The first blow to the Indian film industry from the coronavirus outbreak came on 12 March when Rohit Shetty Picturez officially announced the indefinite delay of the long-awaited cop drama Sooryavanshi, starring Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif.
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This snowballed into a spate of pushes in release dates, from Rohena Gera's Sir (20 March) and Dibakar Banerjee's Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (20 March) to Prabhu Solomon's wildlife adventure film Haathi Mere Sathi (3 April) and Kabir Khan's sports drama 83 (10 April). In the midst of these announcements, the Maharashtra government's announcement to close theatres till 31 March, followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing lockdown till 14 April, forced existent films out of the film halls.
Homi Adajania's Angrezi Medium, starring Irrfan Khan and Radhika Madan, could barely run for a day before the theatres were locked down. On 5 April, the makers announced the film has been made available for the masses again, with its early digital premiere on the newly re-branded Disney+ Hotstar. This deal serves the dual purpose of making Angrezi Medium accessible for the audience at home and the streaming platform potentially attracting more subscribers days after it launched Disney+ in India.
Radhika Madan and Irrfan Khan in a poster of Angrezi Medium. Twitter
Similarly, Hollywood studios like Universal and NBCUniversal are planning to release some of their films straight to digital because of the uncertainty looming large over the lockdown period across the globe. After Patty Jenkins' tentpole superhero film Wonder Woman was also pushed from its scheduled June release, there have been reports doing the rounds that Warner Bros is considering a staright-to-digital release for the Gal Gadot-starrer.
However, most Indian counterparts don't seem too keen towards the idea, and follow in the footsteps of Angrezi Medium. Last year, several big-budget films like Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, and Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes released on Netflix after limited theatrical run in the US. But the Indian film industry has not really warmed up to the idea yet.
Mahesh S Koneru, owner of East Coast Productions, which is bankrolling Miss India, starring Keerthy Suresh, had to push the Telugu film from 17 April. However, he is willing to hold the film till the situation improves rather than hastily releasing it on a streaming platform. "The OTT platform should give me a number that gives me an incentive to take the risk. I have faith in my film, and I have expectation from what it will do on the theatrical side. The OTT platforms don't match the numbers. Maybe it'll happen eventually. But definitely not now," says Mahesh.
Keerthy Suresh in a still from Miss India teaser. YouTube
On the other hand, his fellow Telugu producer Shobu Yarlagadda, the man behind the Baahubali franchise, sounds slightly more convinced about releasing his film Uma Maheshwara Ugra Rupasya, starring Venkatesh, digitally first. "We need to consider whether the non-theatrical rights (satellite+digital) will cover the cost of the budget. Waiting would mean additional interest burden (since the finance is raised from the market by studios), and especially in this case where we don't know how long we'll have to wait."
"Even when the theatres open, we don't know how many people would be willing to take the risk to come to theatres. If we go directly to digital, we won't see any theatrical revenue but if we release it on digital, we may just close the project with some losses. As of now, we haven't made any decision yet."
Yarlagadda sounds torn between the digital and theatrical revenue streams, and naturally so. Having seen both the Baahubali films make monumental strides over the global box office, he has sold the rights of the franchise prequel, The Rise of Sivagami, to Netflix. But Koneuru claims the presence of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video India are not exactly as prominent in South.
"There are representatives and authorised agencies. So the whole process isn't very transparent and clear. For example, if I wanted to release my film exclusively on Gemini TV, Star Maa or Zee Telugu, I know whom to talk to. I can sit across a table and close the deal. They know the realities of our industry. There is no similar relationship or contact with the streaming giants. Also, if I go direct-to-digital, some channels will not even consider buying it if it hasn't had a theatrical release. Usually, the criterion is to determine the technical quality of the film. And the box office helps of course," adds Koneru.
But in Bollywood, access to these streaming platforms is not exactly an issue. For example, while filmmtaker Karan Johar continues to make tentpoles for theatres under his banner Dharma Productions, he has also come up with Dharmatic, the digital wing of the production house, which has a long-term deal with Netflix India. Under Dharmatic, two films have already released on Netflix: Drive and Guilty.
Johar was unavailable to comment on the fate of his co-production Sooryavanshi. Reliance refused to comment as well, on the status of either Sooryavanshi or 83. Kabir Khan, the director of the period cricket drama, was also unavailable for comment. However, in an interview to Film Companion, he revealed they would love to have 83 in theatres, even if at a later date, because it has been a labour of love by the entire team, including the lead actor Ranveer Singh.
New directors of smaller films don't have this luxury unfortunately. Arati Kadav is the director of Cargo, which premiered at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival last year, and was scheduled to be screened at the SXSW festival in March, which got cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak. She has announced that rather than waiting, she is in negotiations with streaming platforms to release her film there. "I think it'll take us a couple of months to recover from the COVID-19 situation, and at least four months for people to have the confidence to go to theatres. I'm personally a huge fan of theatrical experience, and mine is a sci-fi space film. So I would want the audience to experience the film in theatres but at this point, it'll be wiser to release the film earlier than to battle it out with big-budget films that will be keen on getting early release dates," she says.
Kadav says it makes little sense for the smaller fish to insist on a theatrical release, as opposed to the bigger sharks. "I think their costs will be recovered better if they're a pan-India release unless OTTs are willing to pay huge amount (since new content at home is on high demand during lockdown). Besides that, even now in India, theatrical footprint is bigger. Most of these are mainstream films, and they were made for the Indian theatre audience. But I'm sure they're evaluating everyday."
Even the holdover films before the lockdown came into effect are in two minds about re-releasing the film in theatres. Since the Maharashtra government ordered an early lockdown of theatres, the makers of Marathi film AB Aani CD could barely enjoy a day at the box office. The film, which features Vikram Gokhale with Amitabh Bachchan in a cameo, was promoted widely but suffered the brunt of the lcokdown upon release. Producer Akshay Bardapurkar is confident they will re-release the film in theatres. "Digital and streaming are opposite poles. The film was designed as per the theatrical space. Also, there's no repeat value in digital. Maharashtra has a population of Rs 14 crore. Even if half of them go and watch our film, we will make huge profits instead of the one-time licensing fee paid by the OTT platform," he says, explaining the concentrated release of a regional film in the target area yields better results than selling it to a digital platform.
However, Screen Scene Media Entertainment, that backed Dharala Prabhu, the Tamil remake of Shoojit Sircar's 2012 Hindi film Vicky Donor, claims the digital space has emerged as their saviour in these trying times. "Dharala Prabhu had gotten rave reviews, and was picking up at the box office as well. But that was abruptly shot once the theatres shut down on 17 March (the film released on 13 March). Luckily, because of the positive word-of-mouth, we got a deal from Amazon, which will help us to curtail our losses from the theatre lockdown," says Siddharth, a spokesperson of the production house.
In the midst of all the uncertainty, Arjun Dutta, director of Bengali film Guldasta, has his priorities in place. "My producers are first timers. So I'm sure they'd want to release the film in theatres. But as of now, I'm not even thinking about my film. We have larger issues to deal with right now as a nation. The release of a film should be the least of our concerns."