The powerful Producers Guild of India, which represents the leading filmmakers in Bollywood, has condemned a statement by the Inox cinema chain that it will take “retributive measures” against those who have chosen to bypass conventional theatrical distribution and strike direct deals with streamers.
Inox released its statement on Thursday, after the announcement that Amazon Prime Video will be premiering Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo on June 12. The film, starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan, was originally meant to be released in June. Its producers opted for digital distribution after cinemas across the country shut down because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Such acts, though isolated, vitiate the atmosphere of mutual partnership and paint these content producers as fair-weather friends rather than all-weather life-long partners,” said Inox, which has over 600 screens in India.
On Friday, Amazon Prime Video upped the ante and announced six more acquisitions, including the Vidya-Balan starrer Shakuntala Devi in Hindi and the Jyothika-led Pongamal Vandhal in Tamil. These will be released over the next few weeks.
In a lengthy statement, the Guild said that it was “disappointing to see abrasive and unconstructive messaging from some of our colleagues in the exhibition sector”. Such statements “do not lend themselves to a constructive or collaborative dialogue on the way forward for the industry”, especially since it is clear that cinemas will be shut for the next several weeks.
It is “only natural” that “producers who have already invested heavily in their films with theatrical revenue assumptions that are no longer feasible, will seek out all avenues available to recover their investment and to stay in business”, the Guild said.
The Guild explained that the impact of the pandemic, which led to a nation-wide lockdown on March 24, has been far-reaching: “Elaborate and expensive sets erected for under-production films have had to be taken down due to no date in sight for shoots to resume, with the sunk cost of the set and studio rentals to be borne completely by producers – as insurers refuse to cover the cost. Shoot schedules have had to be abruptly cancelled due to the lockdown, with huge cancellation charges being borne completely by the producer – again with no support from insurers. Interest costs are mounting on amounts raised to fund films, with producers having to bear this additional burden with no date in sight for cinemas to re-open; in fact with the knowledge that cinemas may be one of the last sectors of the service sector likely to be given permission to re-open.”
Cinemas are unlikely to open all at once, given the fact that some states with lucrative territories, such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, have a higher number of cases than other states. “Producers of Hindi movies will have to wait for cinemas across the entire country to re-open, as the economics of the business require an all-India release,” the Guild said. “Even when cinemas re-open across India, there is no guarantee that the overseas theatrical market (which is a key component of the economics of Hindi films) will have resumed.”
Whenever cinemas to do reopen, they will have to implement several safety protocols, such as underselling seats to ensure physical distancing.
The Guild urged against an “adversarial stance”, claiming that “a theatrical release will always be the preference for movies that were conceptualised as cinematic experiences”. The Guild added, “For producers to continue to keep producing the movies that light up our cinema screens, they need to continue to be in business in the first place.”
PVR Cinemas, which has 800 screens in India, put out a more measured reaction to the crisis that has swept over its business. “As PVR, we believe that the theatrical release is the best way for audiences to experience the labor and creative genius of our film makers,” Kamal Gianchandani, PVR Pictures CEO, said in a press statement. “We are likely to see demand by force on sustained basis, once we reopen. Needless to say, we are disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to streaming platform/s. We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopened. That said, this is not the first time films are being premiered on streaming platform/s. Cinema exhibition has regularly faced competition from new emerging distribution platforms over last many years, and it has continued to enjoy cine goers patronage and affinity.”