OTT Vs Theatres Window : How Short Is Short Enough?

OTT Master poster

The window between OTT and theatrical release is dwindling. Master is landing on Amazon Prime On January 29; Krack will be on AHA! on February 5. The raging debate about the gap between a film’s theatrical release and its premiere on an OTT just got even more complicated.

Gone are the days when people had to wait for months altogether to see blockbuster films on TV. A big budget film has traditionally been categorised as the ‘big attraction’ on a festival on TV channels. Few years ago, following an intense debate about reducing the gap between theatrical and Cable TV/OTT premiere in the West, Telugu film producers and other stakeholders reached a consensus. As per this agreement, a film is allowed to premiere on TV 90 days after its theatrical release. Then, once in a while, this rule was broken, and some films ended up being aired within 60 days. And not long after that, someone brought it down to 30-45 days. This was all in the pre-covid era where a theatrical experience for any given film was a de facto choice, for whatever it was worth. 

Almost a year since the pandemic changed the ways films are distributed, with OTTs becoming the most-preferred choice for a majority of films in Hindi in 2020, social media is once again a hotbed for debates about what’s the ideal time for a film to release on OTTs after they get a theatrical release. 

Sample this : Two of the biggest Tamil and Telugu hits of the year, Vijay & Vijay Sethupathi starrer Master, and Ravi Teja & Shruti Haasan starrer Krack, have been slated for release on OTTs within two weeks of their theatrical release. While Master is scheduled for release on Amazon Prime on January 29, Krack’s release on AHA! has been pushed from January 29 to February 5 following a series of negotiations to let the theatre owners and distributors rake in moolah at the box office.

January has been an encouraging month for both Telugu and Tamil film industries. The opening weekend collections for both Master and Krack took the two industries by surprise, and it gave them enough confidence to plan the release of their films in cinema halls in the next few months. Even with 50% occupancy, several cinema halls registered big numbers (there have been multiple reports that several areas didn’t adhere to 50% occupancy during Sankranthi in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), and both the films managed to sustain the momentum for at least a week. 

While this is a good sign, it’s also true that the footfalls fell drastically in the two Telugu states in the week after Sankranthi window. By then, most of the Sankranthi releases had raked in good moolah, and three out of four films which released during this time period did considerably well. But, the dip in occupancy during weekdays raises some concerns and if this is going to be the trend, then, whether it’ll be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. In the pre-covid era, the many types of revenue sharing agreements that producers and distributors signed with each other ensured that each of them knew the ripple effects, if things didn’t work out in their favour. Now, during the pandemic when so many variables, including the reluctance of major chunks of audiences staying away from cinema halls, are at play, it’s imperative to take some pressure off from theatrical releases. This is precisely why the timing of a film’s OTT release has gained so much prominence. 

It’s no secret that streaming giants like Prime, Hotstar, and Netflix have been offering substantial amounts of money to producers to acquire the streaming rights of their films. The rates vary with respect to the release strategy. If it’s going to be an exclusive deal, sans the theatrical release, then it’s likely to command a higher price from the streaming platform. But if the producer opts for a theatrical release and then releases it on an OTT, then the price drops comparatively. In the second case, if a film is released on OTT within a short time after the release, then this price will be higher than what a film might fetch if it releases a month or two later. This explains why films like Master and Krack are releasing so soon on OTTs. Moreover, it compensates for the lack of revenue from the film’s release in overseas territories. Although cinema halls in some parts of the globe like Australia, USA and other areas have been playing Telugu and Tamil films in the past few weeks, the revenue is a lot less than what it used to be in the past. 

But then there’s another doubt that shows no signs of abating : How can it be a good thing if the window between theatrical release and its OTT premiere of any given film keeps dwindling? Wouldn’t it kill the dominance that cinema halls have had for so long?

There are no clear answers, yet. For the time-being, it might seem like this is the best possible solution to keep the revenue flowing from different quarters. Whatever it takes to offset losses compared to the film’s budget. 

On a brighter side, this trend, even if it’s specific to this time frame, opens up some interesting possibilities for filmmakers. Earlier this year, I had written about how the Telugu film industry has gone on an overdrive with film and series production. When most of them will reach the finish line, the various stakeholders will be jostling for space at the box-office window. And considering that we haven’t been adding more cinema halls to keep up with the supply, it will get tougher for movies to find an adequate number of screens. 

Now that big budget films are opting for OTT releases within 2-3 weeks of their release, it’s going to leave several cinema halls, screening those few films, looking for fresh content to keep up with the demand in the market. When several OTTs, including Netflix & Aha, have unveiled plans to release a major series or an original film almost every week, it wouldn’t be surprising if cinema halls too adopt this strategy in near future. It’ll all boil down to occupancy and money that any given film will collect at the box-office, and since supply is equally good, there won’t be a dearth of choices. 

This is the new normal that we will have to get used to. The fight against digital piracy is slowly losing its steam in the wake of streaming platforms offering subscriptions at affordable rates. As long as these platforms keep adding more subscribers every quarter, the demand for feature films will remain high. But once the digital market hits a snag or stagnates, there’s bound to be course correction. All said and done, for all the brouhaha about the rise of streaming platforms, they still have a long way to go to explore the market. The number of downloads of an app doesn’t necessarily translate to active engagement with their catalogue, and the platforms are going out of their way to market themselves to a segment of people which is yet to join this digital bandwagon. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana alone, with a combined population of around 12 crore, there’s still a long way to go before OTTs capture the market that’ll scare cinema halls. For the latter, the TV industry is still the biggest competitor because of its reach.

With the gap between theatrical releases and OTT premieres dwindling fast, the question is not really about whether it will be detrimental to cinema halls in the long run or not. It’s a question of whether a film is good enough to step into a cinema hall or wait for its release on an OTT. The ball is truly in the film industry’s court to make every film count. 

About crhemanth

Hemanth Kumar C R , is a Hyderabad-based journalist and he writes about Telugu cinema, TV shows, and his work has appeared in publications like Firstpost.com, TheNewsMinute.com, SilverScreenIndia, New Indian Express, Film Companion. 845show.com is his new blog. You can reach out to him on Twitter @crhemanth or email him at hemanth[dot]cr[at]gmail[dot]com

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