The Content Crisis That Awaits Us

08 May,2020

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

One blurry week after another, the wait for restoration of normalcy continues. Even as some sections of the economy open up in parts of India and the world, the wait for return to old routine, if there can be anything like that all in these times of Covid-19, is going to be a long one.

 

Different sections of the media and entertainment industry have been impacted to different degrees. Television has seen viewership boost and redistribution of viewership share across genres and channels. But the advertising moneys are drying up, and for a business that relies on that as its primary revenue source, the next few months can be really tough. Theatres are closed and will be the last thing to open. The film business is hence at a virtual standstill. OTT has emerged strong in this period, with most platforms registering record new subscriptions and time-spent numbers.

 

But there’s a bigger crisis that awaits us. That of content availability. Television ran out of original content in early April itself. Most OTT platforms have launched the originals they had completed shooting before the lockdown. A handful of films are ready for release, but many others are in various stages of production. Hence, as we limp back to normalcy, the big question that will begin to bother all three sectors is: When can we start shooting?

 

The answer to this question is not a pleasant one. Shoots are inherently chaotic, and even more so in India. Social distancing while visiting a mall or even a theatre can still be ensured, but how do you ensure it on the sets of a film or a show using an elaborate crew to manage a multi-camera set-up? There is close physical contact involved, between actors in a scene, and between actors and their staff, especially those handling hair, makeup and styling. There are a lot of workers involved, and there is equipment and more equipment. Let it be said in no uncertain terms: You cannot socially distance on a set, especially in India, beyond a point.

 

Producers have, of course, started thinking of measures they will need to put in place. But at whichever stage shooting restarts, being on a set will still involve its share of risk. While the South film industries may be less impacted (Kerala has already put out some guidelines related to start of shoots), but Mumbai and Delhi NCR, from where a large part of Hindi content is shot, are going to take a while to reach any level of feasibility to start shooting.

 

Then there is the additional complexity of travel. Everything is not shot in a studio. How do you shoot abroad? How do you shoot in a small town, for which you have to make an extensive crew travel? How do you get actors residing in other parts of the country to Mumbai, even if you are shooting at the Film City here?

 

Halting of production will create a deep-end content availability crisis that could last months. Can OTT survive only on library content? Netflix and Prime Video perhaps can, but what about the newer platforms, and those that get a large share of their daily users from catch-up television? What will GECs show for another three-four months, before they can start shooting? How much can one sustain on nostalgia and how many versions of Ramayan and Mahabharat can you run how many times? I’m surprised more shoot-from-home formats are not out on television already.

 

Films is a peculiar case of its own. Theatres may reopen at some stage with social distancing measures, and some of the films that are ready will eventually be released too. But that can take care of only two-three months. If producers cannot shoot much, we will soon have no content available, leaving theatres open but empty.

 

We are in for a long haul. And the content availability crisis is in for an even longer one.

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