Still for Gulabo Sitabo
Still for Gulabo Sitabo

The announcement of the direct digital release of seven films, including two major Bollywood movies, has split the industry with several multiplex chains saying they are alarmed and producers upset at the "unconstructive messaging" from the exhibitors.

The war of words, at a time the entertainment industry faces crippling revenue losses following the coronavirus-forced lockdown, was triggered by Amazon Prime Video acquiring Amitabh Bachchan-Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer ’Gulabo Sitabo’ and ’Shakuntala Devi’, with Vidya Balan in the title role of the mathematics whiz, for direct-to-digital premieres.

Five films from the South are also lined up for digital releases. Besides, there are reports that ’Laxxmi Bomb’, starring Akshay Kumar, may opt for a digital release along with Janhvi Kapoor's ’Gunjan Saxena’, another Bachchan-starrer ‘Jhund’ and ’Ludo’, starring Abhishek Bachchan and Rajkummar Rao.

PVR, the largest theatre chain in the country, said it is disappointed with the decision of some producers to opt for digital releases.

"Theatrical release is the best way for audiences to experience the labour and creative genius of our filmmakers. This has been so for decades and not just in India but globally," Kamal Gianchandani, CEO of PVR Pictures, told PTI. He said the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has caused an unfortunate shutdown of cinemas but expressed confidence that people will be back to cinemas once the situation returns to normal. He said exhibitors have asked producers to "hold back their film's release till cinemas reopened".

After Shoojit Sircar announced that his ’Gulabo Sitabo‘ was headed to Amazon, theatre chain INOX expressed "extreme displeasure" and disappointment, saying the production house's decision to deviate from first releasing the film in theatres was "alarming and disconcerting". It also called for "retributive measures".

"In these troubled times, it is disturbing to see one of the partners not interested in continuing the mutually beneficial relationship, especially when the need of the hour is to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, and bring the film industry back to its vibrant best," the chain said in a statement on Thursday, labelling the producers "fair weather" friends.

The Producers Guild of India came up with an equally scathing response, saying it is "disappointing to see abrasive and unconstructive messaging".

Releasing movies in theatres Is not an option in the near future as for the business to do well, cinema screens everywhere, including in the overseas markets should be operational, it said on Friday.

And once cinemas are back, the backlog of movies would be a concern. "In addition to this, there will be a huge backlog of releases, and the smaller and medium scale films especially will suffer from sub-optimal showcasing in addition to all the concerns above." The Guild said given these factors, it is only natural that producers will seek out all avenues available to recover their investment.

Some experts are of the view that small or medium budget films releasing on OTT platforms won't do much harm to the overall financial growth of the industry. "Had these films seen a theatrical release, 'Shakuntala Devi' could have done Rs 50 crore or little more, 'Gulabo Sitabo' could have done Rs 70-80 crore. This is keeping in mind Ayushmann's highest grossing film earns Rs 130 crore and on an average one expects his films to do a business of Rs 70 to 80 crore from him," an industry insider told PTI.

Trade analyst Amul Mohan said the announcement is not shocking but a practical move given the situation.

"When everything was normal before COVID-19 films were released on OTT — 'Love Per Square Foot', and 'Drive' — that time multiplexes didn't say anything. One can't be selective in their outrage," Mohan told PTI. Sensing trouble ahead, the Multiplex Association of India (MAI) earlier this month issued a statement appealing to studios, producers and artistes to support the cinema exhibition sector by withholding the release of their films.

"The entire industry needs to stand by each other. It (films releasing on OTT) is the loss of opportunity. It is not an absolute loss. We hope filmmakers stick to theatre format." Multiplex chain Carnival Cinemas said it understands the financial stress of the producers.

"In this time of uncertainty some producers have decided to release their content directly on OTT. It is within their rights to decide. We will not release those movies in theatres," said Carnival Cinemas CEO Mohan Umrotkar.

"There is money invested, there maybe interest (on it), someone wants to minimise the loss and if they are in a position to monetise it, we can't stop them. The situation is such that you cannot blame anyone," Umrotkar told PTI. Some single screen owners, who have faced competition from multiplexes, also said they understand the dilemma of producers. "We would like to have all films release in theatres but one can't stop anyone. Everyone is facing financial crises today... "We recently had a word with Akshay Kumar to not release his films on OTT. He has told us that 'Sooryavanshi' will release in theatres but 'Laxxmi Bomb' might follow the digital route. We are yet to get in touch with other top actors including Salman," Manoj Desai, executive director of G7 Multiplex and Maratha Mandir, told PTI.

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