Antony and Ann: Writing on the wall
What is common to Antony Perumbavoor and Ann Sarnoff? Well, both run film production companies notwithstanding the differences in size and spread. If Antony runs the Aashirvad Cinemas which exclusively produces Mohanlal films in Malayalam, Sarnoff is the CEO of Warner Bros, one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. What brings them together further? Their decision to embrace the OTT streaming platforms henceforth to release their films. In consequence, both Antony and Ann have been attacked by various quarters of their respective industries. They are accused of abandoning cinema’s traditional and long trusted spouse -the theatres- for the younger damsel in town, the OTT. Antony recently announced that the Rs 100 crore “Marakkar: Arabikkadalinte Simham”, directed by Priyadarshan waiting for release since two years, would be premiered on the OTT. This was against the industry convention to screen every film only in theatres for the first 42 days and all hell broke loose. Sarnoff dropped a bombshell in Hollywood last December when she announced that all of Warner Bros 2021 films would be premiered on their new streaming service -HBO Max- and theatres simultaneously. Although Antony and Ann come from two distant ends of global cinema, the fact that they think alike shows they could well be on the right track. It is a different matter that Antony, unlike Ann, finally retracted his decision under pressure from even the state government. But it could be just a matter of time before Antony -and his present critics too- to go the whole way to OTT notwithstanding all the attendant issues resulting from every technological disruption.
Obviously, both Ann and Antony were driven by the crippling impact of the Covid on the universal film industry. On one side was the long closure of theatres and on the other was the increasing popularity of OTT. The decision has been castigated as the final nail in the coffin of the industry rendering theatres unviable forever with viewers never returning to the big screen. Leading the attack on Warner was none less than top British-American director Christopher Nolan who warned the move would deprive cinema of large audiences for ever. Interestingly, half of Nolan’s 12 films including Insomnia, Inception, The Dark Knight, Tenet etc were made by Warner.
But Sarnoff explained; “None wants films to be back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the life blood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theatres would be running on reduced capacity.” According to a report, global film industry stood to lose US$ 5 billion in the past two years of pandemic.
The Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK) states none of its members would screen Marakkar -Malayalam’s costliest film- if it was released in OTT. According to FEUOK, Antony’s decision was despite its offer to guarantee 500 screens and Rs 15 crore as a minimum guarantee for Marakkar’s theatrical release. Antony denied this saying only less than 100 theatres were offered to him.
Marakkar was reportedly sold to Amazon Prime Video for around Rs 90 crores which would be the costliest transaction ever in Malayalam. Antony had said he would release 4 more Mohanlal starrers on OTT. He had released his Drishyam 2 too on Prime Video in January this year. Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation’s Liberty Basheer had slammed the decision then as he said Drishyam 2’s theatrical release would have rejuvenated the industry. Interestingly, Basheer has since realised the futility of his opposition and has now opposed FEUOK’s boycott of Marakkar.
The pandemic’s prolonged presence in Kerala has made more than 75 films rot in cans with theatres made to wait till this October to reopen.
The writing on the wall is loud and clear. Film viewing habits across the world have changed like never before. Viewers are unlikely to return to the old days even after the pandemic blows over. Except perhaps for the connoisseurs, viewing on OTT has proved much more comfortable to most viewers and much cheaper too. Viewing cinema in the comfort of home, whenever they wanted, in part or full, are no minor luxuries. Given the soaring ticket rates and other assorted expenses in multiplexes, turning to OTT appears wiser moneywise too. An OTT’s monthly subscription which is usable for 4-5 members would be lesser than the price of a single multiplex ticket along with a large popcorn bucket. Increasing spread and decreasing costs of online connectivity, data consumption, spread of inexpensive smartphones, etc have made the shift even quicker. Consequently, OTT had been turning increasingly popular even since the pre-Covid times.
Even before the pandemic struck, with multiplexes mushrooming even in villages, single screens were getting closed increasingly across the world. The closing down of Thrissur’s iconic 81-year-old Sapna Theatre (formerly Ramavarma Theatre) at Swaraj Round in June 2020 to pave way for a shopping mall turned many old eyes teary. The number of theatres in Kerala has fallen from 1600 in the 1990s to around 600 including 200-odd multiplexes. As per a 2020 report, India had around 9,527 screens out of which around 6300 were single-screens and 3,200, multiplexes. Around 1,000 screens had closed permanently in 2020. According to estimates, Indian cinema industry’s drop in theatrical revenues was about Rs 12000 crore in 2020-21. Malayalam cinema’s loss is reportedly Rs 900 crore with many major productions like Marakkar, Churuli, Thuramughom, Kuruthi, Aadujeevitham, Kurup, etc not being released. At the same time, the films released on OTT platforms that won the most national attention during the pandemic period too were from Malayalam like Joji, Great Indian Kitchen, C U Soon, etc.
So, how would the cinema industry look post-Covid? To answer it, let's see how the global film industry had fared after the previous major global epidemic -the Spanish Flu. Like Covid, the Spanish Flu too had ravaged the global film industry with thousands of theatres closed and productions not released. Observers called it “the beginning of the end” for cinema. But once the pandemic came under control after two years (global toll of 50 million), the industry did spring back, mainly on account of convergence and consolidation. Big studios are up, small and independent studios turned into behemoths like Paramount, MGM, etc. Though it has brought in money to big studios, it also led to increased monopolization with the vanishing of independent and small producers. Aesthetically, what followed the flu-ban was not much to write about with a growing trend towards big-budget, formula stuff dominating the industry.
Will we see a resurgence this time too? Not necessarily. For, small screens were non-existent during the 1920s making the masses return to the big screen. Nevertheless, the latest news is not too depressing to the industry. The huge rush seen at re-opened cinemas in big cities during this Diwali weekend was astounding. The three-day box office collection for Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi, Rajinikant’s Annaatthe (Tamil), Marvel’s superhero epic Eternals, and Paani Ch Madhaani (Punjabi) was over Rs150 crore. In a week’s time, both Sooryavamshi and Annatthe joined the Rs 100 crore club. Sadly, no such good news awaited the Malayalam industry during the first week with no interesting film reaching the reopened cinemas yet.
There is more cheering news. The global media & entertainment industry is projected to rebound strongly and grow by more than a quarter by 2025 according to a new report from the global consulting firm PwC. And leading this rebound would be the cinema industry.
So what would be the most likely post-pandemic scenario in the film industry across the world? The cohabitation of both the traditional and the new, in all sectors. Both the worlds are here to stay.