Malls and cinema halls are gradually opening in India. But will people feel comfortable going there any time soon? Has the forced move to online entertainment reset habits permanently?
Damodar Mall, CEO, Grocery, at Reliance Retail, and Harsh Mall, a millennial, and a digital marketer based in New York debate what it all means and where they see entertainment habits moving to.
Harsh: For now, entertainment for me is at home with movies and TV shows on Netflix and other streaming channels and, of course, also video games.
Damodar: I hope theatres make it through this crisis. We have so many other alternatives now, but for me, there is something special about an outing with friends and family—called moviegoing.
Options, attention span, and habit resets
Harsh: In my column I mentioned that I’d noticed, I often don't finish a movie. Sometimes I have abandoned the film in less than 20 minutes.
Damodar: Why should you feel bad about it? If you're not enjoying it, it's okay not to sit through it.
Harsh: Isn't this yet another example of how our attention spans are shortening?
Damodar: That may seem like an obvious explanation. But there is a deeper cause. You see, in a theatre it is difficult to abandon a film. You don't want to disturb others. And you paid money for the entire film. Your paisa vasool (getting your money’s worth) instinct also kicks in. But with Netflix, you paid for the entire library. There is no switching cost. You're just practising your ability to make more choices. Abandoning a movie and jumping to another one—it’s just like fast forwarding a song, or rewinding to a scene that you like.
Movies and shows will have to work harder
Harsh: If more people are not watching shows and movies through to the end, isn't that bad news for studios and filmmakers?
Damodar: I wouldn't call it bad news. Just a little shift. Because it’s not that people are not watching content or that they’re watching less content. It's just that they are flirting a lot more.
If I make a soap—and this time I'm talking about bathing soap—of course, I want every customer to always buy my soap. But in a supermarket, where the customer has so many options, my soap has to work harder to convince the customer on every trip. In the same manner, films will have to work harder to convince the audience to stick on.
Harsh: I think that’s why we see so many franchise firms now—Avengers, Harry Potter, Mission Impossible. The audience likes the predictability.
Harsh: Across the world, there has been a surge in gaming during lockdown. But to go even earlier, gaming has been increasing in popularity. The bestselling entertainment products in the world are video games. And the bestselling video games make more money than even the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.
Damodar: So maybe this demand for interactivity and entertainment is a by-product of more people, more youngsters, enjoying gaming. And gaming has really been democratized by smartphones. Majority of the games are played not with console controllers, but on mobile devices.
Harsh: It's not just the youngsters. The majority of mobile gamers are older. The fastest segment of gamers is women aged 35 to 54. So, while we have this stereotype of who a gamer is, it turns out that today, all of us are gamers. And it's not a recent phenomenon.
A hunger for social interaction
Harsh: To go back to your point about exercising choice, does that mean we can expect to see more interactive entertainment—interactive films maybe?
Damodar: Isn't that what video games are about? Some of the games that you play with your consoles look like playable movies.
Harsh: If now the majority of entertainment is happening on personal devices, does that mean we are going to get more isolated?
Damodar: We will continue to be social, even in our entertainment. Even the manner in which we consume it changes with the social element—my bet is, it will remain.
You mentioned how you and your friends are playing Star Wars online together. As a family, we enjoy playing Scrabble together. Even though we are in different countries and different time zones. Tell me, do you ever feel satisfied by a show or a movie until you have discussed with your friends?
Harsh: In fact, now there are quite a few apps that allow you to watch Netflix or other media together. And most games have a multiplayer feature.
The TV industry too has been quite innovative in including audience interactivity—audience voting by SMS on American Idol or Indian Idol. Or even today when every major sport around the world has a fantasy game that the audience plays side by side to the match broadcast.
Damodar: Back here in India, KBC found a lot of success using an app that involves its audience. You could play the quiz on your phone alongside the on-screen contestant. Members of the family were playing their own contestant role and winning incentives and prizes. So, in the same home, four screens were simultaneously consuming content for KBC.
Smartphones and cheap, high-speed data in the post Jio era are just added to this mix.
The hall of past fame?
Harsh: Does that mean it's curtains for movie theatres then?
Damodar: Let's not be too hasty. Movie theatres in India serve as a valuable public space. They are an escape. Once people feel safe to return to these spaces, I have a feeling we will see cinemas becoming popular again.
What might help them get patrons back?
Harsh: In the US, multiplexers were experimenting with, even before the pandemic, a subscription model. Offering consumers the subscription, saying you pay one fee and watch multiple films, seemed to be working. It taps into that paisa vasool instinct.
Damodar: I would say, believe in the fact that a movie outing is a social act, a social ritual for most people. So, offer it (the theatre) to me for a party where, instead of sitting with strangers, I am sitting with my friends and families, and I feel safe.
The core promise of a movie outing isn’t going to go away. These are good public spaces which are scarce in India.
The x-factor: Live audience
Harsh: I host a monthly open mic here in New York. During lockdown, we took the event online. We saw an upside and a downside. The upside is that the audience size immediately increases—now we have people tuning in from many different places. The downside—and this especially affects stand-up comedians—is the loss of audience interactivity. Stand-up comedians feed off the energy of the audience. They often take cues from the audience. (Without that) it's a lot more rehearsed.
Damodar: Stepping back a little bit, whether it is stand-up comedy or live sport, it's watched more online, at home. But it's created in a live environment. That makes all the difference. To me, it is as much for the audience as it is for the performer.
If I'm a sportsman or a stand-up comedian, the zing, the X factor, the magic that I can bring, changes when I'm drawing energy from the live support from the audience
Even a show like TAMG. It's the edginess of live, the energy that comes from the fact that people are responding and commenting, adds so much to it. It may be consumed more after the show, but it's so much important for the quality of the content itself.
- The show is supported by a column on Founding Fuel, and an ongoing conversation with the Founding Fuel community on our Slack channel. Read the third column on what entertainment will look like post-pandemic.
- Bookmark the series.
- Dig deeper into two thoughts surfaced here: Digital trends; and social watching with Netflix Party.
- August 12, 2020: Watch out for the next column and audiogram on starting up. By our new set of guests—entrepreneur Pallavi Desai and her dad Santosh Desai, columnist and CEO of Future Brands.
- August 15, 2020: Episode 4 of TAMG. At 7.30 pm IST, with Pallavi and Santosh Desai, as they surface the passions and the anxieties around the idea of starting up. If you haven’t registered to watch the show already, register here: https://bit.ly/FFTAMG