Like 2020, this year too seems to be a washout as far as big theatre releases in Hindi are concerned. Thus, B-Town stars seem to be open to a digital release. In South India, however, there seems to be a very mixed response to releasing films on OTT.
Salman Khan’s ‘Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai’ was all set to release on Eid 2020 on the big screen but due to the unforeseen corona pandemic and closure of theatres, the Bollywood star opted for a simultaneous release on DTH and OTT (Zee) in India with a theatrical release overseas. Many hailed him for his decision given that his movies are box office gold in India. But he is not the first Hindi movie star to release his film digitally. Along with 2020, 2021 seems to be a washout as far as big theatre releases in Hindi are concerned. Thus, B-Town stars seem to be open to a digital release.
In South India, however, there seems to be a very mixed response to releasing films on OTT – especially among male stars. Kollywood star Suriya’s film ‘Soorarai Pottru’ released on Amazon Prime in November 2020 and was met with some opposition from exhibitors given that they were losing out on a star’s film which would have earned them definite profits. Dhanush’s ‘Jagame Thanthiram’ which was to release in theatres in August 2020 is now set to premiere on Netflix this month and the star has been upset about the producer’s decision to release it online. Like Vijay, whose ‘Master’ released in theatres in January 2021, Dhanush made sure that his film ‘Karnan’ released in theatres in April this year. Both the movies were blockbusters and reinforced the belief that theatres are the way to go far as big hero films were concerned. No other big Tamil star’s film has made its way to a digital premiere as of now. In Tollywood, some smaller Telugu films did see a digital release while in Malayalam, films starring top heroes like Mohanlal, Fahadh Faasil, Tovino Thomas and Prithviraj, have made their way to a digital release successfully.
There are numerous factors as to why top heroes in Tamil and Telugu are not keen on a direct-to-digital release. Firstly, the release of their films in theatres are big money spinners and no OTT platform can match the collections which they would see from the big screen. Some film budgets cross Rs 100 crores and given that the producer looks to make a profit, the expected price is too exorbitant for OTT platforms.
Secondly, given that most heroes star in and release one film a year, the opportunity for their fans – who hero-worship their stars – to come and see them on the silverscreen is a big miss. The release of their flick on the big screen, catching the first day, first show (FDFS) and the euphoria associated with it is a ritual in itself. The FDFS experience is something the masses clamour for especially when it comes to top heroes like Rajinikanth or Vijay or Ajith. The masses are the main market for these stars and it is they who make these heroes stars and shape their success story. As we have also seen, some of these stars step into politics thanks to their lakhs of fans and disappointing them is seen as a clear no-no. Thus, Tamil Nadu continues to be the primary market for Tamil cinema as are Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for Telugu cinema. Even though theatres have now opened up abroad, the revenues they generate still don’t compare to the revenues generated by the Indian market for mass hero films.
Thirdly, access to OTT platforms and opting for subscription-based platforms is still very urban-centric in India. Given that the masses reside in small towns and rural areas, the film is unlikely to reach them (unless piracy kicks in). And this is a big concern for the star as well as the producer.
When it comes to Malayalam cinema, many films are made on much smaller budgets as compared to Tamil films with stars and producers seem to bag lucrative deals with digital platforms. The Malayalam film industry is looking at expanding its overseas market (apart from the traditional UAE-GCC market) into countries like the USA and Europe. And these digital platforms are the best way of rapidly reaching out to a global audience at this point in time.
As of now, very few direct-to-digital film releases have been a success story. According to a report by Elara Capital, less than 38% of films directly released on OTT platforms have seen good ratings. Given this scenario, the point that mass hero films need to be released in theatres with a subsequent satellite and OTT release seems to be reiterated yet again. Thus, heroes who wish to see a theatrical release of their films first seem to be on the right path to continue their success story.