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India, the second most populous nation on earth with 1.3 billion people, is in lockdown in its continued efforts to stem the spread of the new coronavirus epidemic.
“For 21 days forget what going out means,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a televised address on Tuesday night as he ordered the “total lockdown,” an unprecedented move for the world’s largest democracy.
As of Thursday, India had 649 coronavirus cases, which include 13 deaths. India reported its first case in late January, leading authorities to implement measures such as screening passengers at airports and opening quarantine facilities. By March, the country’s estimated cinema strength of about 9,000 were ordered shut until the end of the month as were other public places such as shopping malls.
“Clearly, the numbers [of coronavirus cases] that we have in India are much lesser than in other countries, indicating that the government is moving early in the lifecycle of the virus,” PVR Pictures CEO Kamal Gianchandani tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding, “As an industry and company we support it.” PVR Pictures is the distribution arm of India’s biggest cinema chain, PVR Cinemas, which runs 845 screens nationwide.
Beyond cinemas, the coronavirus also hit other sectors of the industry, leading Disney to postpone the India launch of Disney+, which was set to become available on Mar. 29 to coincide with the start of the wildly popular and lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament. But earlier this month, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which administers the IPL, pushed the tournament’s opening match to Apr. 15. Disney is yet to announce a new date for the Disney+ launch.
Over the years, the IPL has yielded a viewership bonanza for Disney-owned Star India, which airs the tournament on its television network and streams it on its homegrown OTT platform Hotstar. Last year’s IPL final was watched by 18.6 million viewers on Hotstar, setting a record.
Considering that major international sporting events such as the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to next year, it remains to be seen how IPL is affected.
Meanwhile, cinemas are the first immediate casualty as India’s bustling cities and towns are now devoid of traffic and crowds in the wake of the national lockdown. Gianchandani points out that when cinemas were told to shut down, “we had factored in that it would be much longer [than 31 March] given what was happening in Italy, China, the U.S. and other countries.”
Expectedly, release schedules have been disrupted, immediately affecting star-studded Bollywood title Sooryavanshi, featuring top actors Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar and Ranveer Singh, which was originally scheduled to open Mar. 24. Similarly, the much-awaited real-life inspired cricket drama 83, toplined by Ranveer Singh, was set to unfurl on Apr. 10. Both titles are from Reliance Entertainment, which is distributing them with PVR Pictures for which revised release dates are yet to be announced.
Gianchandani says that just when the coronavirus began to escalate in March, PVR Cinemas was still recording 200,000-250,000 admissions per day “and March was shaping up well as we were expecting a lot of business with Sooryavanshi. While releases have been deferred, those assets have not lost value and they will reflect in the next financial year.”
Given that Hollywood titles have been expanding their share of the Indian box office pie in recent years, big-ticket releases that are affected include the latest James Bond installment No Time to Die, which pushed its worldwide release date to Nov. 12 from Apr. 3; Fast and Furious 9, which postponed to April 2021 from its original May 22 release; and Wonder Woman 1984, which has moved to Aug. 14 from June 5. In addition, bouquet international titles like The Personal History of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel, and Keira Knightley-starrer Misbehaviour, which were eyeing the March-April release window, are also on hold.
While figures for 2019 are not yet available, Hollywood had a “blockbuster” year in 2018 with total revenue reaching an all-time high of $132 million (9.2 billion rupees), up from $115 million (8.01 billion rupees) in 2017, according to an industry report by consultancy Ernst and Young India last year. That boosted Hollywood films’ share from about 8 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2018.
“The first half of 2020 will evaporate and perhaps you will have about 26 weekends left this year in which maybe films can open,” explains box office analyst Taran Adarsh, pointing to the potential logjam of releases while adding that “Indian films will also be affected in their international rollouts, considering markets like the U.K., Australia and the U.S. have large diaspora audiences where titles are simultaneously released along with their India dates.” Adarsh estimates that the industry will take a hit of anywhere between $79.5 million-$132 million (six to 10 billion rupees).
India’s total theatrical revenue reached a milestone in 2018, crossing the 100 billion rupees mark, or $1.4 billion, for the first time, compared with $1.38 billion (96.3 billion rupees) in 2017, according to last year’s Ernst and Young report.
The lockdown and resulting uncertainty over when life will return to normalcy has expectedly hit production across film, television and OTT projects. Some of the high-profile films include Laal Singh Chadha, the official remake of Forrest Gump and toplined by superstar Aamir Khan, which is set to open this December. The Producers Guild of India had already issued a directive on Mar. 15 to suspend productions until Mar. 31, with the national lockdown now automatically extending it to Apr. 14.
“We don’t have data available as to how many projects have been affected and we can’t even say when production will resume,” says PGI CEO Kulmeet Makkar.
In a bid to support daily wage workers affected by the halt in production, the PGI had initiated a fundraising exercise last week with the intent “to generate money from within and outside the industry and build a substantial fund, though, at this stage, we can’t estimate what would be the quantum of the fund,” Makkar says. He points that the lockdown could temporarily affect the fundraising exercise but he is optimistic that “we will be one of many funds that will be raised to support the workers in need. Maybe the government will also consider some sort of short- and long-term plans to support the industry through incentives or tax reliefs.”
With people now restricted to their homes, as in other countries, streaming services in India are also becoming the preferred choice for entertainment. For example, Indian platform Zee5, owned by the leading Zee broadcasting and media group, has seen a surge of 15-18 percent in viewership, according to Zee5 chief business officer Archana Anand.
“With home-containment becoming the new way of life, entertainment has become a key go-to option for everyone, which has also led to this increase in viewership week on week,” Anand tells THR, pointing that beyond India, among international territories, Zee5 has seen the highest spike in the Middle East and Canada, which are home to a huge South Asian diaspora, “with viewership jumping by 20-25 percent and continuing to grow.”
Zee5 has also seen a 60 percent increase in new subscriptions globally in March as the platform has rolled out a campaign in the Asia Pacific and Middle East, offering a 50 percent discount on its annual subscription prices.
Much as the sudden spike in traffic is welcome for OTT platforms, this also comes at the cost of choking networks, considering that a large part of VOD content in India is consumed on mobile phones. A day after Modi announced the lockdown, representatives of top companies such as Disney India, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sony, Viacom, Facebook, Google, Zee and others held a meeting “to act immediately in the larger national and consumer interest and to ensure the robustness of the cellular network.”
All companies decided to temporarily halt high-definition and ultra-HD streaming to standard definition “at bitrates no higher than 480p on cellular networks,” which will be in affect until Apr. 14.
As social distancing becomes a way of life and major global industry events face uncertainty, India has also seen the indefinite postponement of the annual FICCI Frames conference, which was to run March 18-20 in Mumbai. Italy was scheduled to be this year’s country partner.
Meanwhile, the annual Mumbai Film Festival is still scheduled to run Nov. 5-12, organized by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images. “We are currently curating films, both Indian and international, for this year’s festival,” MAMI artistic director Smriti Kiran tells THR. “We don’t know what the future holds, but we are doing everything that needs to be done, keeping in mind our dates this November.”
Given how the coronavirus has severely affected the theatrical industry, Smriti points out that “there has been a very obvious increase in VOD consumption. We have been approached by OTT platforms and distributors to curate titles for them that are worth acquiring since we have a massive database of some of the best films.”
As for projects affected by halting production schedules, “they can always be in consideration for next year’s edition of the festival. Right now our only prayer is that the world survives with minimum damage.”
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