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Film Exhibitors Stare at Losses as Production Houses Choose OTT Premieres Over Theatrical Releases

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The news of Hindi films like Laxmii, Chhalaang, Radhe and 21 others choosing an Over-the-Top (OTT) release over a theatrical one, has taken the film exhibitors by surprise.  

After the Centre permitted theatres to reopen and issued a set of guidelines, state governments – barring  Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu – allowed cinema halls to reopen on October 15. Very soon, to the relief of nationwide exhibitors, the Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu governments announced the reopening of theatres from November. This gave exhibitors and theatre owners the hope of finally screening Hindi films. 

Except, there are no films to screen at halls.

 “It’s been 34 days now. Except for Zee Studios’ Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari and Peninsula (a Korean film), there have been no theatrical releases,” said Vishek Chauhan, owner of Rupali Cinema and a chain of eight theatres in Bihar.

According to Chauhan, the trend of Hindi films releasing on OTT platforms started with the release of Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer film Gulabo Sitabo on Amazon Prime Video. The Hindi film directed by Shoojit Sircar released on April 17. 

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown had forced many production houses to push dates for releases, which were scheduled for a theatrical release. Hindi film Chhalaang (starring Rajkummar Rao and Nushrratt Bharuccha and produced by Ajay Devgn and Luv Ranjan)was initially scheduled to release on June 12 but was eventually released on Amazon Prime Video on November 13.  

Other Hindi films like Laxmii, Big Bull, Khuda Hafiz, Bhuj: The Pride of India, Radhe were all scheduled to have theatrical releases, but were later sold to OTT platforms like Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix. 

Tagging a few of the popular Hindi film actors like Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn in a series of tweets regarding the issue, Chauhan asked whether the actors had forgotten about theatres. He also asked them whether he and 45 other single-screen exhibitors in Bihar, who had opened their shutters during the pandemic, should close down due to the lack of new releases.

In West Bengal, exhibitors wrote a letter to Salman Khan, urging him to release his upcoming film Radhe in theatres. The letter was written by Satadeep Saha (owner of single-screen halls Ajanta Cinema, Rupasi Cinema, and Rupasi Binodan) and supported by other exhibitors in the state. It listed the names of families whose lives depend on the release of Hindi films in theatres. 

“Just to name some: theatre staff, canteen staff, publicity boy for posters and mike, and hawkers outside this cinema selling various products are all dependant,” the letter read.

The letter was sent to Salman Khan Films on November 9. “It’s been nine days and we are yet to hear back,” said Saha. 

Chauhan, too, stated that his concerns are yet to be addressed. “We at theatres are paying salaries and electricity bills while Bollywood keeps cashing in on OTT releases. Are they not supposed to be at the forefront for helping others?” asked Chauhan. 

Chauhan also took note of actors like Kumar donating Rs 25 crore to the Prime Minister’s Citizens Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM Cares fund), a charitable trust created by the Union government amid the pandemic. 

The exhibitors are also concerned about the delaying of big budget Hindi films between April and May in 2021 for increased revenue.

“(Director) Rohit Shetty is adamant for a theatrical release of Sooryavanshi but is stalling it for next year. So are movies like Bunty Aur Babli 2 and Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (Yash Raj Films) and Indoo Ki Jawani (T-Series and Emmay Entertainment),” said Saha.

The gap in between film releases is excruciating, he said, adding that he might not be able to sustain his business if there were no new releases.  

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