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The ‘Master’ Model: What Lies Ahead for South Indian Cinema With a Narrowing Window Between Theatre and OTT Releases

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Credits: Silverscreen Media Library

When Vijay-starrer Master released in cinema halls, it came as a ray of hope for the otherwise gloomy theatres and cinema halls in Tamil Nadu, which were counting losses.

Crowds thronged to cinema halls to watch Master, the first big Tamil film to release theatrically, after the Covid-19 resultant lockdown. Despite opening to only 50% occupancy, as mandated by the Central government’s guidelines, during the Pongal weekend on January 13, Master grossed close to Rs 113 crore within two weeks of its release.

Weeks later however, it was announced that the film will stream on Amazon Prime Video from January 29, 15 days after its release in theatres, which is a record short time for a film to launch on an OTT platform while it is still running in theatres.

In 2020, some films headlined by established actors, like Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru, Jayam Ravi‘s Bhoomi, and featuring Nayanthara-starrer Mookuthi Amman were directly releases on OTT platforms.

On December 2020, Vijay visited Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami requesting 100% occupancy in theatres in Tamil Nadu, ahead of Master‘s release.

Members of the Tamil Nadu Theatres association, who had made a representation to the state government for full seating capacity in theatres ahead of Master‘s release feel they have been dealt a blow with the film’s release on Amazon Prime Video. Trade analysts say the ‘Master model’ may bring a paradigm shift in the South Indian film industries by “blurring the lines” between OTT and theatrical release.

As the window between theatre and OTT platform release continues to shorten, Silverscreen India tries to understand the future of film releases in South India.

Woes of the big screens

“It is a big disadvantage for us and we are not accepting this. When a film is both on digital platforms and theatre, which one will the audience prefer? We will shortly have our next meeting where we will decide the actual release date and time duration for the digital premiere. A window of 30-50 days is currently expected,” Srither S, joint secretary of Tamil Nadu Theatres Association told Silverscreen India. 

Echoing his thoughts, Tiruppur Subramaniam, Tamil Nadu Theatres and Multiplexes Owners Association president said, “We have requested for it to be streamed after 50 days and despite that they have streamed it. We will discuss this in the future and make a decision regarding this. They said that they will consider it.”

On Wednesday, Telangana theatre owners demanded that the window period for releasing films on OTT platforms after their theatrical release should be kept at six weeks for big budget films and four weeks for smaller films. They have threatened to shut cinema halls if producers do not agree.

It was recently announced that Telugu film Krack, starring Ravi Teja and Shruti Haasan that released in theatres on January 9, will soon stream on Aha Video.

Credits: Silverscreen Media Library

Sreedhar Pillai, entertainment industry tracker and writer, however feels that the duration maintained by Master’s producers was sufficient.

“For a big film like Master, under the present circumstances, two weeks of the window is enough. The window of release will come down further. Theatre owners should be happy that they started off with Master. In northern India, they don’t have content or big hero films. Madam Chief Minister kind of films will not be watched on screens. Here, Master has revived the theatre industry. The producer is releasing it on a streaming app to revive his money,” he said.

While a film starring an established actor like Vijay ran for two weeks before being available online, for smaller actors this window will be much shorter, Pillai said.

He said that the theatrical shelf life has reduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic and technology played a part.

“It is a paradigm shift and we need to see if the window of two weeks comes down further. I think theatres and OTT platforms have to coexist. Even in Hollywood, films are released on OTT platforms and theatres simultaneously. I think there should be at least a two-week window because theatres are part of culture, it is where the mass fan base and common man can meet and afford, but OTT platforms are also taking off where new plans are being introduced in data plans. Theatres will survive because India still has got audiences to watch films in big screen,” Pillai said.

Trade analyst Taran Adarsh said that producers sell rights to digital platforms to recover their investment. When OTT platforms offer a premium rate within two-three weeks of a theatrical release, they feel justified, Adarsh said.

Producers optimistic about theatres

Meanwhile, producers opting for theatrical releases say that the patronage to cinema halls can be increased when audiences return to the big screens, which will revive the film industry.

Producer Dhananjayan G, who produced the Tamil film Kabadadaari that released on January 28 in theatres, said, “It is wrong as a film producer to speak about this trend as it is against theatre owners. I am focusing on my film Kabadadaari at the moment.”

Saying that 100% seating capacity is required only for big-budget films, he said: “We have to look at this from the audience’s comfort point of view, whether they are watching films without fear. The industry is reviving and we are not looking at how much a film collects but people’s willingness to come to theatres. If it can run for two weeks and collect a lot of money, we will still be happy.”

Eeswaran’s producer Balaji Kapa of Madhav Media, who retracted his decision to stream the film simultaneously in theatres and OTT platforms, believes that the situation will become better when more good content is available.

“We released the film on OTT only in abroad and it is running in theatres in India. With 50% occupancy, there has not been good collection and in Tamil Nadu, the government has not given subsidies in entertainment tax. Since there is no profit margin, producers are opting for OTT releases,” he said.

The advent of OTT platforms

The entertainment industry was severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown as it brought upon distress to cinema halls that remained shut for major portions of 2020. This, however, came as a blessing for streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and they provided an array of content for people stuck at their homes.

Credits: Silverscreen Media Library

Speaking about how the pandemic paved way for the popularity of streaming apps, Pillai said, “Covid-19 has brought the change. This time, last year, no one could imagine the power of OTT platforms on Tamil cinema because Tamil films had the best theatrel-going audience in India. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh produce a significant volume of films which have a huge fan base. People in these states are crazy about cinema because of its larger-than-life quality which is why they were forced to subscribe to streaming apps during the lockdown.”

With the release of big-budget films like Soorarai Pottru and Mookuthi Amman, OTT platforms gained popularity, he said. Although cinema halls opened later in 2020, the 50% seating limit and the strong presence of these apps slowly lowered the revenue of cinema halls, Pillai said.

Talking about the variety of content available on streaming apps, Adarsh said that these apps allow audiences to watch small-budget films, which usually get sidelined when a big-budget film releases. He said that a parallel industry making content for OTTs was a healthy trend.

“It is also evident in Hollywood and if it is healthy, then why not? OTTs will have its way but the magic of big screen can never be replaced despite road blocks. But both theatres and OTT platforms will co-exist,” he said.

A day before Krack was set to stream on Aha, its CEO Ajit Thakur said in a statement on Thursday: “We are glad to welcome 2021 by bringing one of the biggest releases post pandemic for our audiences. The movie received incredible reviews from everyone and features the biggest stars of the industry – Ravi Teja and Shruti Haasan. Offering it for streaming will help us strengthen our library and reach out to audiences across the Telugu diaspora, including the tier 2 and 3 markets.”

The statement added that the platform’s user base has grown over  24.5 million in the Telugu entertainment genre, and was downloaded 8 million times since its inception in February 2020.

OTTs, safe fall back for producers and assures wider reach, but only for big stars?

“Theatres need big stars, as proven by Vijay’s Master. For upcoming stars, we will still need to test the waters to see if people come to theatres to watch the film. But even OTT platforms do not pick small films,” Pillai said.

While he felt that theatres help films with smaller budgets and with lesser known actors, he said an order must be followed when releasing commercial Tamil films- theatres, OTT platform, television.

Tuck Jagdish(Top Left), RRR(Top Right), A1 Express(Bottom Left), Pushpa(Bottom Right) posters

Balaji said that OTT platforms are unable to give audiences the experience of watching it on the big screen.

“In Tamil Nadu, there is a chance for anyone to make good films. There is no nepotism here, but in OTT releases, the platform will dominate the film. Theatres give a lease of life for newcomers and debutant filmmakers,” he said.

For film journalist Manikandan, Master came as a ray of hope to the gloomy entertainment industry. “For OTT films, they have profit margin fixed. In theatrical releases, the amount of money, time, efforts are more and returns are far, far greater. In theatres, you don’t know the number of screens it will run in. Successful films run for a year and more the time, more revenue is yielded. In OTT, the price is fixed when the platform buys, how it performs is irrelevant. A movie can be good, but filmmakers will get a marginal sum. There is no scope of seeing profit per se. Films made for theatres being released in OTT is sad thing,” he said.

Manikandan said while filmmaking is a lucrative business, for every two films that succeed there are 10 that fail. In OTT business model, even the failures offer some hope for the makers and they will get a guaranteed minimum amount, thereby not making it an outright loss.

Calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “very disturbing phase”, Adarsh said that producers who had a stock of completed films during the lockdown opted for an OTT release to save themselves from losses.

Screenshot of Master Trailer by Amazon Prime

Debutant filmmaker Subbu, who helmed Telugu film Solo Brathuke So Better that became the first film to release theatrically in the Telugu-speaking states, said that films releasing on OTT platforms after a theatrical release will have a wider reach. His film has been streaming on Zee5 from January 25, one month after it released in theatres.

“We are going back to normal, people are coming to watch films at theatres. At the same time, once the film goes to an OTT platform, people who could not come to theatres can watch it. So, we are reaching all audiences and it is a positive sign. The minimum window should be around one month,” he said.

Stating that the competition between different formats of content should be healthier, he sad that if the content is good, it can be shown anywhere.

“OTT platforms will help people watch when they can’t visit the cinemas or want wider content formats. As a filmmaker, I feel OTT releases will help reach wider households and both theatres and streaming platforms should co-exist,” he said.

What about silver, golden jubilees?

With the availability of different formats of content (web series, films, anthologies, documentaries, etc.), experts feel that a film’s shelf life is reducing due to limited attention span.

According to Manikandan, the shelf life of films has changed over time and marketing strategy has changed since then. Citing the example of Rajinikanth-starrer Enthiran (2010), he said: “What they could not achieve horizontally, they tried achieving vertically which is to say, if you cannot make people to come and watch 365 shows, they released in 365 screens. Time period has become shorter but screens increased. So, the number of screens films releasing gave them leverage.”

With the kind of competition now, there is little chance of films running for 100 days since the audience’s attention span and patience have decreased, he said.

Manikandan said that while previously, filmmaking was a specialised craft where people believed in using proper equipment, with the advent of mobile phones and short video platforms, it has become easier to make videos. “Now they use the craft to make many videos and thus content with more variety comes.”

Stating that films celebrating silver and golden jubilees belong to another era, Adarsh said: “In those days, we had limited screens and shows, but today, with screens so many, once you make a decent money, it is also a success.”

Srither said that previously, films were screened only in 100 theatres or so, and hence were measured with a number of days it ran successfully but situations are not the same anymore.

Theatres or OTT platforms- who gets the lion’s share?

With many films opting for both theatrical and OTT releases, which one wins?

Manikandan said that since the pandemic is still ongoing, it is difficult to predict who wins.

“The current landscape is dynamic and fluid because last year was a complete washout. Even before when films released together, they had competition in terms of screen space. In that situation, last year, the number of films waiting for release is too many in addition to films waiting for 2021 release with limited screens, we have still not seen the last of the pandemic to see the theatres running as normal. Only after that, we will know how the crowd will react, by coming to theatres or see on the OTT market. Until then, it cannot be predicted correctly.”

However, the joy of cinema is watching it on the big screen, said Manikandan. “In Tamil Nadu, it was a tradition during the festive season to go to theatres for new releases and it has become part of system, which has been shaken due to pandemic. Though OTT viewing is economically cheaper, would you have the cinematic experience? It is toss between price and experience.”

Bairavaa First Day Show Celebration At Kasi Theatre
Bairavaa First Day Show Celebration At Kasi Theatre; Credits: Silverscreen Media Library

He said that the OTTs have eaten a share of the theatre market and whether theatres will be able to reclaim it remains to be seen. Stating that films like Master will draw loyal followers, he said that only time can tell whether the entire fanbase can be drawn back to theatres.

So far, theatres have been getting the major share of revenue since OTTs are usually subscribed to urban areas.

“Tier-2 cities do not have a technology storm, so will they prefer to watch films on OTT platforms or theatres? We need to wait and watch. But, one thing that can be said is theatres were ruling the market until now, but now OTT platforms have eaten a bit of their share,” Manikandan added.

Experts feel that both sides should sit down to talk.

“I feel that producers and stakeholders should sit and discuss transparently theatrical releases, window, and OTT premiere. Otherwise, there would be negativity and heartburn,” Adarsh said.

Several attempts to reach Master‘s producers, Amazon Prime Video and Aha Video did not yield any response.

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