The weeks around Diwali (November 14) have always been important for the Indian film industry. This is when it racks up a huge chunk of its cumulative earnings for a year, which trade pundits say, can amount to anything between INR 250 to INR 300 crore ($3,35,23,525 to $4,02,24,420).
This year, however, with film releases have shifted from cinemas to streaming platforms, the outlook for the festive season looks bleak.
“Diwali is the most important time of the year,” said Rajiv Bakshi CEO, Reliance Entertainment’s Big Synergy, the production behemoth behind “Kaun Banega Crorepati”, India’s biggest television quiz show, which is hosted by superstar Amitabh Bachchan. “It’s the period with the most advertising revenue, and most auspicious time for people to buy more.”
After the coronavirus pandemic, with cinemas across the world shuttered, several big-budget films have eschewed the theatrical release route opting instead for streaming platforms that began with Bachchan’s “Gulabo Sitabo” in April this year.
“When these films signed onto OTT platforms, there was no clarity on when cinemas would reopen,” said Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media, a firm specializing in trade insights. “When the reopening of cinemas was announced, it was too late for theatrical releases. Marketing a film needs a lot of time.”
Even now, two of the biggest films of the year, “Sooryavanshi” and “83” keep getting postponed in the light of little clarity surrounding footfalls in cinemas.
Initially, all eyes were on Maharashtra, which accounts for 30 percent of the country’s market. It’s been a week since the state has received permission to open cinemas, however, most are waiting for Diwali weekend to begin operations.
Across the country, ticket sales have amounted to less than 5 percent of the 50 percent capacity mandate required to screen films. Since most theaters are screening old films, they’re bleeding in a country that has a cinema-culture that focuses heavily on the lure of the big-budget blockbuster.
Girish Johar, a trade analyst and distributor says Diwali is the most important window of the year for both streaming and theatrical releases now. Case in point: the blockbuster ‘Laxmii,’ actor Akshay Kumar’s Diwali release.
After dropping on Disney+Hotstar on November 9, the film was panned by critics; however, it firmly snatched the holiday.
“The Diwali release decision was definitely not conscious,” said actor Tusshar Kapoor who turned producer with ‘Laxmii.’ But by the time post-production was over, Diwali seemed like an appropriate time to get not just family audiences but also cater to every Indian instead of a niche audience.”
Tusshar is stressing on the importance of a family-friendly genre that is an important factor for the Diwali release.
Last year, Kumar’s “Housefull 4” trumped other movies like “Saand Ki Aankh” and “Made in China,” earning Rs 205.60 crore (USD 2,75,54,170). Even if streaming platforms don’t disclose viewership details, Laxmii’s 2.3 rating on IMDB is indicative of its performance.
“Theatres are clear that they won’t play second fiddle to streaming platforms and want specific provisioning,” said Johar. “I don’t think that theater and OTT releases will occur simultaneously.”
This year’s roster has five big-ticket releases across languages: “Ludo” on Netflix; “Chhalaang,” and Tamil film “Soorarai Pottru” on Amazon Prime Video; Kumar’s “Laxmii” and Tamil “Mookuthi Amman” on Disney+ Hotstar.
Series aren’t far behind with Hindi “Nimmi’s PG”, Marathi “Good Boy” and “Sanam Hotline”, and “Game” (Telugu) releasing on Hungama Digital Media. There’s also “Bicchoo Ka Khel” on ALTBalaji among other titles.
In the meantime, trade analysts are hopeful that the box office industry will pick up, until another potential crisis hits the market in the first half of next year.
“Shooting has still not commenced at full-throttle,” said Kapoor talking about cumbersome permissions and safety measures required for large crews.
Usually, every Friday of a week witnessed a couple of releases across the budget spectrum. The pandemic killed the practice. Bollywood often had two big films clashing on the same date.
“All that will not happen because whatever has been ready has already released on streaming platforms,” said Kapoor. However, he’s of the opinion that Hollywood releases could be a much-needed shot in the arm. After the release of Robert DeNiro’s “The War With Grandpa”, there are talks of “Wonder Woman 1984″ and “Tenet” coming to Indian cinemas.
In spite of a bleak outlook, Johar insists that cinemas will never go out of fashion in India.
“We are a traditional entertainment community, and we want to watch films on the big screen,” he said. “After everything’s said and done, streaming platforms are premium and urban.”
Historically, mass content has always trumped over that which caters to a westernized cosmopolitan audience.
“It’s just a matter of time till people feel it’s safe to go to cinemas,” he said.
(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Anindita Ghosh)