Manohar Wadhwani is a Nagpur-based film distributor who in the last decade has secured rights of several big blockbusters. A keen student of the film exhibition and audience psyche dynamics, Wadhwani takes us into this fascinating and high stakes world where fortunes are made and lost within just two days of the release weekend. He talks to TOI about their business and what lies ahead in the ‘new normal.’
Q. The state government is talking about re-opening of movie theatres, but everyone is sceptical about the response. People can watch new movies on OTT as well. Your thoughts?
A. I can guarantee you that within two months of reopening, it will be business as usual. Obviously we have suffered huge losses due to closure but that will change after reopening. The reason is that movie theatres don’t just exhibit content, they make you a part of an experience. The big screen, the sound system, the atmosphere and the value added services are part of the three-hour experience package. Audiences crave that, which is why the sector has flourished despite over two decades of satellite TV. Watching a James Bond or a Rohit Shetty film on the big screen is a completely different experience. Plus every theatre will operate as per state SOPs. Right from limiting the seating capacity to putting food under UV rays to sanitization of the premises, the safety of audiences will never be compromised.
Q. Do you feel that OTT platforms won’t replace you?
A. In the post-Covid world, both OTT and movie theatres will co-exist since financial dynamics come into play. If a movie’s budget itself is over Rs200 crore, there is no way an OTT app can spend that amount. That’s because the OTT’s revenue is minuscule considering that their paid users shell out hardly Rs600-odd per year. Mega-budget movies need the reach and infrastructure of the traditional movie theatres. Also, you have to understand the psyche of the audience. People love watching these multi-starrers on the big screen. Content is just one part of these big budget movies. The international locations, hiring professional staff, equipment, special effects and finally the big promotion campaign come at a big cost. The financials of OTTs don’t allow them to bankroll purchase of such exclusive rights.
Q. Will OTT be more of a low-budget content platform?
A. Yes, when it comes to new releases. For both budget-conscious productions and content which is intended for the classes. There are producers who have high quality intellectual content but their production costs were limited and there’s probably nothing left for promotion. For them, OTT platforms will provide not only an audience but enough revenue to recover their expenses. Web series are flourishing and you can see that many are being made with minimal costs.
Q. If OTT and movie theatres co-exist in the future, then who loses the market share?
A. Satellite movie channels will be wiped out in the near future. The producer has the right to sell his movie to a channel after two weeks of the release, to reach audiences who could not or cannot visit the movie hall. But now, OTT is an added platform to sell those movie rights and movie channels are now becoming redundant.
Q. What are the immediate challenges that you foresee post-reopening for movie distributors and exhibitors?
A. Getting new releases with enough star power to pull the crowds. Audiences are different in every territory and we distributors have to take calculated risks. In Vidarbha, only action and skin movies make money. In Mumbai, even the intellectual type movies will do well. Every area is different and so, to ensure that the movie exhibition sector comes back with a bang, you need a movie that has the star power and content. Fortunately, there are a couple of Hindi movies which are ready, and they are packed with bankable stars and all the paraphernalia which comes with a mega budget movie.
Q. You mentioned action movies clicking in Vidarbha. Do distributors watch a movie and then decide?
A. You will be shocked to know that distributors pay the entire money upfront without even being shown the movie or getting to know the plot. All we get to see is the trailer. Crores are shelled out purely on assumptions based on star cast and the production house banner. There’s no science here, just gut feeling. Once I paid a premium for a big action star’s movie and it bombed. Whereas no one was willing to touch ‘Oh My God’ and ‘Queen’, when I bought their rights. And both did fantastic business. And this high risk, high gain/loss has a short shelf life. The opening weekend is what breaks or makes over 90% of the movies. You may lose everything by Sunday or make more than expected.
Q. What does territory/circuit mean in terms of distribution business?
A. For distribution of movie rights, India is divided into various territories since the British era, and it has remained status quo. Nagpur is the hub of the CP & Berar territory. We cover Vidarbha, Khandesh, entire Chhattisgarh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh. A distributor buys the rights from the producer for one or more territories and sells it to movie exhibitors. With multiplexes, we work a revenue sharing formula while single screen theatres prefer the old weekly shows rent method.