Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
India, a country of 1.3 billion people, imposed a nationwide lockdown last week as it desperately battles to contain the spread of coronavirus. Film and TV production had already halted on March 19, and the country’s cinemas, which are enormously popular and vital to local communities, are all shuttered. The emergency measures will last for at least 21 days.
Like much of the rest of the world, it’s a topsy-turvy and worrying time for those working in the entertainment industry. To get a local perspective, we called up Vikram Malhotra, the former Balaji Motion Pictures and Viacom18 Motion Pictures exec who through his banner Abundantia Entertainment has become a successful local producer for both the big and small screens.
With credits ranging from local hit features such as Gangs of Wasseypur and Kahaani, to the Amazon original series Breathe, and local versions of U.S. properties like the Indian Chef remake, Malhotra has had wide-ranging experiences in his 10-year career. He tells us why cinema is the “lifeblood” of India (alongside cricket), how he is looking to weather this storm by employing cooped-up writers, and how the streaming opportunity in India could flourish during the lockdown.
DEADLINE: How has this crisis affected the industry in India?
VIKRAM MALHOTRA: It’s an experience that we’re not used to and it has been nerve-wracking. To add context, movies run in the lifeblood of this nation, along with cricket; they are the umbilical cords to the masses. We’ve seen floods, riots, terrorist attacks, but things have always bounced back to normal. Movies have always been the number one community activity for this nation, and in times of financial crisis, it’s been the business that has escaped from reality and always been consistent.
This is the first time in my 45 years on this planet, and 10 years in this business, that I have seen the Indian masses being deprived of going to the theater for such a long period. That is causing a certain amount of anxiety. On the business side, exhibitors aren’t used to long periods of shutdown. Producers are not used to long periods of work not happening. This is waking up to a new experience and that’s adding to the concerns about where this is headed.
DEADLINE: How does the situation feel where you are?
MALHOTRA: I have a mixed reaction to this storm. It is uncertain and there is a lot of apprehension around us and within us in terms of how this will all play out. I live in the state Maharashtra which is home to the media and entertainment business in India — the capital Mumbai is our L.A. — as well as our central government. The state was very proactive about shutting down. This is not a lockdown, this is a curfew.
We are confident that it is not spreading how it is in other parts of the world, but at the same time it’s in the coming days when it will reach a wider level. We are happy with the way the lockdown is being imposed, but the uncertainty and the extent of damage it is doing commercially is worrying us.
DEADLINE: Cinemas began closing on March 11. They are so key to Indian culture, is the government stepping in to support them?
MALHOTRA: The bailout packages for our country are just beginning to emerge. There’s nothing offered yet, to my knowledge, but we’re all hopeful that the authorities will step in and offer some sort of financial assistance for that part of our value chain.
DEADLINE: Do you expect India’s exhibition industry to make a full recovery? How long could it take?
MALHOTRA: I am expecting it to bounce back to full strength 100%, there is no doubt about that. Am I expecting it to bounce back in the next three months? No. There will be fits and starts when they do reopen. I think it will be six to nine months from whenever the lockdown is lifted for them to start seeing a semblance of regular demand. But that is true globally, not just in India. It’s a contained, confined, air-conditioned, close proximity space.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your personal experience over these last few weeks.
MALHOTRA: My company was in the middle of two productions when the viral outbreak happened, both were shooting in the central part of India. We were also in post-production on a film, Durgavati starring Bhumi Pednekar, and the second season of Amazon TV show Breathe, and about to get into pre-production on another Amazon TV series (which is unannounced).
The movie and TV industry suspended all shoots on March 19. We managed to wrap one film by the skin of our teeth. The one that was most affected was the feature that was in post-production, which will now be pushed back by a couple of months. Frankly speaking, by god’s grace I am a lot better off than some of my peers in the industry.
DEADLINE: You’re working a fair bit with Amazon. How has the streaming industry in India reacted to this disruption?
MALHOTRA: From my personal standpoint, while there is so much doom and gloom and fear, there are some interesting developments that I’m bullish about even in these bleak times. The disruption is a blessing in disguise for the streamers. In our country the streaming business is less than three years old, but is already being seen as the market to be won because of the content-consuming, English-speaking population, high Internet penetration, and high disposable income among urban youth.
We see the international guys come in and spend the kind of money that they are. Both domestic and international streaming services in India are going through the roof right now. It was a market with small, single-digit penetration when compared to broadcast television and movie tickets sold, but is now suddenly exploding. It is getting an exponential jump that could be a game-changer.
DEADLINE: What does the streaming landscape look like in India right now?
MALHOTRA: India is divided between the lower end of the market, with cheaper subscription rates and the lowest common denominator content, and then there is Hotstar, which is the largest, largely on the back of the live cricket that they have — that’s what Disney+ is on. Then there are international streamers like Amazon and Netflix. They’re all serving different markets. The potential is so large and under-explored that they’re all growing on their own strength and steam at the moment. We have a couple more years of market share fight to come. It’s very different from the West where all the platforms and channels are fighting for the same dollar.
DEADLINE: How are people utilizing streaming? Are distributors putting films online early because cinemas are closed?
MALHOTRA: It’s too early for that impact to be seen; the films that were ready have pushed dates, and some will be pushed further. I had one, a biopic of mathematician Shakuntala Devi, the “human computer,” that is being pushed from June to a new undecided date. It’s impossible to set dates right now because we don’t know where local and Hollywood films are going to go.
Everyone is assessing the next steps as we speak. No films worth mentioning are skipping theatres and going direct to digital but I’m sure conversations are happening. I think it would be a smart move to get some films on digital ahead of theatrical. A lot of these pieces of the puzzle are going to settle down in the next few weeks. If theaters continue to remain shut after April, then we’re going to witness a complete change in how this business is going to be for the next 12 months.
DEADLINE: How are you channeling your own energies during the crisis? Are you focusing a lot on development while you’re stuck at home?
MALHOTRA: Yes, in fact in a bigger way than ever before. Writers are quarantined and are at their best when they have zero distractions for their creative minds. Abundantia has quite a few films and TV shows in the pipeline so we are focusing hard on those, getting them ready for whenever we can — we want to be at the forefront commencing new work. We are also discussing projects with platforms and distributors. It’s a new way of working that we’re all discovering.
DEADLINE: You’ve got two shows with Amazon, have you been chatting to them recently?
MALHOTRA: Yes, regularly. They’re being extremely proactive about supporting us. India is a high growth market for them and they have done extremely well here over the last two years — they have a full slate of originals for India. We delivered the second season of Breathe to them just before the lockdown, thankfully.