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PVR Vkaao, 1018mb are changing the way movies are watched and shown

New screening-on-demand models like PVR Vkaao and 1018mb offer a middle ground between watching a film in a regular cinema hall and at a film club

A still from ‘Angamaly Diaries’.
A still from ‘Angamaly Diaries’.

On 27 January, 21-year-old Ishan Garg saw a newspaper ad by Vkaao, multiplex chain PVR’s screening-on-demand service, which claimed that anyone could watch a movie at a time and theatre of their choice. Garg, an MBBS student at New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, mentioned this to friends, who dismissed it as an advertising gimmick. Garg wanted to watch M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2017), which had released in the US but was still a month away from releasing in India, with his friends on the big screen. He wanted a screening on 7 February at PVR Sangam in Delhi’s RK Puram area.

According to the rules of the website, a screening is confirmed after the requirement of minimum occupancy is met—20 seats in this case—at least a few days before the scheduled date. Garg got five friends to book tickets and bought the rest, hoping to get other friends to join in later. Not only did Garg get back the money he spent on the bulk booking, the show—Vkaao’s first—ran to a packed house.

Driven by social media and smartphones, new screening-on-demand models offer a middle ground between watching a film in a regular cinema hall and at a film club. It personalizes the movie-going experience and makes the film club exclusivity of watching something special with people with shared interests, ticketed and public.

I, Daniel Blake, one of the winners of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, was screened by PVR Vkaao.

Since most people are unfamiliar with the concept, viewers usually book once they’re sure a screening is definitely happening (the status is displayed on the website). This has encouraged Vkaao to begin taking a “leap of faith" in cases where the bookings fall short of the minimum requirement. “It’s been one of our big learnings," says Karan Ahuja, business head, Vkaao. In the three months since it launched, Vkaao has had about 150 shows in 20 cities, including smaller towns such as Bilaspur, Surat and Jalandhar, not only showing films that are unlikely to release in India, such as Cannes Film Festival top prize-winner I, Daniel Blake (2016) and regional films such as Kaul (2016), but even old blockbusters such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).

“Vkaao originated a year back. It came from two basic problems we (PVR) saw as a theatre chain," says Ahuja. “One, we have a lot of empty seats on weekdays and on weekends when there are no blockbusters. Two, the audience may want to watch a certain movie—a Hollywood film in a tier-2 city or an Assamese film in Delhi—which may not get a release in their city. We thought, why not let people watch what they want in the time slots when we don’t have much occupancy?" It’s a new, improved version of PVR Director’s Rare, which was launched to promote independent films, but didn’t prove viable.

The invite for the film’s screening in Mumbai organized by 1018mb.
The invite for the film’s screening in Mumbai organized by 1018mb.

Vkaao eliminates the biggest uncertainty a producer faces: of not knowing who is going to watch his film. “We don’t have the risk of playing a movie and no one coming. On the contrary, we do a screening only if there’s enough demand," says Ahuja.

Vkaao isn’t the only screening-on-demand service in India. 1018mb, which has been organizing such screenings since January 2016, is founded on similar fundamentals of empty seats and limited options in theatres, and greater emphasis on the monetization of smaller films. “Many good movies never get a release," says Saurabh Devendra Singh, one of the co-founders. “At the end of the day, a film should make profit. And how do you do that? By choosing the right shows."

1018mb operates like Vkaao—any user can create an event by selecting a time, place and title from the library. Unlike Vkaao (which requires users to initiate the process), 1018mb also curates screenings: as they did with one of their first events, where they showed the Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski (1998) in May, and, recently, with the new Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries (2017). The screening of the latter in Mumbai on 5 April got an overwhelming response and generated enough interest for 1018mb to organize six more shows. Angamaly played in Bengaluru and will be shown in Delhi, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad as well.

1018mb’s strategy is to make the most of the weekdays instead of the coveted weekend slot. “Conventionally, you would think that the linear cycle of Friday, Saturday and Sunday is the best for any movie. Not with smaller films, which have a meagre marketing budget," says Singh. The name of the company, which he describes as a “bootstrapped start-up", is an inside joke between its co-founders: Saumya Tandon, Saurabh Devendra Singh, Shishir Ranjan, Santhosh Sundaram and Abhay Salve. 

Singh says the team’s sixth member is the analytics engine, an Artificial Intelligence-enabled algorithm which predicts the chances of success of a screening based on past patterns (Vkaao employs a similar system). It takes into consideration the location of the screening venue, the time slot, and information about the potential audience, such as their social media presence.

A “youngish" area like Andheri in Mumbai has proven to be more receptive to “alternative" films, says Singh. When a user requests a film that is not in their library, the algorithm tells the 1018mb team if the title is worth acquiring. Sometimes it throws up surprises. Based on a couple of requests, the system analytics concluded that Gunda (1998), a celebrated “trashy"movie, had the biggest potential for success. “It has more chances of success than The Godfather. We are desperate to get the rights from director Kanti Shah (and he thinks we are playing a prank)," says Singh. He is also keen to show Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) on the big screen. For English and foreign-language films, 1018mb sources screening rights from its outposts in the US and the UK, while Vkaao gets the theatrical rights from the India units of foreign production houses.

Since practically anyone with access to the Internet can have a screening, people are using the service in different ways. Ahuja tells me about someone who booked an entire screen for a rom-com to propose to his girlfriend. Screenings of children’s movies are being organized by schools and for birthdays. Mumbai-based film-maker Bejoy Nambiar, who suggested that 1018mb screen Angamaly (he’s a friend of the director), is working on curating other films from south India: Aaranya Kaandam (2010), Jigarthanda (2014), U-turn (2016) and Take-off (2017). Nambiar’s Getaway Films has even tied up with 1018mb. “I am not looking at it from a monetary aspect right now, as I’ve always wanted to show films from the south in the rest of the country," Nambiar says. “The idea is to make a property out of it, where people can watch south Indian movies every week."

Given the discrepancy between today’s audience—which is increasingly getting used to choosing what they want to watch—and a skewed film distribution system, the emergence of such platforms isn’t surprising. If the new model is able to sustain itself long enough, says Ahuja, it will start challenging the notion that a film’s theatrical run comes with a shelf life

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