Social distancing and watching movies in theatres cannot go hand in hand. The image of a movie theatre in our minds is that of a large crowd in a festive mood brimming with energy waiting for the show to begin.
As the lockdown continues and the pandemic refusing to subside, many questions linger in the minds of film buffs. What is happening to the movies in production? When will production resume? When will theatres reopen? Will the audience throng the theatres as before to watch a new film, even if safety and hygiene standards are in place? After all, will the movie watching culture continue to be the same?
What's happening in filmdom?
The presence of large number of crew members and actors makes a movie set a crowded place. With the shutdown and the restrictions extending beyond the shutdown end date, the principal photography of most of the halted films is unlikely to resume before June. A relatively smaller industry like Malayalam is estimated to be losing Rs 300 crore so far due to the lockdown. The losses to Bollywood, Tamil and Telugu industries are several times more. Many big budget films have been halted. Their budgets will shoot up exponentially with every passing day as many producers finance their productions with high-cost borrowings.
Take for instance director Blessy's Prithviraj-starrer Aadujeevitham, which is being mounted on a relatively big canvas. The 58-member crew is stuck in Jordan ever since the travel restrictions kicked in about a month ago. Though Prithviraj posted on social media that they are continuing the shoot while fully adhering to the restrictions, the Jordan government reversed its decision to allow the shooting to progress, after an Omani actor and his translator on the set were quarantined.
On the other hand, there are films such as the Priyadarshan-Mohanlal magnum opus Marikkar, Suriya's Soorarai Pottru and Vikram's Cobra, which were wrapped up months ago and were being promoted for release. Since Soorarai Pottru is based on the life of low-cost airline pioneer in India Capt. Gopinath, the makers had launched a promotion spree as early as in February, which included branding a SpiceJet Boeing 737 plane with the film's title.
The films, which were slated for release this month will now be released in August or September. The release of the upcoming James Bond franchise No Time to Die has been pushed to November.
Streaming is still not mainstay
As we are locked up in our homes, the small screen has taken over our movie watching habits. By April, many popular serials and TV shows on channels ran out of new episodes to air. The audience who were earlier glued to TV channels were driven towards movies and web series on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Subscriptions soared and so did the traffic to these services.
Many platforms are struggling to keep up the quality of streaming due to increased traffic on their servers because no one was prepared for this kind of demand in this part of the world. In many families, it has become common to use the same service on multiple devices in parallel, a TV, a couple of mobile phones and a laptop for example, by the adults and kids who are part of the same family.
As a result, restrictions on streaming quality are in place. Amazon Prime announced recently that the service will offer only standard definition (SD) content over mobile networks.
Lockdown has helped the streaming platforms to expand their business for sure, but the lack of new titles affect them too as many of them are unable to release new films every week in tune with the audience expectations.
Apart from the big two players in the space that stream multiple original web series, all others are likely to see a drop in subscriptions as soon as the lockdown is lifted.
Seeing the increasing popularity of streaming, the expectation was that the platforms will soon start releasing movies on the web either in parallel to the theatre release or one or two weeks after that.
This would mean that online release is expected to contribute about half or more of the moolah that a film is expected to rake up.
As a market for streaming platforms, India has not reached that stage yet. No big release on streaming platforms has contributed so much to the revenue that producers can give prioritise online release over theatre release. Irrfan Khan's Angrezi Medium, which was released online after the makers failed to re-release it in theatres due to the lockdown, has not lived up to the expectations of its streaming partner Disney Hotstar.
Mainstream movies other than megahits and superstar films attract a price tag of a few lakhs to a crore on streaming services, which is in no way comparable to a worldwide theatrical release. In Hollywood, accounting for streaming as the mainstay collection source is still work in progress. After the successful release of The Irishman on Netflix, Martin Scorcese is in talks with streaming providers Apple and Netflix for the production and distribution of his upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio-Robert De Niro-starrer Killers of the Flower Moon after the original producer Paramount Studios raised concerns over its inflating budget, which has now crossed $200 million.
In a first, Universal Studios has defied industry norms by releasing Trolls World Tour, the sequel to the 2016 animation hit Trolls, both online, on-demand and theatres on April 10. Many in Hollywood see it as a shift in the movie-release paradigm, which will boost the pay-per-view model and allow consumers to gain immediate access to new movies inside their homes. Back home, Kamal Hasan had kicked up a storm in the Tamil industry when he proposed a parallel pay-per-view release for his Viswaroopam 2.
The 90-day or 50-day norm for releasing films online too, is set to change in the coming days. Modest productions and indie films have been receiving an unprecedented interest on streaming platforms. In the coming days, many producers and independent filmmakers are likely to release their films directly on these platforms. The viewership numbers and the feedback that they get are way bigger than the earlier model of festivals and limited multiplex releases would offer.
The new normal for theatre audience
Industry pundits predict that normal activity will resume only after August or September. Even if theatres open before that, big releases will wait till the ticket sales reach a near-normal level. The theatre audience will take their time to regain confidence to venture out to catch a movie and get used to the new normal of temperature scanners, masks, distanced seating, new in-movie eating habits, hygiene restrictions, and so on.
A prominent view is, it might take another mega film such as Avatar or Bahubali to entice the audience to the theatres offering a big-screen, immersive experience. According to a few others, superstars can do the trick with their big releases. There are many thrillers that are waiting for release: Vijay's Master, Vikram's Cobra and Dhruva Natchathiram, Ajith's Valimai, Dhanush's Jagame Thandhiram, Mohanlal's Marikkar and Yash's KGF-2, to name a few. Many writers are reportedly pitching interesting scripts over video conference during this lockdown. We can expect some churn in film calendars with some ongoing and announced projects being replaced with exciting new ones.
The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) in the US recently issued a press release, drawing parallels between movie watching with the invincible human spirit: "No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return. The social nature of human beings — the thing that exposes us to contagion, and that makes it so difficult to change behaviour in response to pandemic threats — is also the thing that gives us confidence in the future. People will return to movie theatres because that is who people are. When they return they will rediscover a cutting edge, immersive entertainment experience that they have been forcefully reminded they cannot replicate at home," the release stated.
I'm waiting for the day I can return to the theatre for that immersive experience. I'm sure you too are.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)