Expert Speak: The Second Wave of OTT-Theater dynamic – what can we expect?

Ott theatre dynamics

A lot has been said about the OTT v/s theater debate with the answer more often than not being coexistence. But what to expect in this ‘Coexistence’, where are the viewers & what do they want? We take a look at this second wave of the OTT-theater dynamic.

When Salman Khan starrer ‘Radhe’ opted for a hybrid release, it paved way for a new distribution model for the helmers, exhibitors, and the movie-making economy. Amidst the recurring lockdown extensions, the film got released in minimal cinema but Zee claimed that it garnered about 4.2 million views across online and DTH platforms on its opening day.

On the sideline of movie theatres waiting to reopen, OTT has seen a revolution’- Social Samosa talks to the industry analyzing the impact of COVID-19 overall and now the second wave on the entertainment distribution industry, as the definition of ‘Silver Screen’ changes.

The Second Wave of Cinema

Lockdowns have negatively impacted the theatre business as curtailed operations deter genuine movie-goers in addition to the losses incurred with the cinema halls being out of function for weeks. One of the long-term impacts of the pandemic has been altered consumer behavior as everything is first measured in essential and non-essential.

Gautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Ltd asserts that this would also put into motion a downward spiraling effect on cinema that could derail the recovery of the segment.  “With Zero revenues in 8 months and thereafter meager revenues in the last 5 months, the cinema exhibition industry is now facing possible bankruptcies. The cinema exhibition sector is a critical part of the functioning film industry, directly employing lakhs of people and contributing to indirect employment of millions of people.”

He opines that lockdowns are detrimental and lead to severe and irreversible consequences for the cinema exhibition sector.

“The consumer behavior that we witnessed across the country in the last 2 months was phenomenal and pretty similar to the pre-COVID days in Southern markets, which gives us the confidence required for a drastic turnaround. Consumers had started turning up in huge numbers for new movies and found themselves extremely comfortable in the new operating protocols” feels Saurabh Varma, Chief Marketing Officer – INOX Leisure Ltd.

Performances of movies like Roohi and Godzilla Vs Kong showed that audiences are willing to turn up in big numbers for new and good quality content, even after an elongated break.

For Siddharth Anand Kumar, Vice President – Films & Events at Saregama India Ltd, the long-term impact on the film production remains the same as last year. “Till the situation becomes normal and theatres open up fully, audiences won’t return to theatres. The pace will be slow, but work is on,” he says.

Yoodlee Films on the other hand claims to be constantly foraging through scripts to bring interesting stories to its consumers. During lockdown last year, it had released two major films on Netflix.

Putting the spotlight on the much-awaited box office battle at the cinemas, Gautam Jain, Partner, Ormax media affirms that as release dates of big films get postponed, it will lead to multiple clash situations on key dates in the 2nd half of the year.

“Big-ticket films will still try to avoid a direct-to-OTT release. As seen in the South Market, audiences are ready to come back to theatres for good films irrespective of their scale and star cast,” highlights Jain.

Private Screenings the Future?

While we can all agree that the big-screen cinema experience is unparalleled, a huge chunk of the population is driven towards online video platforms. In such times, how are movie exhibitors creating viewer engagement?

During the time when new movie content wasn’t coming in, corporates and small-medium businesses used cinema premises to create premium experiences for company events. This helped get more audience to the theatres for private events including screening, informs Dutta.

They have been able to evolve and package F&B/Movie/theatre offerings for all types of events permissible within guidelines. PVR hosted a Private screening movie of the viewer’s choice and even a private viewing of wedding films.    

Dutta adds “We are analyzing past data – customer relationship management inputs, likes and dislikes of our customers and taking this time to prepare ourselves to deliver a good experience. We have been running targeted campaigns for them and are selling gift cards to drive  footfalls.”

On a near-term basis, while the core experience of giant screen entertainment would remain the same, there will be a lot of emphasis on warmth, care, and hygiene.

“We are optimistic about our revamped F&B roadmap, which is underlined with innovations including making our food available on online food ordering platforms and range expansion. Private Screenings continue to do well across the country and helping us bring audiences to our cinemas. We will continue to innovate with Alternate Content and critical brand alliances to offer unique experiences to our consumers,” shares Varma.

Social Media to the Rescue

Against common perception, INOX ended up gaining followers on Twitter and Instagram, during the last 12 months. Describing its social media presence as agile, positive, relevant, and transparent, with an improved sense of timing- for INO, the lockdown provided the team with more time in hand to look at its strategies closely and build upon the company’s strengths.  

“In the current times, how a brand behaves on its social media platforms largely defines its reputation and attitude,” quips Varma. 

The multiplex chains’ content on social media is largely divided into posts pertaining to new releases and posts aimed at strengthening the brand. In the absence of new movie releases, brands kept the engagement high with other movie-centric posts like trivia, birthday wishes, and throwbacks.

“We also kept engaging with our audiences with news updates with spokespeople talking about the organization’s approach to the COVID situation, and how we planned to overcome it. Most importantly, our social media handles were extremely helpful in communicating the new operating procedures to our audiences, through visuals and videos,” highlights Varma.

On the other hand, Dutta shares, “PVR will have more films screened due to the huge backlog of movies awaiting releases and there’s already a high enthusiasm and engagement on our social media channels with some of the forthcoming movies coming our way after lockdown.”

PVR has kept its social media channels active and website updated to keep the customers informed on the latest happenings – new movies including marquee titles that PVR Pictures, the motion picture arm brings out, Oscars, and other prestigious awards.

The Second Wave of OTT

For the OTT players, the crisis turned into an opportunity due to factors such as increased time at home, lack of live content, and overall internet penetration. The basic definition of Over the Top changed, as it became the first screen for many – including brands and production houses.

Business of Content

According to Divya Dixit, SVP, Revenue, and Marketing, ALTBalaji, content is now the decision-maker by all means. When it comes to OTT platforms, it is personalized and provides an opportunity for wider focused distribution.

“The apprehensions among filmmakers are no more surprising,” she observes. “To see certain films opting for the OTT route to reach out to the appropriate target audience is a major milestone for the OTT medium. Going out to mingle and unwind by watching movies are still ingrained in our country’s communal diaspora, and time shall play witness to how the audience embraces this new normal.”

With the ongoing lockdown, Zubin Dubash, COO-Digital, Shemaroo thinks that the production companies will continue using OTT platforms to premiere new films.

He briefed, “Even regional films are following the same trend to leverage the vast reach of the OTT platforms. Direct to digital/OTT releases are going to be trendsetters in the next foreseeable future. Having said that people would still love to go to theatres once things get back to normal to watch a big movie release as the big screen experience is something that cannot be replaced.”

Also Read: #ExpertOpinion: Do theaters feel the heat of the OTT wave?

OTT & Social Media

Last year, Shemaroo claims to have garnered more than 140 million impressions on social media along with one million+ engagements for its campaign to celebrate the 50 million mark on the Shemaroo FilmiGaane YouTube channel.

“By understanding the audience’s love for music, especially evergreen tracks, we cashed in on the same to execute a campaign. It did bring us excellent numbers and impressions, proving that viewers from all age groups love Shemaroo as a brand,” shares Dubash.

Dixit adds here, “Influencers outreach is another essential tool of our strategy where they act as a medium to communicate our message to the audience.”

OTT v/s Theatre OR OTT & Theatre?

Dixit elaborates, “From small films with less saleable names to experimental films, OTT provides a platform to one and all. Content-wise, too, OTT platforms are coming out with non-stereotypical out-of-the-box subjects making film producers review and rethink their storytelling.”

That said, the theatrical business has always co-existed with multiple other platforms, digital platforms are no exception. What happened during the period while cinemas were shut for 8 months and even now will need to be categorized as filmmakers’ response to exceptional circumstances.

“Since a performance of a movie is unpredictable, it makes sense for the OTT players to wait for the theatrical release to get over to gauge the response. These are unprecedented times and though we are encouraged by the announcement of release dates made by producers/distributors on their titles, we also respect the decision of those who are adopting a wait and watch policy,” explains Dutta.

Every producer has the right to decide what is best for their film. There are several dependencies involved in each film and whatever is decided should be in the best commercial interest of the film. Kumar says each to his own – simply because each producer and content creator is fighting this battle on their own terms.

Meanwhile, when asked about his thoughts on the OTT vs Theatre’s ongoing debate, Varma asserts that, first of all, we have to understand the difference in the type of content consumed by the audiences in cinemas and on the OTT platforms.

According to him, content like docu-dramas, documentaries, and old movies are doing phenomenally well, whereas cinemas are still a preferred way to enjoy fresh new movies, and that’s the reason both the channels have been not just coexisting but doing well in our country.

“We have to understand that the trend of a few movies releasing on OTT is purely a result of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, and not due to the cinemas’ incapability to draw crowds. So, once the pandemic subsides, vaccines become available, the content flow gets back to normal, we believe that the movie ecosystem would adapt itself back to the age-old windowing and distribution patterns,” he concludes.