Let's not get OTT over cinemas

Updated: May 20, 2020, 11:20 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Such a thing as karma, and that's what's come to bite multiplexes, in the form of the unfortunate Coronavirus, that's it

A closed multiplex in Borivli after the state government declared the Coronavirus as an epidemic in Mumbai early in March. File pic
A closed multiplex in Borivli after the state government declared the Coronavirus as an epidemic in Mumbai early in March. File pic

Mayank ShekharWhat's this hoo-haa ('hauva' in Hindi) over OTT? Firstly, since you must know, OTT stands for Over The Top. India is the only country that uses such an STD-like term for Netflix and chill!

The acronym comes from telecom industry, that notified all services over and above what already comes with a mobile phone, as OTT. To quote my friend the media maven, Sameer Nair: Telecom and broadband players laid the cables and created [infrastructure for] the Internet. What got built over it is OTT.

Technically, WhatsApp, Pornhub, Facebook, TikTok, etc. are all OTTs. But we save that word essentially for (subscriber-based) video-streaming platforms Disney-Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Zee5 and the like. What are these, really? If you ask me, Video Cassette Players (VCPs) of the '80s — with a virtual video-rental library, running, replenishing round-the-clock. It's not a surprise that the first mover in this medium was Netflix, a DVD/video rental library.

The only difference is that apart from television, the chosen films/shows on an OTT can also play on your laptop, tablet or cellphone. The latter is where I watch practically everything now. Primarily because it perfectly meets the best projection standards for visual entertainment, referred to me by filmmaker Shyam Benegal, 85.

The eyes should be at a distance of two and half times the diagonal of the screen (that's usually the last third in the seating plan of a cinema audi — balcony seats of single-screen theatres, from back in the day!). Besides, no background score and dialogue sounded sharper and clearer than from a headphone making love to your mobile phone.

Quite a few months before the world shut down for corona, I asked the PVR founder Ajay Bijli, pioneer/baap of India's multiplex industry, if his business was in anyway getting affected by Netflix and chelas. He flatly said no.

Netflix (and the lot), he said, held an advantage over web-series or long-form entertainment — rather than yanking bums off seats for movies. Indian multiplex chains enjoyed the added benefit of operating in a domestic market with 1,500 films in multiple languages (besides English/Hollywood) to juggle between in a year, depending on geography.

You could pack multiplexes in Chennai and Chandni Chowk, with altogether separate content — something you couldn't quite do the same way in China, US; or Saudi Arabia, where PVR chose not to enter, despite Arabs opening the market.

But that's the bone that relatively 'offbeat'/independent/non-event filmmakers have forever had to pick with multiplexes. That, despite audis of varied sizes for all kinds of audiences, they would humiliate the 'indies', even non-blast-fest Hollywood, with terrible show-timings; if okay with allowing a screening, at all. Further, they would penalise audiences for trying out something novel, by charging them the same ticket-price as for a movie with thousand times its budget. No, Masaan, will never equal Marvel.

So, should one hate on multiplex chains? Only, if you consider them to be part of content business — only cast and crew of a film are. Multiplexes are in real-estate business — paying forward rent to malls. They're also in the hospitality plus food and beverage (F&B) business, although Bijli told me, F&B (with surely a 2,000 per cent mark-up), accounts for only 30 per cent of PVR's revenues.

What does that make a multiplex? A luxury product. Whatever happened to movies as mass entertainment? Multiplexes cornered the rich, posh. Satellite television, early 2000 onwards — insanely bidding for premiering blockbusters only a few weeks post-release — made the daily, real-estate cost of running massive, single-screen, multi-class halls, packing in audiences, week after week, with both cheap and high-priced tickets, economically unsustainable.

Hotstar/Amazon/Netflix is only the new, Indian satellite TV channel. Except, with massive global reach (and I haven't even mentioned Jio yet). Salman Khan strikes the same multi-crore, multiple-year deals with Amazon, the way he did with Star TV less than a decade ago.

Could movies go totally online as did music — replacing CDs/tapes? No, since those CD guys were in the plastic business, adding nothing new to (music) content. How do you find an urban replacement to movie-dates (the real 'Netflix and chill'), or outdoor rituals for generations classified as weekend/festival/couple/family/school/college/mass-bunk/post-exam/pre-exam, or just singles' night-outs, collectively laughing, crying, exclaiming, hissing, dissing — left to oneself in a dark hall, yet surrounded by light and sound, and warmth of crowds?

I suspect a reason Bijli's multiplex chain was doing fab business right before COVID-19 is because of, and not in spite of, the Indian economy tanking, even then. Theatrical entertainment as leisure/luxury tends to do better during recession, even depression, given limited purchasing power for more expensive options (high-end restaurants, travel, etc).

Why am I stating the semi-obvious? Because in times of corona, two major Bollywood movies (starring A-listers Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurana, Vidya Balan) decided to drop straight to OTT, instilling sharp fear that the very survival of theatres was at stake.

Well, that could be. If nobody shows up at public places altogether, because a super-spreading virus remains untamed, potentially lurking around the corner, with no cure in sight. In which case, scratch all of the above. Who cares about entertainment if our existence looks bleak!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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