To add to and contextualise Charles Dickens’ opening quote from A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… It was the age of every studio for itself in Hollywood and it was the age when the dying film exhibition business banked on the success of one lone sentence: ‘The name is Bond, James Bond.’

Let’s be honest: repeating done-to-death omnifarious turns of the coronavirus pandemic is a turn-off; it is a fact so oft written about that it evokes its own particular style of mental groans.

No one wants to read about how Covid-19 single-handedly killed off the international film economy and created monopolies and a war of streaming platforms. What matters is that there is a general lack of tentpole films that gave the cinema experience to the audience — the kind where Marvel superheroes, Pixar and Disney animations and Star Wars dominated worldwide box-office.

Actually, now that I think about it, the death of cinema did bring in an air of relief from the overload of franchises… albeit, to the vexation of cinema complex owners. In 2019, the global theatrical box-office was 42.5 billion dollars, of which 11.4 billion dollars came from North American domestic. In 2020, the latter figure fell down spectacularly to a historic low of 2.27 billion dollars.

Reigning in cinemas’ stead is the new happening term of the entertainment biz: OTT (Over-the-Top) steaming services. Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple+, Disney+, Viacom+.

The aggressive war of streaming platforms currently raging in North America will, inevitably, have an impact on Pakistani cinema as well

The pluses keep being added at the end of the service’s name, as conglomerates figure out how to diversify themselves and capture the audience’s attention.

At Disney’s investor day round-up on December 10, an event specific for the businesses’ partners and shareholders, the conglomerate announced that they would spend 14–16 billion dollars for 100 productions in the 2024 fiscal year for Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+. Out of the amount, a substantial chunk of eight or nine billion dollars would be reserved specifically for Disney+.

In comparison, Netflix has already spent 17.3 billion dollars on content in 2020; the figure was 15.3 billion dollars in 2019 and, according to industry pundits, the investment will likely balloon to 28 billion dollars by 2028.

The Disney+ service aims to hit 230-260 million paid subscribers worldwide by 2024, 30-40 percent of which could come from their India-exclusive Disney+ Hotstar brand.

As with any business, developing a global streaming service is a cost-heavy strategic enterprise. Nevertheless, Disney estimates that their peak year of losses would be 2021; by 2024 they would be in the green.

Forget about the future. At the same event that day, Disney announced 63 series and 42 films — most of them heading directly to consumers via their streaming outlets.

Warner Media, the corporate parent of Warner Bros., Newline Cinema, DC Comics, the CW Network and HBO amongst others, has already put in motion its own grand plan in the OTT war. Starting with Wonder Woman 1984 and running throughout 2021, every title on Warner’s slate will get a same day-and-date release on HBO Max, without premium rental cost to the subscriber.

In layman’s terms, this means that, like Netflix, one low-cost monthly payment would give the subscriber access to content from WB and HBO’s already well-stocked library, and every new film that will come out in cinemas throughout 2021.

The list includes 17 titles: there’s the Denzel Washington starrer The Little Things, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, the Mortal Kombat reboot, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Hugh Jackman starrer Reminiscence, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Malignant, Dune and Matrix 4.

HBO Max’s bid to increase its subscriber count will likely throw a wrench in any OTT planning the same.

Earlier this year, Disney+ tried the premium rental cost strategy with Mulan but, as competition heats up, Disney+ is now following HBO Max’s route by offering Pixar’s Soul with the cost of subscription.

The future, however, is uncertain as Disney’s next animated release, Raya and the Last Dragon, may release with the added rental cost.

Every major title, however, is prone to immediate piracy (Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 promptly made their way to illegal torrent sites on release), but at the moment I think studios hardly consider this as a point of legitimate concern.

It should be noted that while I have only talked about Warner Media, Netflix and Disney, the OTT war isn’t just limited to these platforms. Also, discussing them is the build-up for the crux of this article: the aggressive war of streaming platforms and how this would impact Pakistani cinema.

In a piracy-thriving market such as Pakistan, where international OTTs may yet take their time to officially come over, the only alternative for international studios such as WB, Disney, Paramount, Sony and others to make money is through theatrical releases.

However, ponder this for a second: given the SOPs, high ticket prices, and the immediate piracy of cinema-quality international films, would the Pakistani audience still pay to go out and watch Hollywood movies on the big screen?

Probably not, and the industry is aware of this dilemma.

I have been keeping tabs on the rapidly escalating OTT war since October. About two months ago, at Satish Anand’s Eveready Group’s office, I could foretell the rescheduling of the James Bond title No Time To Die, Pixar’s Soul, and the eventual shift of Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84). Educated guesses, industry knowledge and some helpful sources from within Hollywood itself, gave me quite an insight. Sources close to the industry confided that if WW84 shifts to HBO Max, WB’s theatrical slate would follow sooner rather than later.

The prediction came to pass. Yet, that’s not the only cause of worry.

The Pakistani cinema industry has been counting on No Time To Die, the last James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, to kickstart a momentum that will eventually open the way for locally produced films to start rolling out.

Since Pakistani films aren’t yet being picked up by big name OTTs — believe me, the industry tried and failed — their only remaining principal outlet are cinemas (television comes in a far second; revenues from international theatrical has third place).

But — and this is a big BUT — the industry cannot just rely on one motion picture to steer it through. The experiment failed miserably when Tenet and Mulan debuted here in cinemas. Even though the dynamics of the local business were different that time round, this doesn’t change facts in the broader scope.

Pakistan is not the only affected market when it comes to film exhibition. Stocks of prominent cinema chains in Hollywood fell considerably, and the studios — especially Warner Media — were harshly criticised for their self-centred practice of boosting HBO Max’s subscribers.

But as they say, everything is fair in love and war… and this is definitely war.

Internationally, the cinema business is faring better. China has been making headlines as domestically produced films rake in unprecedented ticket sales. In Japan, the animated movie Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train has officially overtaken Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away, to become the country’s highest-grossing film.

For countries that have made less prominent strides (such as Pakistan and India), all hopes are on Bond to get them out of the muck. The film still has a billion-dollar box-office projection; it would have been over two billion if circumstances were different.

The fact of the matter, and my prior argument stands: as a casualty of the great OTT war, where tens of billions in dollars are in stake, where giant streaming platforms would eventually bypass political and religious sentiments (as discussed in Icon’s feature on the Zee5 debacle), how would our domestic cinema survive?

There is a way out: production of quality content. Not only would it give audiences an incentive to develop and sustain our cinema culture, but in the longer run, attention-grabbing productions will entice platforms such as HBO Max, Disney+ Hotstar, Zee5 and SonyLiv into acquiring Pakistani films, or invest in the production of web-series.

Studios such as Eveready, JB Films and a few independents have already taken the initiative. They have multiple films on set, in post or in development. This writer has also heard murmurs of Distribution Club developing an internal plan of action.

Everyone, however, is still praying for Bond to pave the way on April 2. I, however, wouldn’t bet on the date. Although there haven’t been any rumours of the date shifting as yet, I fear that No Time To Die will reschedule to late May, or the July 4 weekend.

If that happens, then it would affect the entire slate of domestic productions releasing in 2021. The analysis of such a calamity is best discussed another day.

For now, all one can do is pray and prepare. The war of the OTT platforms is upon us, whether we like it or not. If Pakistan, our government, the industry and the so-called producers merely talk about projects but do not invest (I’ve met half-a-dozen who talk the talk, but don’t deliver). As a result, Pakistan’s media industry may be stuck in the same rut for another 10 years.

If our circumstances were made into a movie, no one would pay to see it.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 3rd, 2021

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