Written by : Shreya Seth, Kolkata
Photo credit : shutterstock.com
As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘familiar’ way of life that we seemingly took for granted, has altered significantly. The impact of the crisis has been felt across all sectors, and the entertainment industry is no exception to it. Audiences, who in usual circumstances, would have thronged cinema halls, auditoriums, theatres, and other public places to satiate their need for entertainment, are now confined to their homes. While there is little one can do about it, Over The Top (OTT) platforms may have come to the rescue. An OTT media service bypasses traditional modes of distribution such as cable, satellite television, and broadcast, and allows people to stream content such as films and series via the internet. The content available on these platforms is either produced by the respective platforms or acquired from other producers before being made available for streaming. With more audiences subscribing to platforms like Youtube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Zee5, Disney-Hotstar, Sony LIV, Voot, Mubi and the like, the OTT industry in India has been witnessing exponential growth in their subscription rates over the years. A FICCI-EY 2019 report titled ‘A Billion Screens of Opportunity’, stated that the Indian OTT sector grew by 59% in FY 2019. It also went on to estimate that India could have ‘over 35 million OTT subscribers (and a further 350+ million subscribers accessing bundled OTT services from telcos) by 2021.’
Cut to 2020- Almost three months into the lockdown, the figures above seem exiguous. Why? While many retained these OTT subscriptions even as they continued visiting theatres, the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown may have changed their role in the distant future. ‘Distant future’- a euphemism for an indefinite period marked by uncertainties, that lies before us. Nothing can substitute the all-encompassing experience of watching a film in a cinema hall, the stupendous screen and sound effects, all adding to the larger than life experience. But the pandemic has forced us, albeit temporarily, to shift that experience to our homes. The media and entertainment industry is now largely hinging on OTT platforms, leading to a noticeable change in digital consumption patterns.
A pan-India study conducted by Velocity MR (April 2020) titled ‘Surviving COVID-19 and beyond: A Consumer Perspective Part 2’ collected data from a stratified sample of about 3000 people in India, and revealed that almost 96% of the people subscribed to these OTT services during the lockdown, with nearly 73% users stating that they consumed Youtube and Hotstar content more than other OTT platforms. The report also stated that Amazon Prime and Netflix subscriptions recorded a growth of almost 67% and 65% respectively. This has been augmented by the availability of low-cost smartphones and cheap data plans- all it takes is a couple of clicks here and there to access content. The user can rest assured, with copious amounts of content at one’s disposal, there will always be something to binge on.
As people adjust to this ‘new normal’, many mainstream Hindi films that were slated for a theatrical release- like Gulabo Sitabo, Shakuntala Devi, Gunjan Saxena, Laxxmi Bomb, Dil Bechara, to name a few, decided to go the OTT way. While this inevitably meant that the OTT platforms are and would draw more audiences in the future, the move was heavily criticized by multiplex giants such as INOX and PVR that incurred huge losses in the wake of the pandemic. The Gross Box Office Collection for Hindi films stood at INR 49.5 billion in 2019, (FICCI-EY Report 2019), the highest ever for Hindi theatricals. This ‘Box-Office’, which had unfortunately become a crucial determinant of the success of a film – with its 100 and 300 crore clubs, has suddenly disappeared!
OTT platforms , until now, were an area for varied content- not regulated by massive-budgets, strict censorship, or prominent faces. It opened up avenues for local players by acknowledging the expansion of affordable internet services and the demand for regional language content. Previously, rights of many mainstream Hindi films were acquired by these platforms months after their theatrical release, but direct OTT releases will impact not just the way these films are received by the audiences, but also the kind of content that would now be designed only for digital release. With government enforced rules and the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country, the audiences have realized that the only way to go about it is to embrace what is available. If we are indeed heading towards a new age of digital consumption that allows us to ‘play’, ‘pause’, ‘skip’ and ‘stop’ at the convenience of our fingertips, would it not change the way we engage with films and other forms of content? With the focus shifting to these platforms, would we be able to escape vigilance or appreciate local content without it being overshadowed by familiar names? How will the mainstream film industry obsessed with collection numbers, now determine a film’s success? At the heart of these questions are the privileged consumers, drifting, and unaware of the habits they now seem to collectively nurture.