Cinema after COVID-19
Online platforms provide an alternative to big-screen halls. But their reach is limited
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has led to large-scale anxieties about the future of the arts. Many livelihoods rely upon the performing and visual arts. It is just not the fraternity of artistes but their support staff, co-workers and an entire ecosystem that is sustained through their practice. We are the largest film-making nation in the world. The film industry offers jobs to several thousands.
The lockdown will be eventually relaxed at some point as can be seen in different parts of the world but many are of the opinion that this pandemic will significantly impact our film-viewing behavior and other economic decisions around it. We might stay away from film theatres to avoid large gatherings. This could also indicate a shift towards viewing films on online platforms which have already made a dent during the lockdown.
Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., have witnessed a record surge in subscriptions during the lockdown. This doesn’t mean that everybody has suddenly turned a film lover, but that these platforms offer a plethora of entertainment options for people locked inside their homes. The content and range of programmes on these portals is also far superior to what is available on regular television. There are films and TV series which are especially commissioned by and released exclusively on these platforms.
Direct to home releases
Their numbers might further increase. As I write this, news has just trickled in that two big Hindi films, one Tamil and Telugu film, amongst others, are being released on a digital platform next month owing to the uncertainty about theatrical release in near future. Also, the choice and diversity of content on these platforms is much greater. A film theatre has to cater to mainstream audience expectations for business reasons. In the process, many deserving films often miss out on decent screening slots or have to make do with whatever is available. The online platforms do not have to deal with these concerns and offer a good mix of both mainstream and art-house cinema. No denying the fact that watching a film on the big screen has its own merits and an inherent sense of community but safety concerns might outweigh everything else.
During the lockdown, some films available on these online platforms have gained a new lease of life. Otherwise, public memory is essentially short lived. Our celebrity-based film culture largely pivots around the star. The film is forgotten while we find ways to memorialise the star.
Malayalam film Virus is the talk of the town again owing to its availability on these platforms. Dealing with the Nipah crisis in Kerala, this film is a great reminder of the actions taken by the State government to tackle the crisis. Kerala has also been widely praised for its successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps there’s another film in waiting. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is also doing the rounds. Released in 2011, the film seems prophetic in its depiction of a similar crisis that the world is facing today.
Bypassing the censors
Also, you could bypass many of the problems of censor certification if you release films on these platforms. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, many film festivals are moving online. Britain’s most famous socialist filmmaker, Ken Loach, has made some of his best films available for free on YouTube. Other film streaming platforms are making foreign and documentary cinema available at a nominal fee for a limited time span. With increased awareness about films, will we go back to theatres and settle for the same content that mainstream cinema peddles after the lockdown?
However, there is also a grave danger. Access to these platforms is largely limited to an urban demography that can afford an Internet connection, along with the subscription fees which also determines the class character of its potential viewers. If this were to become the norm, it would exclude a large majority of the film-viewing population. That will be a denial of cinema to those who have been its utmost supporters.
The writer teaches at FLAME University, Pune