Along with YouTube vs TikTok, Bollywood Producers vs Exhibitors debate has also become pretty intense these days. Coronavirus Pandemic has put the economy in a terrible state right now and thus even the most financially secure are finding themselves in a vulnerable state.
Yes, I am talking about the Producers. They make huge money with films but before even getting it in their bank accounts they have plans to invest it in forthcoming projects. But now since the films are not releasing, the money has been stuck. There have been zero returns in the last few months but the costs are intact which has left everyone in a very sad state.
On the other side, we have exhibitors. They have been always dependent on big films to make money. Since there is no film expected to release anytime soon they have been desperately looking for the pandemic to end and things to return to normalcy.
However, amidst all this, the news broke that a few major films like Gulabo Sitabo and Shakuntala Devi will directly release on OTT platforms. There have been rumours of Laxmmi Bomb makers also planning direct OTT release. This has hurt the exhibitors even more and thus some major multiplex chains like INOX, PVR & Carnival expressed their displeasure by issuing open letters to the producers of the films.
All through this, the industry has been abuzz with opinions. Some are supporting the producers; others are in favour of exhibitors. But frankly, it’s tough to decide right and wrong here.
To get deep into the matter and understand it better, I got in touch with several leading exhibitors & filmmakers recently. While we discussed the ongoing trouble, the agenda was also to find out who is right and who is wrong here. Here are some excerpts.
Nitin Dattar, the head of Theaters association is upset by producers. Talking about the same he said, “There was an understanding between producers and exhibitors that they won’t release the film on OTT or TV before the theatrical release. But suddenly because of this pandemic, they are afraid because their investments are at stake. But in the same way, even exhibitors are making a loss. They are finding it very difficult to make the ends meet. If there was a discussion between both sides then a solution could’ve been found.”
Nitin also talked about how exhibitors are still paying taxes to the government like property taxes, license renewal fees, minimum electricity charges and added, “We are small exhibitors and when small films release and flop, we still have to pay them half the amount which we sometimes pay through our own pocket. Only big films of big superstars like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan are a relief. We make money from those films and lose from many others. Now they are not supporting us, they should’ve at least waited for 2 months and we would’ve talked to the government and asked when are you planning to re-open the theatres? And if the govt didn’t give any solution then we could’ve discussed further.”
He also shared concerns about the censorship of the films and said that it’s a concern for the government too. “How can you release a film without it being censored?” he said.
The executive director of G7 multiplex, Maratha Mandir cinema, and producer of Khuda Gawah, Manoj Desai feels the situation is definitely bad for exhibitors but feels the pain of producers as well. “The ongoing situation is definitely upsetting. Angrezi Medium released in March and could run for mere 4 days and lockdown happened. That film soon released on satellite and digital which is upsetting. Now as many films will go on digital, the loss will increase. Then we don’t know when will coronavirus go and lockdown will end completely. Right now, the lockdown is extending continuously, salaries are on hold and everything is unpredictable. And this is upsetting.” he said.
When asked if producers should hold their films then what should be the maximum waiting period, Manoj said, “That depends on the time coronavirus takes to vanish. Right now we are in trouble. After the pandemic ends, the government will start giving relief. And at the very end, the number of cinemas will come. Even after that, I’ve heard and I don’t know how true is the news that people will be made to sit with gaps in the auditoriums. So everything is questionable right now and it’s better that we stay quiet and let’s see.”
Further talking about the difficulties exhibitors are facing right now because various other taxes and costs are still applicable, Manoj said, “I don’t know what to say about that. If a film is ready and I request the producer to hold it, he will ask ‘What about the interests that I’ve to pay’ and I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve been a producer of Khuda Gawah and when my film was about to release, I was in very much hurry because it was over-budget. So these things were really stressful at that time. Being an exhibitor, I’ll obviously want that the films should not directly release on OTT but what about those producers who are not able to adjust with the extra costs and interest?”
Leading film exhibitors Akshaye Rathi feels for the exhibitors and says, “From the exhibitors’ point of view, it’s a bit unfortunate. Because especially a film like Gulabo Sitabo, if you look at the last few Ayushmann Khurrana films they did very well. Bala, Badhaai Ho, Dream Girl all fetched more than 100 crores net box office collections. I see no reason why films like Gulabo Sitabo which also features Amitabh Bachchan who in my opinion is one of the greatest superstars the country had and still essentially one of the best actors. I see no reason that film wouldn’t have done well in the theatres. So we are going to miss out on that.”
However he understands the producers’ side as well, “But now from the producers’ point of view, they have their own compulsions. It is about the cashflow, about the uncertainty that when will they be able to release the film? What kind of numbers it would generate. So, I am sure there must be some compulsions that NH Studioz and Shoojit Sircar may have had which has resulted in them selling the movie in a pre-mature manner. So maybe there were cash-flow issues or they didn’t have the ability to hold on for a couple of more months or more. So, I’ll like to believe that this is an exception.”
At the same time, Akshaye is thankful to partners like Reliance & YRF. He said, “And while there have been issues like these, we are also fortunate to have supporters and partners like Reliance Entertainment, Yash Raj, and a couple of others. They have clearly announced that Sooryavanshi, ’83, Jayeshbhai Jordaar, Coolie No. 1, and Mumbai Saga are coming to the theatres. So it’s not something that’s happening with every movie. But what’s done is done and it’s time for the industry to come together, support each other, and to come out of this stronger and wiser.”
Filmmaker Ali Abbas Zafar who has Khaali Peeli lined up as a producer feels that it’s a phase that will pass but the cash flow doesn’t have to stop, “The situation right now is very uncertain because, till the time we don’t know when this coronavirus gonna go, we can’t say anything. But somewhere or the other money needs to be rolling for the business to work. I think the producers take the decision to put their film straight on digital for a reason. Also, in the last couple of years, every Friday has seen at least 2-3 films releasing. And right now the films that have opted for the OTT platform, they are just helpful. I think there’s nothing to get reactional about as there are a lot of films out there that will come in theatres.”
He also thinks that the future will be about the co-existence of both platforms, “With the coming time, I personally think that both platforms whether cinemas or OTT will have to co-exist. We don’t say one is superior to the other. So it’s a wait and watch, we have to calm down and should wait for the pandemic to settle down.”
When asked about if as a producer he’d like to release his Khaali Peeli directly on OTT will like to wait for theatres to open, Ali said, “I’d say that as a producer I just want to wait and watch right now. I am not in any kind of hurry or rush to take any decision.”
Veteran film distributor and exhibitor Raj Bansal considers it a selfish decision and also feels upset because he thinks it was an issue that had to be discussed mutually. “I feel releasing films on the OTT platform at this moment is wrong. At this time, when we are going through a bad phase everyone in the industry should stick together. We should have waited for some more time for things to settle down and then we should have thought about it. At this time, going to OTT platforms is not being fair with the multiplexes.”
Talking about the maximum time producers should wait for theatres to open, Raj Bansal said, “I believe if theatres don’t open till 15th August then small budget films can go to OTT directly but big films should still wait because if all films go on OTT directly then it will be a mess.”
He further added, “That even after 15th Aug if the situation doesn’t normalise than they should’ve done a meeting with exhibitors to discuss problems of both sides. We are a family and since we are facing a situation an extraordinary situation, sitting together and discussing must’ve solved it better.”
Popular trade analyst Girish Johar calls it a distress phase which is short term. “Everything is closed, we had a zero box office quarter and are looking towards another zero box office quarter. There are no revenues and are expenses can’t go away. Salaries have to be paid, 20%, 30% or more but the cost is there. There are many producers who have taken money on interest and their films are ready. So consider emotional reasons, financial reasons, or whatever they can’t hold films any longer,” he says.
Girish further adds that producers would never want to avoid theatrical release of their films but right now it’s all about survival. “Also, every producer wants to make films for the maximum audience. No one wants to make films for a limited audience. And in India, the maximum audience comes from cinemas. After that now there is digital and satellite. So if someone is compromising on their wants then there must be some difficulty that they are going through that’s why I called it a distress phase. Those who are capable of holding during this pandemic, big production houses, and companies they are holding. India produces thousands of movies every year. It is not that all the movies are going on OTT. It’s just a handful of movies, 10, 20, or in the longer period even 50. That’s hardly anything. So coming back to say that is it the right thing or wrong? then I’ll say to each on its own to be very honest. The person who can hold should definitely hold because no one can beat the theatrical experience and it has been proved multiple times. People thought cinema will fade when the VCR era came then they thought the same when CDs and DVDs became popular. Sattelite TVs came later and films started premiering earlier than before. Again everyone thought and asked who will go watch films in cinemas now? But people always go to cinemas to have a nice time with family which involves having dinner, shopping, and other things also. It will never go away. Exhibitors should not worry at all. Theatres have been taking measures for survival so producers are also doing the same.”
He is also hopeful that once the things return to normalcy people will come to theatres in huge crowds. “And it’s a short term phase which will end after some time. So when people will start feeling safe they will throng to theatres and they will love to stay out.”
Girish further explains how producers have the right to be safe, “But right now producers had to make the tough decision because they have to bear the costs of their employees who are again in a red zone. Just recently we heard the news of an actor who committed suicide due to financial pressures.”
Also talking about OTT, he said that it is not a rosy picture, “OTT guys are not sitting with open arms and welcoming every producer. A lot of hard negotiations happen and we are not sure how much profits or loss producers are actually making.”
Director of White Lion Entertainment, Sunny Khanna also supports producers because they have interest meter running. He says that they should pick up the opportunity to save them if there’s one. But at the same time, he feels exhibitors are also not wrong. “No one is wrong in this situation. Both producers and exhibitors are bleeding. The current pandemic situation is such that producers have found them in a tough spot and had to take the difficult decision. The film is ready and they have the right to cover their cost and stop the running interest meter. Going forward, the theatrical release is the only way producer can make money and not OTT.”
Well, we just hope this pandemic comes to an end sooner than expected and we all go back to cinemas with families to enjoy films. It’s been long that we haven’t enjoyed films on the big screen and haven’t cherished our favourite piping hot extra cheese pizza.