Readers Write In #226: OTT platforms can revamp the fragile scaffold of Indian cinema

Posted on July 24, 2020

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(by Alex John)

So, what was once presumed to be extraordinary is gradually becoming the new-normal in the cine world, like the many other new-normals that came into being in this ill-starred year. I was under the impression that this will be pushed further by the procrastinative Indian system, but to my surprise, a lot more films are getting released into various OTT platforms than expected, mostly by necessity. There is, of course, lots of rants around this, mostly about the detriment of movie theaters (which is an age-old accusation, by the way), but the growth of OTT platforms justifies the saying that the art of cinema is like a stream that will find its way around impediments. Now, what’s in it for Indian cinema? Are our theaters going to suffer from the growth of movie streaming services? Well, probably not more than when they said theaters will suffer from the arrival of television, home media, and then the internet along with video sharing portals. And what do we gain from the OTT revolution which is underway? As a vast and bewilderingly diversified movie realm, I believe Indian cinema might undergo wide-ranging reforms with the advancement of OTT services in our country. How movie streaming services could revamp our movie infrastructure, is what I am going to do a bullet point analysis on. So, let’s begin with the list that includes but not limited to a handful of changes that movie streaming platforms could bring to our films.

• OTT services could lead to more accurate and consolidated box office data.

This is one of the many things our nation is infamous for – the lack of accurate commercial data. This is not about just cinema; our documentation system, in general, leaves a lot to be desired. This is why we get easily confused when some producer/distributor comes up and say a much celebrated blockbuster was actually a flop. Why can’t we have a Boxofficemojo of our own? I don’t buy the argument that the regionalization of Indian cinema stands in the way of maintaining a consolidated box office data system, because websites like BOM and Entgroup collect data from all over the world (except, obviously from a few places like India) quite efficiently, thereby nullifying any excuse that we might have in this case. We have a few movie portals those attempt on this, but are far from being meticulous as India’s labyrinthine movie distribution system doesn’t make it any easy on them. Enter this scene the streaming services, which can enhance our movie data system dramatically in case of films getting released into it, for 2 reasons; one, they don’t have to wade through the maze of our inept production-theater system for box office information; two, the OTT services usually release the number of footfalls (here what-eyefalls?) instead of monetary details, so we don’t get slapped by the baffling collection and tax matrices. This should ease down the process of getting our industry figures in line with the global box office data.

• Could loosen the stronghold of Indian cinema’s unpalatable triad.

This could be a problem that any movie industry around the globe deals with, but not on as big a scale as the film industries in India do, most probably. As mentioned in the point above, Indian cinema’s producer-distributor-exhibitor trio is often a deplorable combo, especially in south

India, Now, am I going too far with this? I don’t think so. Or see how many times various movie industries of India have been plunged into unwarranted halts owing to their one-upmanship in the last, say, ten years? I know actors are involved often in these issues, but we know where this starts from, mostly (could somebody tell me why distributors ask stars to compensate for their losses? Isn’t this a high risk-high profit game THEY choose to play?) Talking about OTT releases, I believe the intervention of no-nonsense corporations at many points of production and release could curb the brattiness of some to an extent. I am aware that the subcontinental delinquency has a way of sticking around despite efforts put into shrugging it off, but anything that waters it down is a welcome change these days.

• Offers a welcome shift from the monotony of Indian theaters.

Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with new releases, but is something that is already being taken care of by the OTT platforms. Prior to the internet revolution, the diversity of movies in theaters based on time and culture was something that made me so envious of western movie lovers. I mean, what could be more gratifying than going to your nearest movie theater, spending a few changes and watching a flick that lit up your childhood, say, DDLJ (millennial alert!!) Sadly, our nation doesn’t satiate this hunger except probably in a few big metropolises (haven’t been to all of them). Now, I am not saying OTT channels can replace this experience, but they definitely compensate for Indian cinemas’ philistine urge to stick to what’s new and easy. I know we had the analogous home movie system for a long time, but it never came close to what the internet offers us now. These streaming websites brings us flicks from all over the world; from the world famous films of South Korea to the relatively unknown movies and TV series from Scandinavia and the Balkans. Not to mention our own little movies, and OTT series those deserve a special commendation for a lot of them are catching up with the standards of their international counterparts. This is something our theaters and the VHS/DVD world could never provide us. So, one more reason to beat the drum for the OTT services.

• Might put a lid on uncontrolled ticket prices.

I know some states like Tamilnadu have put a leash on the spiraling movie ticket prices, but in most places, especially in big cities and towns, the unreasonable hike in ticket prices in irregular intervals is deterring even the well-off movie goers from making regular theater visits. I know, those biggies need to recoup their huge budgets, but turning our cinemas into film-going families’ nightmare is only going to make things worse for the already struggling film industries of our nation. I wonder why nobody talks about the ticket prices while a lot of film fraternity members are so enthusiastic about the notion of stars cutting down their salaries due to Covid lock downs. And the less said the better about the unruly ticket prices in various places in India. It could be one of the flip sides of our decentralized power structure that our movie ticket system is all over the place. Isn’t it grossly unfair that a film-goer in Bangalore has to pay almost 3 times the price his/her counterpart in Chennai pays to watch a new release in a decent multiplex? OTT on the other hand, mostly offers us efficient pricing on amendable packages, and the prices are the same almost anywhere in the country. Until now, at least. This could provide our movie ticket system with something that we, as public, lack in general-uniformity. Hope those days aren’t very far from today.

• The regressive A, B, C theater class system might get eliminated.

Dividing our theaters into A, B, C classes is one of the vilest practices that Indian cinema has. I mean, we presume a section of the audience is insatiable about quality content, and the other one only needs brainless, senseless entertainment. If this isn’t blatant elitism, then I don’t know what it is. If a section of film-goers is inclined towards nonsensical films, it is because they are constantly fed that. See, I am against the auteur theory which argues that directors’ tastes should be force-fed to audience, but labeling a sizable part of audience as C-class and starving them of good content is just as bad, from both industrial and artistic angles (As a native, I believe Kerala has done away with this inequity to a large extent. For a state with a considerably large population of 35 million, most of its films cater to every section of the society). The internet boom is already pushing the boundaries of conventional film-viewing in India, and more films released to the OTT should give the deliberately ‘grind-housed’ portion of our audience access to the latest quality films, along with their ‘A-class’ counterparts. This is really something for the movie lovers to look forward to.

• Most obvious, the vexing Indian traffic.

Last but not least, here is something that seems trivial, but so psychologically dissuading that it could make hitting our roads feel like an ordeal. Something that makes the terms OTT and WFH glow as if those were carved in golden letters. Not just chaotic and slow, the infamous Indian traffic is so overwhelming sometimes that it makes us snap out of the pensive, make-believe cinematic world and plunge us hard into the grinding realities of life just as we step out of cinema gates. This could be something grossly unsettling for any movie-lover; it’s most definitely for me. If you plan on seeing a film and cherishing it for a while, and is hurled out of the affair in a jiffy instead, why do it in the first place? Consider yourself lucky if you have a decent multiplex just around your corner. If not, a sizable TV, a euphonious music player and a few sustainable movie streaming services could be something for you to fall back on. See, I am neither trying to be that incessant whiner that you know, nor am I being an advocate of that dangerous inclination to completely withdraw from ground realities for the sake of entertainment; it’s just that I treasure the wholesome movie experience, and I can’t pretend I don’t see how the movie streaming platforms keep the bullying traffic in our roads from getting in its way. I love watching films in theaters, but the travel can be so tiresome that I have always daydreamed about films getting released into our homes. Even before the heydays of the internet. Now that it’s getting real, I believe we have another reason to celebrate the ‘domestication’ of cinema.

Wrapping this up, I am not saying OTT platforms replace the theater experience, but are most certainly the binary manifestations of the diversity that cinema could offer. And when it comes to our nation, it also has that added dimension of something that could patch up the fixer-upper of the cinematic framework that we have. Not without its own share of problems, but streaming services can definitely catalyze our efforts to get our cinema to where the world takes it seriously, both commercially and artistically. Naysayers are aplenty, but we should think like Alfred Hitchcock, who was one of the few big shots who warmed up to television in its infancy and turned it into one of the cornerstones of American popular culture. If you can’t stop the growth of technology, especially in these days of apprehension and lock-ins, then why not make the most of it? India’s OTT penetration rate is still considerably low, but it might take off along with the persistent internet growth that we maintain. ‘Space for improvement’ is often a polite euphemism, but what we have here is an actual opportunity to present ourselves before the world with the subtlety and grace we deserve, and I don’t see why we can’t get there this time. If the OTT platforms are destined to be the torchbearers of that change, it could only be befitting a nation that is very much dependent on technology, and whose cinema holds tons of unleashed potential.