Andy Forssell, the general manager of HBO Max, believes that it is important for the company to "own the customer".
The recent Bollywood venture, Shershaah, starring Sidharth Malhotra and Kiara Advani has become the most-liked direct-to-OTT (over the top) platform Hindi film of all times, according to Ormax Media, a media consulting firm.
Shershaah, which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is produced by Dharma Productions, with Shabbir Boxwala as the co-producer.
“They (OTTs) have been a blessing in disguise at least for the period when theatres were shut and many producers who were not able to hold on to a film for various reasons. It was important to find an outlet to show a film,” Apoorva Mehta, CEO, Dharma productions, told Moneycontrol.
He added that due to the disruptions caused by Coronavirus, many producers had sets standing for months.
“With regards to holding (a film for release), there was no choice. There was no avenue to release content. That way, we are lucky that OTTs have blossomed,” said Mehta.
Boxwala concurs. While every producer who plans a film dreams its release in theatres, in the last one year, it has been a challenge to release movies in cinemas.
“The outcome is known about the films that have been released in theatres. So currently, it is difficult for a producer to decide to go to OTTs or the theatres. However, with OTT platforms coming and the result which Shershaah has given, it has given producers confidence of releasing films on OTT platforms. It also tells us that if the content is good, it will receive same kind of response like a theatrical release,” said Boxwala.
In fact, he said “we would not have had so much reach with a theatrical release (for Shershaah).”
Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head, Content, Amazon Prime Video India, pointed out that Shershaah has been the most watched film on Amazon Prime Video in India ever.
“It’s getting traction from various parts of the world. Besides the (usual) large markets for Indian films, like the US and Canada, markets like Australia, Malaysia, Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, are showing interest,” he said.
The film has been streamed in over 4,100 Indian towns and cities as well as in 210 countries around the world.
Subramaniam said that the platform has done greater than theatrical release for the film, both in terms of marketing and reach.
OTTs banking on direct-to digital releases
“During the pandemic, our original production series was disrupted. We then had a dialogue with production companies for allowing us to be the home theatre as the theatrical situation was what it continues be now. Customers gave us strong response because they were frustrated due to no access to new content. This helped us drive acquisitions and high engagement,” he said.
In an earlier interview, Ormax Media's CEO, Shailesh Kapoor, had pointed out that with the Indian OTT market growing at about 25-30 percent per annum, platforms are looking at direct-to-OTT releases as a way of building a subscriber base over time and ensuring that their current subscribers don't lapse.
“Unlike theatrical, no one film in isolation can achieve these objectives. Hence, platforms that are investing in films over time are likely to benefit over a period of two to three years," he had said.
Also, last year when the ‘digital-first strategy’ for films had picked up pace due to the shutting down of theatres, because of Coronavirus-led lockdown, experts had estimated that video- streaming platforms had added 4-5 million new subscribers in the overall OTT space.
This is why experts say that investing in films, especially direct-to-digital releases, is a good strategy.
For Amazon Prime Video, which has 18 million subscription video on-demand (SVOD) subscribers, as of June 2021, direct-to-digital releases has meant stronger penetration of content.
Its VOD subscribers are likely to go up to 21.8 million by the end of December this year.
“We have leapfrogged to southern regional cinema – from Soorarai Pottru to (new venture) Tuck Jagadish. And for all these regional films, 50 percent viewership has come from outside the original state. There are viewers for a Malayalam film coming from various parts of North India, which would not have been possible (with a theatrical release) because theatrical distribution is so challenged,” said Subramaniam.
Tension with theatrical releases
Currently, when it comes to challenges in terms of a theatrical release, Boxwala said “there’s a line-up of over 100 films ready for release. So it is going to be a bigger challenge to get the right date for the release.”
There is no denying that the pandemic has disrupted the theatrical distribution of a film, despite the staggered reopening with about 50 percent capacity. Also, a few major markets like Maharashtra (which contributes 25-30 percent to a Hindi film’s business) continues to remain shut.
A big-starrer Bollywood venture like Akshay Kumar’s Bell Bottom, in 13 days of its release, has been able to garner Rs 24.70 crore, which is significantly lower than the business of his previous ventures released in pre-COVID times.
OTT releases: pros and cons
However, there have been concerns even around OTT releases, both in terms of traction as well as viability.
Even big-starrer films Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii, which directly released on Disney+Hotstar, failed to impress viewers. That raised concerns over the high acquisition cost of direct-to-digital releases with no return on investment.
Yet, OTTs continue to invest in acquiring new films for direct digital releases as this content helps improve the brand value of streaming platforms.
Zee Entertainment's streaming platform ZEE5’s programming head, Aparna Acharekar, had earlier pointed out that films are big draw for the platform, which increases number of subscribers.
OTTs to release more movies directly
This year, it is estimated that there will be higher direct-to-digital releases as compared to 2020 in the medium to small movie segment.
After all, video OTTs acquiring new films continue to offer 80 percent higher premiums to small and medium-size ventures as compared to pre-COVID levels.
In addition, as a number of regional films produced in a year is 2x of Hindi films, more regional films are expected to go to OTTs directly this year.