Bryan Durham (DNA; April 9, 2017)

It isn’t too far-fetched to assume that pretty much what Hollywood does, gets mirrored in Bollywood at some point. It’s something even the trade and exhibitors here admit. And so, if you go by what some major Hollywood studios are telling exhibitors at CinemaCon 2017, there is a possibility that the theatrical window (the amount of time films play exclusively in theaters before they are made available for home viewing) could get drastically reduce. Not this year or the next, maybe, but pretty soon, anyway.

As it stands, the window is 90 days for Hollywood. The clamour is to reduce it to 10-15 days minimum. And if tech innovators Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju had found support from exhibitors and studios for their start-up Screening Room last year, that window wouldn’t exist at all and you’d get the latest theatrical releases to your phone, tablet, laptop or TV day-and-date.

What studios are saying
However, at the time, Sean & Co were scoffed at and Warner Bros Chairman/CEO Kevin Tsujihara even told exhibitors, “I assure you we are not going to let a third party or middleman come between us.” This year, Tsujihara wasn’t present at the annual event. Instead, Warner Bros worldwide distribution and marketing chief Sue Kroll took the podium to sing a different tune. “Consumer tastes are changing… They want more choices and the option of engaging in the process differently. Wherever the demand is, someone else will step in and address the void. We need to address the challenges of the marketplace,” she warned.

Sony chairman Tom Rothman was more succinct. After showing some footage from Blade Runner 2049, he cheekily remarked, “Netflix, my ass. Let’s see you see that over there!” he said. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company told exhibitors. “We all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theatre and we have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.”

So, maybe, exhibitors needn’t sweat it just yet. But they’re still a worried lot. The year has just begun and a lot could change in that time. Or in a few years at the least.

The B-Town dilemma
Everyone we spoke to in Bollywood — on record or off-record — said the same thing. It WILL happen because we do ape Hollywood and the trends there. For better or for worse, the decisions made there and the evolving technology there does aid or hamper our dealings here, in some way or the other.

But Bollywood is a different beast beset with its own set of problems. Yes, while we do have access to affordable streaming options and to a range of other homegrown PVOD (Premium Video On Demand) options, the numbers don’t quite match up to those who catch movies in theatres — but that number is on the decline. And there are several reasons for this — high ticket prices, expensive food-and-beverages options, the cost of getting to a theatre et al.

Amul Vikas Mohan, Editor — Super Cinema feels the reason the audience doesn’t visit theatres anymore is high ticket prices. He adds, “That’s just one of the things holding us back. We make the most movies, but have few screens to see them on. Then there’s rampant piracy. On any given day, it’s easier to download something for free rather than legally pay and stream something.”

Exhibitor Akshaye Rathi admits that the theatrical format has faced problems and setbacks in the past several years — the VCRs and later DVDs and torrents — ate into a huge chunk of the audience and thereby, theatrical revenue. He charts them out, “Looking at it in the Indian context, let’s address the fact that the Ekta Kapoor revolution was the first to take away a huge chunk of women, who traditionally visited theatres since the 1970s to a large extent. Today, younger audiences in large numbers, are hooked on to Netflix, Amazon Prime and its ilk. As a consumer, if I had to choose between paying Rs 650 for a movie (not to mention other things you pay on the way to your seat) and Rs 650 a month for entertainment, the choice would be pretty obvious.” At the same time, he admits that piracy is a very real threat that needs to be addressed. “Nothing is being done about it. If the industry and the authorities are proactive about dealing with the menace, they can stop it. As of now, it happens in broad daylight.”

Atul Mohan, Editor-Complete Cinema, squarely puts the blame on exhibitors. “They are themselves to blame for declining numbers. They don’t understand one basic fact that if you keep exhibition rates lower, footfalls could get converted into sales of foods and beverages. It’s plain to see… who will watch a Swara Bhaskar film (no matter how good it is) for Rs 400? Or the same amount for a non-starcast film like Laali Ki Shaadi… Or even a Baahubali on a repeat run at Rs 700?”

The Indian theatrical window
Atul feels that the gap between theatrical releases and their telecasts is already shrinking. “India has a limited window anyway. A majority of our films do well in the first three days. Few last more than a week.”

However, Amul feels that we’re still several years away from the possibility of a theatrical window being reduced, at least in India. “Think about it. India isn’t ready for this jump forward. Fewer people are going to theatres, but we’re still making films that make Rs 300 crore plus. Most films make their money in the first weekend anyway. But it still takes time to head to the small screen or streaming platforms for various reasons. For example, something like a Netflix would pick up an A-rated film and put it out before satellite channels at a premium, but the same film would get a subsidised price from the channels because of that rating. Think Udta Punjab.”

Akshaye is of the opinion that the theatrical window is anyway non existent because of piracy.

Playing catch-up
Amul says it’s going to be a while for us to head the way Hollywood is. “The internet penetration isn’t as good as we’d like it to be. Streaming speeds suck here. We’re literally behind everything happening in the West. If you ask me, I don’t think exhibitors should have any problem right now.”

Atul thinks the shift will happen, too. “Corporates making movies or multiplexes, the West had it decades back, we’ve seen the culture grow here only in the past decade. Besides now the audience is more tech-savvy and streaming sites are offering competitive rates. Our smartphones are getting cheaper. Netflix and Amazon will catch up. I won’t be surprised if their subscribers increase. To survive, one has to understand, that you cannot stop technology. PVOD will come sooner rather than later.”

Akshaye believes that the theatrical format has to serve content in a much better way. “To expect audiences to choose cinemas over a free entertainment avenue (piracy) or a legit one (Netflix),is a big ask. We’ve to change how we serve our content. Just telling a tale is not good enough anymore. We have to provide an experience. It has to become more immersive that cannot be replicated on smaller formats. The price of tickets have to go down and needs to really reach out to the volume market as much as to the value market. If you have a PVR Icon, you also need to have a budget multiplex that provides all sorts of films that can be afforded by the man on the street multiple times a month. That coupled with the kind of experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere, I’m sure theatres will come back in a big way. A Ranveer Singh is not a bigger star than a SRK, but a Bajirao Mastani definitely did better than a Dilwale, let’s face it. That’s because it was an experience that demanded cinematic viewing. Ultimately, it’s all about experiences.”

Closing argument ke liye, quoting George Clooney on the matter. He believes theatres and PVOD can co-exist. “I think it’s inevitable in some way. But people still go to concerts because at some point, you’ve got to go out. You can’t keep telling your wife, ‘Oh honey, let’s stay home and watch TV’ … I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. I think both can survive.”