For cinephiles, a Kamal Haasan film is a major event. Unsurprisingly, then, his attempted experiment with the distribution model for the movie termed to be his most ambitious yet — a Rs 95-crore trilingual extravaganza named Vishwaroopam — has sparked off conversation and controversy in equal measure. Perhaps with a view to exploring what the movie business would look like in a post-theatre world, Haasan wanted to release his new film across direct-to-home (DTH) platforms hours before its first theatrical run. This is different from selling the satellite and cable telecast rights — the film would be available on a pay-per-view basis, rather than on the regular networks. The price of watching the new Haasan movie early? Rs 1,000 for the Tamil version, and Rs 500 for the Hindi and Telugu versions. As it happened, however, theatre owners saw the move as a threat to their revenue stream and threatened to boycott the movie if it appeared on DTH first. And there the experiment seems to have ended, which is a pity.
From music to books to film and television, new technologies have disrupted existing business models for nearly every content producing industry. The internet revolutionised distribution, making it easy for content to be circulated around the world quickly and cheaply. DTH television provides another distribution platform, and time-shifting is changing viewership habits, which affect advertising. The movie business is no exception to this; exploring new business models before a crisis point is reached is smart.
Haasan’s experiment may not have succeeded, but it could have charted new territory in showing how previously under-explored revenue streams could be tapped. For an industry that has often proved itself to be nimble — consider its innovative solution to piracy, which involved releasing DVDs and VCDs of movies soon after their theatrical runs at prices comparable to the pirated versions — such resistance to a new idea is disappointing.