Since the lockdown, which started on March 24, due to the coronavirus pandemic, all theatres have remained shut. Entertainment for the audience has moved online and OTT platforms have been ruling the roost with various films releasing directly on the digital medium. Meanwhile, theatre owners have been fretting over the loss of business and the tussle between Indian producers and those in the theatre business seemed to be escalating. Now, despite the large numbers of those affected by Covid-19, the government of India has given permission for theatres to re-open from October 15 with mandatory SOPs in place. However, each state is devising its own strategy based on Covid numbers and while the Indian film industry is buoyant, they realise there is a long way to go before things normalise.

“We welcome the government’s decision to open up the cinema and entertainment industry. This move will bring immense relief to scores of employees across the sector which has been one of the worst hit, through this pandemic,” says Ashish Saksena, COO – Cinemas, BookMyShow.  “We have been closely working with all our partners across the cinema industry to build measures for a safe and healthy movie viewing experience and are thrilled to welcome audiences back to the silver screens.”

While there is a sense of relief in the Indian film industry that movies can finally be released on screen and the audiences can return to theatres, there are some pertinent questions – how many states will allow theatres to re-open now, whether big films will release and will the audience head back to the theatres in the current situation. Producers are optimistic about the situation and believe that the silverscreen will always be the first choice for audiences when it comes to entertainment and cinema. Shikha Kapur, COO, Eros Motion Pictures, states, “The opening of theatres is a relief for studios and theatre owners while once again offering audiences the unparalleled experience of watching movies on big screens. We are looking forward to entertaining audiences in this era of the ‘new normal’. I am sure that the cinema going audience is excited to return to theatres and will follow all protocols before venturing into a theatre. Cinema is and will always continue to remain an expression of creativity and imagination and we look forward to fostering a stronger bond with our audiences.”

Big Eid releases like Salman Khan’s ‘Radhe’ were postponed due to the pandemic but Diwali is just around the corner and the festival has always seen big film releases. This year, Akshay Kumar’s ‘Laxmmi Bomb’ is releasing digitally on Disney + Hotstar for Diwali in India. Given that the government is allowing only 50% occupancy in theatres, there is also apprehension among producers about whether their films will make any money on release and many are reportedly adopting a wait-and-watch approach at this point.

Hollywood has pushed release dates for many of its big films though Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ and Disney’s ‘Mulan’ released recently in theatres and on OTT respectively. Warner Brothers has issued new release dates for ‘The Matrix 4’ (Dec 2021), ‘The Flash’ (Nov 2022), ‘The Batman’ (March 2022) and ‘Dune’ (Oct 2021). As of now, ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ is set for a release in late 2021 (Dec), while ‘Black Widow’ is eyeing a new release date. Given that Hollywood studios are being cautious, producers of big budget films here are also adopting a similar strategy.

“Every stakeholder across the film value chain is aware that Akshay Kumar’s ‘Suryavanshi’ and  Ranveer Singh’s ’83’ are scouting for that “optimal” release day. Then there is Vijay’s ‘Master’ in Tamil and similar big star movies across all Indian languages. There will always be small to medium budget films, which have not done an OTT deal yet. So there are enough films in india. Hollywood products will be low in supply. Big films will wait for some semblance of normal consumer behaviour to revert before they come in,” says producer Sunir Kheterpal, CEO, Azure Entertainment.

The shutdown of theatres pushed many films – big and small – directly to OTT, so would this scenario change now? “It will be a function of how deals have been structured. May of these deals may have a dual structure in place keeping in mind theatres may open. They may choose to take the theatrical window option. It all depends on when cinemas across India are open and how the film exhibition industry attracts audiences before normalcy sets in. Without cinemas opening in Maharashtra, AP / Telangana and Tamil Nadu, it is just a welcome sign possibly for the cinemas to restart but no big films will release unless these states open,” states Kheterpal.

Adds Kapur, “The pandemic has led to a surge of content consumption across genres and platforms and this is a hugely encouraging indicator for content creators and providers. While Eros Now, continues to engage online video streaming audience with captivating content, the move to reopen theatres enables us to cater to the theatre-going audience and continue the company’s growth momentum.”

The southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry are all set to reopen theatres post October 15. However, in Tamil Nadu while the state government is ready to announce opening of theatres, producers are withholding content and using this opportunity to sort out issues that have been long-pending like the abolishing of the virtual print fee (VPF). They are also demanding a share of the online booking charges, in-screen advertising and higher ratio of box office collections. Thus, the sanction to open theatres has clearly not brought relief to both producers and theatre owners in Tamil Nadu.

Producers are also clear that there’s nothing that can replace the cinema experience and that it’s just a matter of time. “For the producing community, there is another window which will open up and that would be to produce movies which will be commissioned by numerous OTT platforms across India – regional as well as Hindi. There is also going to be a disruption on release windows. The producers and film exhibition industry will need to collaborate on release windows, which can help both segments rather than cannibalise each others’ business model causing irreparable damage,” asserts Kheterpal.