First came the Corona Virus which swept the country by storm, then came the lockdowns which brought work to a standstill, making the country look like a village in a Bollywood film deserted for fear of dacoits, and then came the lockouts which permitted limited shooting of television serials but after following strict guidelines to prevent spread of the Virus infection. And the containment zones continued even after the lockouts.
Even as cinema halls and studios had been shut down, there were no orders relating to OTT (Over the Top) platforms and so they made hay while Covid 19 continued to shine mercilessly like the hot sun in summer. And with lack of a censorship procedure for OTTs, they also ventured into making films or serials based on some true incidents, albeit with due cinematic licence on making them attractive to users of mobile phones.
The Central Government had in July permitted shooting studios to open but under strict Standard Operating Procedures. This led to limited activity mostly relating to television channels which switched from repeats to fresh software from September onwards.
Some films that were held up in the middle of shooting in March 2020 have recommenced shooting with adequate precautions.
And while the Central Government has said cinema houses can open from mid-October with fifty per cent capacity subject to respective state governments, it remains to be seen if theatres will find it financially conducive.
Some cinema houses in Delhi have already announced they will comply with the Standard Operating Procedures issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
Apart from sanitization and cleaning of the screen after every show, representatives of two theatres who took mediapersons around to show their preparations also said they will not permit senior citizens over sixty years till the government considers the situation is safe. Sanitizers will be available in the theatre and viewers will have to wear masks.
When the lockdown came, several important films were in the final stages of shooting. And some were all set for release. Films like ‘Sir’, ‘Haathi mere saathi’, ‘Sooryavanshi’ and ‘Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar’ were in the final stints of shooting’.
Salman Khan’s ‘Radhe’ had been slated for an Eid release, Akshay Kumar starrer ‘Prithviraj’, ‘Brahm-astra’, a ‘Gangubai Kathiwali’ were held back.
Similarly Irfaan Khan’s “Angrezi Medium’ and Tapsee Pannu’s ‘Thappad’ had to be taken off the theatres from 12 March. But these films recovered a part of their revenue from TV movie channels who were thirsting for new films.
It is understood that the Indian film industry which was $ 183 billion strong has lost around Rs 1200 crore and is facing a decline of 45 to 50 per cent by the end of the year. Another estimate says the loss in box office is around $ 120 billion. The exhibition sector had come to a dead-stop since 18 March.
Advertising has suffered, hitting TV channels by around 25 to 30 per cent, and the print media by over 80 per cent. Most newspapers have gone online and so linked printing presses are suffering.
The TV movie channels also benefitted because they released some films that under the rules would have been made available to them only in 2021.
While multi-system operators and cable operators continued to work, they suffered as a large number of TV and Internet homes stopped their services to move to safe places in the country to escape the Covid infection.
As a result, manly LCOs and MSOs had to cut short their staff. With rampant infection, viewers resorted to online forms of payment to them or the direct-to-home service providers and therefore the commission earned by LCOs for collection of fee for TV connections came down.
But the biggest gainers were OTT platforms like ‘Hotstar’, ‘Netflix’ and ‘Amazon Prime’, who quietly resumed shooting in small sets or use of special effects. ‘Hotstar’ launched a series loosely based on some terrorist attacks, though they were carefully veiled while the others also concentrated on action films as social distancing could be better observed – unlike romantic films. Other OTTs linked to TV channels such as SonyLiv, Zee5, and Voot also made hay by launching new series or repeating popular programmes.
Interestingly, most OTTs have gained popularity for two reasons: TV channels are forced to repeat films as there are no new releases, and the OTTs have taken advantage of the absence of a censor certification to make films inspired by true incidents in recent years. These include Shakuntala Devi, Special Ops which covered various terrorist attacks in India, Gunjan Saxena, The Verdict: State vs Nanavati (whose case also inspired the making of the film Rustom with Akshay Kumar released late last year), Avrodh: The Siege Within (on the surgical strike which has also been made into a feature film), Kaafir, Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega, Delhi Crime (inspired by the Nirbhaya case), Harshad Mehta, and Rangbaaz among others.
Hotstar (now Disney+Hotstar) is presently leading the viewership among OTT platforms in India, owned by Star India as of July 2020, with around 300 million active users and over 350 million downloads. According to Hotstar’s India Watch Report 2018, 96% of watch time on Hotstar comes from videos longer than 20 minutes, while one–third of Hotstar subscribers watch television shows. In 2019, Hotstar began investing ₹120 crore in generating original content such as “Hotstar Specials”. 80% of the viewership on Hotstar comes from drama, movies and sports programmes.
American streaming service Netflix entered India in January 2016. In April 2017, it was registered as a limited liability partnership (LLP) and started commissioning content. It earned a net profit of ₹2020,000 (₹2.02 million) for fiscal year 2017. In fiscal year 2018, Netflix earned revenues of ₹580 million. According to Morgan Stanley Research, Netflix had the highest average watch time of more than 120 minutes but viewer counts of around 20 million in July 2018. As of 2018, Netflix has six million subscribers, of which 5 to 6% are paid members. Netflix has stated its intent to invest ₹600 Crore in the production of Indian original programming. In late 2018, Netflix bought 14,000 m of office space in Bandra–Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai as their head office. As of December 2018, Netflix has more than 40 employees in India.
Amazon Prime which like Hotstar charges lower subscription than Netflix gives tough competition. It also offers Amazon Prime Music. Amazon Prime Video was launched in 2016. The platform claims over 2,000 titles available including and shows. It has announced that it will invest ₹20 billion in creating original content in India. Besides English, Prime Video is available in six Indian languages as of December 2018. Amazon India launched Amazon Prime Music in February 2018.
SonyLIV, the OTT platform from Sony India, has 30 million viewers with an average watch time of around 60 minutes.
ZEE5 is an Indian video on demand service run by Essel Group via its subsidiary Zee Entertainment Enterprises. It was launched in India on 14 February 2018 with content in 12 languages. The ZEE5 mobile app is available on Web, Android, iOS, Smart TVs, among other devices.
nexGTv is the flagship product of Digivive Services Pvt Ltd. Its app offers users entertainment across multiple devices. It streams over 200 live TV channels and on-demand content, including movies, TV Shows and videos. In 2015, nexGTv launched India’s first mobile talent discovery platform, called “SPOTLight”, with director Imtiaz Ali. In 2016 nexGTV, launched its first original series ‘’Ïn My City” with Priyanka Chopra making her mobile series debut.
Olly Plus was launched in 2020 by Sk Line Production and is Odisha’s new online Odia OTT platform where you can enjoy unlimited Odia Videos, Albums, Movies, Comedy Videos, Short Films, Audio Storys and Romantic videos on the go. Olly Plus has passionate plans to make the Cinema of Odisha touch a new height. Hope it will make its dearest dream of making cinema & Short Films globalized come true!
Eros Now, an OTT platform launched by Eros International, has the most content among the OTT providers in India, including over 11,000 films, 100,000 music albums & tracks, and 100 TV shows. Eros Now was named as ‘Best OTT Platform of the Year 2019’ at the British Asian Media Awards. It claims 128 million registered users and 13 million paying subscribers as of February 2019.
Reliance Jio–owned JioCinema and JioTV, and Times Group–owned MX Player are other OTT service providers in India.
The direct-to-home platform TataSky helped this move by introducing Binge, a remote that can show the OTTs on the TV screen.
Although limited shooting has resumed after following guidelines issued to prevent spread of Covid 19, the biggest losers of the last six months have been the daily wagers who numbered over 50,000. Most will be back now with shooting having commenced, many had left for their home towns. But no steps were taken to relieve their suffering during these six months and it is doubtful that they will be compensated in any way. I think the daily wagers should be given some money for the lost period, and the state government can arrange for this.
While some guidelines have been issued by the film industry after the Uddhav Thackeray gave a thumbs-up to the TV industry on 27 May and film industry getting indications of resumption by mid-July, these are more likely to be rejected as impractical.
But before one considers these guidelines, there is need to look ahead. With wearing of masks and gloves and more importantly social distancing, what happens to the action (fight) and romantic scenes? Is the kiss, which was finally allowed in the eighties after a lot of resistance by the moralists and persistence, going to become a thing of the past? And what about children and senior citizens who are being advised to stay indoors? And can one conceive scenes without handshakes or hugs?
The way research is going, it appears doubtful that the Corona Virus will ever disappear though vaccination and medication may bring it under control. Being a VIP is not going to help, as seen in the example of Big B Amitabh Bachchan and his family.
And the film theatres appear to be unlikely to work with full capacity for some months to come because social distancing makes running a theatres unprofitable.
Some of the Guidelines issued by the film industry are:
- Washing of hands with liquid soaps before and after leaving a shooting floor and/or touching metal equipment;
- Designated people will only be allowed to open doors if any;
- Sharing of cigarettes should be stopped on set / offices / shooting floors;
- Artistes and others will have to come 45 minutes before shooting so that necessary precautions can be taken;
- At least four masks per crew member for a twelve-hour shits;
- Use of portable chairs and not benches;
- Arrangements for taking baths from time to time and arrangement of adequate soap and sanitizers;
- Crew members and artistes to bring home cooked food;
- Social distancing to be strictly observed;
- Swab tests by approved laboratories who should check sanitization of studios and shooting floors;
- Crew above sixty years of age should not be used for at least three months of the start of shooting, and artistes above 60 years should be judicially used and with all care;
- No person will be allowed as companion except for the hair or make-up assistants in the vanity van or room;
- Auditions should be held online;
- Shoe covers should be used while on the set;
- Encourage a work from home strategy wherever possible; and
- All on set must wear coloured bands to identify their roles.
As someone who has been writing on cinema for around fifty years, I would also suggest the presence or easy availability of an ambulance with ventilator and a doctor who should be able to decide whether any person on the set who feels unwell is not Covid infected-but I am aware that this is easier said than done. Also, I suggest proper sanitization and spray of insecticides of sets and closed venues (studio sets, cinema halls and press meet venues) should have adequate ventilation; and all on sets should carry their own water-less hand sanitizers. The cafeteria or canteen areas in cinema halls should only serve fresh snacks and all working there should wear masks, and gloves if not working with any heating equipment.
Till a reliable cure is found and the preventive vaccines are ready, one can only pray and hope that things will work out well.