With cinema halls shuttered due to the pandemic, some production companies have taken their originally planned theatrical titles and made them available directly to audiences’ homes, instead of waiting for them to be screened in cinemas.
In the United States, a handful of Hollywood titles were sold to subscription video on demand (SVOD) services – think Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+ and Disney Plus.
Films like The Lovebirds, My Spy and the upcoming Tom Hanks starrer Greyhound have shifted from cinemas to being part of SVOD package.
Meanwhile, some bigger-budgeted titles – like Trolls World Tour – was released on transactional video on demand (TVOD) where an audience can “rent” the movie individually for a certain amount of time for a fee (which usually costs a little bit more than a movie ticket fee).
Likewise, in Malaysia, a month into the movement control order (MCO), a few film distributors started releasing their films on Astro First, skipping the theatrical release entirely.
The TVOD – or its official description, a pay-per-view “window” – offers local titles and Asian movies from cinemas to subscribers’ homes for RM15, valid for 48 hours.
Before the global pandemic, some of the Malaysian films would only be made available on Astro First, at the earliest, two weeks into their theatrical releases.
This allowed viewers who couldn’t catch the film in cinemas to watch it at their own leisure, or letting fans who just want to watch the film again do just that.
During the MCO period, comedies Manap Karaoke and Syif Malam Raya, as well as Islamic-themed drama, Ada Apa Dengan Dosa bypassed cinema releases and went straight to Astro First.
In a press release, Ada Apa Dengan Dosa’s producer Datuk Normashayu Puteh stated: “This film was supposed to be released in cinemas this upcoming September. However, with the conditional MCO continuing due to Covid-19, our emphasis is on public safety. As a film producer, I do not want to delay a good film, rich with lessons, in reaching the public.”
Another new title is released on Astro First – the horror flick Town Mall directed by and starring Datuk Seri Eizlan Yusof. It was initially scheduled to be released in cinemas on March 26.
And more Malaysian films are said to be going straight to Astro First.
Datuk Norman Abdul Halim, CEO of United Studios (a subsidiary of KRU Group) that distributed Syif Malam Raya gave his reason for choosing to go with Astro First instead of waiting for a cinema release.
“We had wanted to screen that movie in cinemas during Hari Raya. However, due to the lockdown and cinemas being shut, we had no choice.
“We had to explore other alternatives because the film needed to be out around Hari Raya as the film is set during the eve of Hari Raya, and the film’s title Syif Malam Raya is Hari Raya related.
“Hence, we feel that, like it or not, we have to actually release it this year, during Hari Raya. There was no other option, as we cannot reschedule the release date.”
That gamble paid off as Syif Malam Raya netted almost RM4mil since it was made available on May 21 (three days before Hari Raya).
The public’s reception of the film, Norman admitted, is something all parties involved didn’t expect. However, they knew it would be a good move since there would be limited content on Hari Raya-themed shows this year on any platforms.
Sharmin Parameswaran, senior associate vice president for Astro First-Astro Best, added: “The response (of the film) on Astro First has been very encouraging.
"This has proven to be a positive game changer for the local film industry... Notably Syif Malam Raya, (which) has garnered in excess of RM3mil in 10 days of its release, a record achievement considering the restrictions during MCO.”
One motivating factor for filmmakers to release on TVOD during this difficult time is to recoup some money, instead of none.
When a movie has a theatrical release, filmmakers essentially split profits with cinema exhibitors, on top of incurring 20% entertainment tax that is imposed to every single movie ticket sold.
Whereas with releasing on TVOD, production houses can collect a higher percentage of sales fee. It was reported on one American website, for on-demand Hollywood titles, studios get roughly 80% revenues.
In Malaysia, industry players say it is much lesser than that.
While Astro First didn’t want to disclose information on the deals, Sharmin said this: “There isn’t a specific figure as it differs across all studios or distributors, and content.
“We do work closely with each filmmaker to drive revenues of their content on Astro First, including strong marketing across our platforms – which is key in pushing sales.”
Hence, it makes sense for smaller-budgeted films like Manap Karaoke and Syif Malam Raya to head directly to Astro First.
TVOD might prove to be a viable option presently, as the number of postponed films on the waiting list is getting longer. This just means many local films must compete with Hollywood blockbusters when cinema resumes operation on July 1.
Norman said: “We must be open enough to think about alternatives when releasing a film now.
“During this Covid-19 pandemic, and the lockdown, a lot of people have discovered new methods of monetising their products and services.
“The same goes with films. We discovered through Astro First – and I hope there’ll be other platforms in the future similar to Astro First – that we’re able to monetise films, through a digital platform, straight to homes.
“This means we’d have more options when releasing future content. Plan A, a theatrical release before going to TVOD; Plan B, a concurrent release date, theatrical and TVOD; and Plan C, go straight to TVOD.”
Sharmin agreed that by offering more choices, it’s a win-win situation for all parties: “It is always good for filmmakers to have more options and to diversify, where possible, for better reach.
“Producers then can decide to release their films on cinema, or an alternative pay-per-view platform, with the main consideration of spreading out the monetisation windows, or perhaps a saving of costs.”
Although Sharmin and Norman agreed that cinema remains crucial as some movies are best seen on huge screens and cinemas serve as a form of socialising, they also pointed out it is going to take some time before consumers can confidently return to cinemas.
“I do hope that it’d be a smooth and strong recovery for film exhibitors, ” said Norman of cinemas opening its doors again.
“But, in the interim, we still need to make our business decisions in terms of investing in content accordingly.
“(For example) we can work on a film with a smaller budget as if it’s to be released on a TV platform, and upgrade by spending more money on enhancing the audio quality and visual effects once we’re able to release the film in cinemas.
“Cinema is the first window of recoupment. If we take that one out and be dependent purely on TV platform, the prospect is a little bit more limited.
“However, if you work within a safe budget range of about RM500,000 to RM800,000, I think it is still a viable option to consider to go straight to the TV platform.”