The OTT versus theatrical release is not new. But it got refuelled in the current crisis when platforms started announcing exclusive release and global streaming rights to many Indian language films that were slated for a theatrical release.
Movies such as Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, Tamil drama Ponmagal Vandhal, Penguin, Malayalam romance Sufiyum Sujatayum and Shakuntala Devi are some of the films that made the transition to an OTT release.
The news predictably didn’t go down well with distributors and exhibitors. There were protests and even warnings to the producers who took the online route.
What is the main contention of this debate?
Mainstream cinema is meant to be viewed and released in theatres and not on online platforms. Old-timers might recall the very famous slogan of yester-years “Cinema ke vishaal parde par hi dekhiye”.
Back to the Theatre
In fact, in a recent survey published by Ormax media, the audience has given a wholehearted endorsement to the movie-going experience with 82% missing going to the theatres a lot in the lockdown period.
The movie theatre experience is unparalleled. Cinema is a rare medium where the best of science, technology, art, craft, writing and music come together to create an escape for those few hours. The theatrical energy can’t be replaced at home, not to mention the visual and sound effects.
There is something to be said about the experience of visual storytelling on a big screen. And when the film really takes advantage of the format, with beautiful canvases, larger than life dramas and compelling narratives, you simply can’t match that experience.
In a way the OTT versus Theatres debates echoes the digital versus analogue sentiment. Much of the film industries worldwide have made the transition from celluloid to digital, many are still holding on to their love for the original.
To the extent, that many filmmakers and directors refuse to make the change from celluloid to digital. One famous example is of Quentin Tarantino, who has been extremely vocal about his preference for shooting in films.
On the other hand, you have veteran directors like Adoor Gopalkrishnan who embraced digital technology and created the same magic. Adoor is now a big proponent of digital technology and vocal about its advantages in terms of the duration and effort of film making.
OTT and Theatres, Not OTT versus Theatres
In our opinion, it is not a question of either-or but a mutually beneficial co-existence of these channels.
Unless the economics of movie making undergo a drastic change, a majority of films will soon be releasing in movie theatres. What the existence of OTT means is that there will be a competition of sorts for first or exclusive exhibition rights. This will lead to a level playing field.
For regional films, it could also open up the avenues and reach in terms of same day global release both in movie theatres and on streaming services where the home state can be geographically restricted. For mid to small budget films that don’t have a wide-scale distribution capability, streaming services are a boon again.
What we can imbibe is a model used successfully in the west for the past couple of years. When Netflix released films like Roma and The Irishman in limited number of screens for a short period of time, it was to comply with the rules of the Academy to be considered for nominations. However, it benefited movie-goers who love the theatrical experience as people could watch it on the big screen, which was followed by a Netflix debut.
Contrary to the public perception largely perpetuated by news and media that high consumption of content on TV and OTT platforms in COVID will reduce the interest in the theatrical experience, audiences now cannot wait to get back to the theatre.
Both theatres and streaming services have made their place in the industry and there is plenty of room for growth and opportunity for each.