and interact with one another, and travel in the same car. There’s no reason why a family should be separated in cinemas,” says Bijli. 

He is optimistic about 2021 and believes that while some movies will get delayed and re-dated, “the joy and excite­ment to go and watch a favourite film in cinemas, will always remain the same for the masses in India”.

“We just see this as a temporary interval and the show will go on again in 2021,” he avers. Bijli goes on to say that certain protocol relaxations like increasing the theatre capacity to 75 per cent, reopening food and beverages (F&B) stalls at thea­tres in some states, allowing service on seats and tax reliefs, will give a much-needed boost economically and morally to an industry that is not just one of the country’s biggest soft powers, but also a massive employment generator.

At the CII Big Picture Summit, K. Madhavan, Chairman, CII National Committee on Media & Entertainment and Managing Director, Star and Disney India, pointed out that while India’s film industry had suffered in terms of theatrical revenue in 2020, it had grown in the digital and non-linear space. This growth is expected to expand at approximately 30 per cent CAGR over the coming two years. “The film industry has to take full advantage of new forms of distribution, to expand to new markets,” Madhavan said, adding that Indian content needs to be created with a global appeal and distrib­uted around the world.

The Hard Facts

The ground reality is that while theatres are here to stay, so are the 40 streaming platforms and more.

Reliance Entertainment Group CEO Shibasish Sarkar, who has held onto 83’ and Sooryavanshi for viable release win­dows in theatres, says a positive outcome of the events of 2020 for the years to come, lies in the expan­sion of the audience pie. 

Says Sarkar, “A substantial section of people have sampled content in a home entertainment environment. Out of our huge population, a lot of people never used to go to cinemas. Now, this situation has ensured that the pie has become big­ger.” So, will habits change in 2021?

When Content is King

What the pandemic has also done is give filmmakers a taste of what this new audience is consuming. It has opened up

avenues for talent across the acting and behind-the-screens space, and has emerged as another established win­dow where exclusive content creation, distribution, content co-creation and content licensing deals, are happening in a big way. 

Emmay Entertainment’s Monisha Ad­vani says overall, there’s every hope that with the stockpiling of 2020, which is go­ing to be about films with big stars, 2021 will be a “blockbuster year” for the film world. “One of the things 2020 has taught us is how we bring in frugality, but it has also honed the expectations because peo­ple have been extremely voluble about the content they do or do not enjoy, and what they want to see more of. All those learn­ings are going to make sure that the kind of content that we bring out in 2021 will be that much more ap­preciated,” she says.

Make-or-Break Factor

Content, trade experts agree, will be the make-or-break factor. Trade expert Taran Adarsh points out that just how the industry’s dynamics shape up could only be ascertained when there is 100 per cent occupancy at theatres. 

It is certain, though, that big films and stars will rule the roost. At the same time, there’s a dire need for the multiplex industry to “nurture” small and medium budget films, believes Producer and Film Trade Business Analyst, Girish Johar.

“The big films will be driving the force, but we have to realise that in a span of 52 weeks in a year, big films come only for about 20 weeks. It is the small and medium budget films which became the backbone for cinemas, filling up other weeks and providing more range of content to them. Post pandemic, I hope they have realised that surviving in this game is also about nurturing those with smaller content,” adds Johar.

Overall, 2021 looks exciting from the current standpoint, with democratisation of talent, input sensitivity, audience volatility, technological efficiency, focus on content, and largely turning crisis into opportunities, being the focal points of the industry. That apart, Advani points out a key soft factor – the gradual development of a “kindness meter” among people – which she feels will make the world a better place to do business in.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Radhika Bhirani

The author is a Senior Writer at BW Businessworld.

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