MUMBAI, April 4: With cinema halls shut and film releases suspended amid the nation-wide lockdown, theatre owners battle fears that the digital platforms might end up changing the collective movie watching experience, resulting in a dent in the footfalls whenever the screens open up again.
India is currently under the 21-day lockdown with around 1.3 billion people asked to stay home in view of the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected over 2,300 people in the country as of Friday while the death toll rose to 56, according to the Union Health Ministry.
Bihar-based exhibitor Vishek Chauhan said with everyone quarantined, digital platforms are "taking us by the throat and pushing down their content every week."
"Cinema is a habit, if you break a habit for four-six months, you'll get a lot of people dissuaded to come to cinemas. Even if there is a reduction of 15-20 per cent in the footfall, which is anyway on a decline, cinema is going to be badly hit," Chauhan told PTI.
The exhibitor, who runs Roopbani Cinema in Purnea, Bihar, believes the comfort that the OTT platforms offer; pose a threat to the theatrical viewing experience because it's an "antithesis to appointment cinema."
"Theatrical viewing is fixed at a particular time, a location, which isn't the case with OTT. You can watch unlimited content online using free data. This is a huge crisis we will face. It's not like the gates will open and people will throng our premises."
Recently, China re-opened a limited number of theatres after announcing that the country had contained the coronavirus outbreak. The attendance, however, was sparse.
Raj Bansal, senior distributor and exhibitor, said the China experience is quite telling.
"China saw theatres re-open but very few footfalls were seen. That's such a clear indicator of where we stand today. No one is coming to cinema halls. At least that won't be on people's mind right now," said Bansal, who is the director of Entertainment Paradise, a three-screen multiplex in Jaipur.
With the availability of content across streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar among others, the situation has only become difficult for exhibitors, he said.
"That's a cause of concern for us. Digital platforms are catching up, with so many people now at home enjoying their favourite shows and films. People have so much fear right now, why will they come to a theatre? They're now getting content for free at home. So the fear is real," he added.
Both Chauhan and Bansal feel people won't return to cinema halls till the normalcy is restored, but wonder, who will decide that considering the fear of contagion.
There is also the worry of big ticket movies directly arriving on streaming platforms, jumping their three month window in the times of the pandemic.
"Imagine if I were Netflix or Amazon and made an offer to the makers of 'Sooryavanshi' to release it digitally, paying whatever amount they think they could've earned in a theatrical, how long will Karan Johar, Rohit Shetty hold back?
"There has been a substantial investment in the film and it's costing the makers interest on a daily basis as we speak. The 90-day or 45-day window that protects cinemas will be attacked and will go very soon because cinemas will become a burden if people don't show up," Chauhan said.
The exhibitor's anxiety finds roots in the recent decision of Universal Pictures of making some of its current releases, including "The Invisible Man", "The Hunt and "Emma", available on demand.
But there are people who believe theatrical experience will always trump home viewing as it is about marking a memory, like a date or an anniversary.
The fact of the matter is that we are social beings and we like to step out and be with other people. We are not saying that we are in the business of showing movies, we are in the business of out of home entertainment.
"It is about celebrating birthdays, anniversary, eating out and socializing. It is a part of our lives. Enough has been said about how cinemas won't survive, but nothing has changed people's need to go to theatres, Gautam Dutta, CEO PVR Cinemas, told PTI.
Leading distributor Akshaye Rathi, who has a chain of cinemas across Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, doesn't believe that the pandemic will influence people's decision to go to cinema halls for big ticket films.
"Irrespective of the coronavirus scenario, the differentiation between what goes on OTT and theatrical was already in place. Movies like 'Maska' or 'Guilty' wouldn't have had too much draw on the theatrical front anyway. But if you bring a tentpole film like 'Sooryavanshi', 'RRR' to the OTT, people wouldn't enjoy it half as much as they do in a theatrical format."
Rathi, who is the director of Saroj Screens Pvt Ltd, said though people have found comfort in consuming content on their laptop screens, the binge-watching will also reach a saturation point with no new shows in the pipeline.
"One thing which is common to films, TV and OTT is that production work on any new content has stopped across the board. If there are no films releasing, there are also no new show or films coming out. Everything that people wanted to catch up, they would have done in this lockdown period," he said.
Nitin Datar, President, Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India, said the pandemic notwithstanding, the single screens have always had battles to fight- from piracy to now OTT platforms.
"Single screens were suffering huge losses because people were watching content online even earlier. Before Netflix and Amazon, they'd watch pirated content online and now of course, with the lockdown, they are heading to these platforms more," he said.
The exhibitors agree that even if cinema halls open soon, it's not that it's going to witness huge crowds right now.
While Datar feels the opening up of theatres will be in phases, Chauhan said it'll be a task to reach an environment, which encourages people to step out. - PTI