The great will-they won’t-they of Indian films releasing directly on streaming services amid the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to unravel, at least in South India. Telugu film Amrutharamam will release tomorrow on Zee5, and Tamil film Ponmagal Vandhal will release on Amazon Prime Video, the films’ producers confirmed on Twitter. The latter’s producer, Suriya, faced immediate backlash. In a statement, R Panneerselvam, the President of the Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association, announced that the association’s members would not release any film by Suriya (the association seemed to walk back its statement later in the day).
The anxiety for big screens is real. Movies have always been produced with release schedules of other studios in mind, and India has notoriously few screens. On top of this, the OTT release window in India is much shorter than it is in the US. In 2017, I wrote about how, particularly after Amazon Prime Video’s entry into India, movies started releasing online within a month of their big screen releases. Last year, Jio announced (somewhat optimistically) that it would stream movies to JioFiber customers the same day a movie releases, something that multiplex chains did not take kindly to.
All theatres and multiplexes have a months-long hole in their revenues, at least. Films that were scheduled to come out during this period releasing on streaming services would directly impact the film exhibition business’s ability to bounce back to its pre-lockdown numbers. Remember that the film industry produces on a release schedule, not like streaming services like Netflix, whose entire 2020 release slate is still scheduled to come out. The film exhibition business works on volume, and that business is likely to suffer from a leaky release pipeline.
Regardless of the size of the potential impact of direct-to-digital releases, theatre and multiplex owners have never been ones to take chances. In 2013, Kamal Haasan announced that his film Vishwaroopam would release on pay-per-view channels on DTH along with the theatrical release. After pressure from exhibitors, he cancelled the simultaneous release (though advertising for the simultaneous release had already gone out).