Benita Chacko

Cinemas reopen in Maharashtra today, owners optimistic of it fuelling growth across country

Theatres have pinned their hopes on the Rohit Shetty film Sooryavanshi, releasing on November 5, to pull crowds and rake in the much-needed moolah.

Lights switch off. Screen lights up with the image of the national flag. Everyone hurriedly stands up for the national anthem. And finally the film begins. With the Maharashtra government allowing theatres to reopen on October 22, movie lovers can once again experience this after almost two years.

Though states like Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka allowed theatres to reopen from July 30, they did not draw much crowds as very few Bollywood films released during this time. Theatres were mostly banking on Hollywood and regional films. But as soon as Maharashtra announced the reopening of cinema halls, filmmakers started booking release dates for their big-budget films and close to 23 Hindi films announced their release dates. In the last two years, many films have been waiting to be released in theatres and now till mid-2022 all weekends are packed with big releases.

Why does so much ride on Maharashtra? Close to 30 per cent of the theatrical revenue comes from Maharashtra. Big markets like Delhi, UP witness high footfall in theatres only when there are big Hindi or English films releasing. So none of the studios were releasing high-profile Hindi movies, which ultimately resulted in lower footfalls across India.

Theatres were one of the first to shut and are one of the last to reopen. As the virus started gaining ground in India, several states, including Delhi, Kerala and Maharashtra, directed cinema halls to close between March 11 to 16 till March 31, 2020. The Central government later directed a nationwide lockdown from March 25. After seven months of remaining shut, they were allowed to reopen in some states in October only to shut again in April due to the second wave. During this time theatres barely sold any tickets as people were still living in the fear of contracting the virus and there were no big-ticket releases.

Though theatres are opening in Maharashtra on October 22, there are no big Bollywood releases until November 5 when Sooryavanshi will come on screens. Theatres have pinned their hopes on this Rohit Shetty film to pull crowds and rake in the much-needed moolah.

With the number of Covid19 cases in the country ebbing and the vaccination numbers touching a new high everyday, the earlier fear seems to be gone. Theatres are also taking measures like staggering show timings and allowing alternate seatings to avoid crowding. However theatres will have to indulge in some confidence-building measures to lure movie-goers.

Anand Vishal, chief sales and revenue officer, INOX Leisure Ltd
Anand Vishal, chief sales and revenue officer, INOX Leisure Ltd

Anand Vishal, chief sales and revenue officer, INOX Leisure Ltd, says that the greatest crowd-puller will remain the content slate. But beyond that they will be taking certain measures to revive the audience's movie-going habit. “Here we need to ensure that the consumer feels safe. We have done whatever it takes to make sure that the guest is fully safe and secure. And we are communicating that to our guests via emails, WhatsApp and SMS. Once the consumer sees the precautions themselves they will share the word with others as well,” he said.

Prashant Kulkarni, head of sales, marketing and new business expansion, Carnival Cinemas
Prashant Kulkarni, head of sales, marketing and new business expansion, Carnival Cinemas

Prashant Kulkarni, head of sales, marketing and new business expansion, Carnival Cinemas, says the pent-up demand to watch movies in a cinema hall will also pull crowds. “The safety of our patrons is of utmost importance and we are taking care of everything as per government guidelines and even beyond. There is a pent up demand for watching movies in a cinema hall and we are waiting to cater to that,” he said.

Vishal says that since the cinemas opened in some states in July the footfalls have increased week on week showing that the consumer’s confidence to return to the big screen has increased.

“If we look at the occupancy percentage, it's only going up. The recovery has been much faster and better after the second lockdown as compared to the first. It took us some time to start recovering after last year’s lockdown. But this time the recovery has been much sharper,” he added.

Cinema halls are also sweetening the deal to pull crowds. INOX is offering free movie tickets to all guests across Maharashtra on October 22 for shows starting between 9 am and 10 am. Carnival Cinemas is offering free popcorn to everyone marked safe on the Aarogya Setu App this weekend.

However some of the government guidelines can be a dampener and prevent people from visiting the theatres. For example, not all states have allowed cinema halls to operate in full capacity. Some states, including Maharashtra, have allowed only 50 per cent bookings. This could mean that even big budget films will be hesitant to release as they will not be able to rake in as much revenue as before.

Kulkarni says, “We are looking forward to the 50 per cent occupancy going up to 75% and soon close to 100% occupancy. We are expecting a recovery in a couple of months. Even at a 50% occupancy it will still break some records. But are expecting the government to remove the capacity restriction.”

During the launch of Vanita Kohli Khandekar’s book ‘The Indian Media Business (5th edition)’, even Ajay Bijli, Chairman, PVR, said that the theatre business’ recovery depends on it operating in full capacity.

“It was a massively long interruption, but things will come back as soon as the pandemic comes under control and also when the capacity restrictions that the government has put gets removed,” he said.

Eating popcorn and sipping on chilled cold drinks is as much a part of the movie-going experience. For INOX, food and beverages is a major source of revenue with about Rs 100 being spent on an average per consumer. But it is going to be a while before patrons can enjoy that experience as the government has banned the consumption of food inside the movie hall. People will have to step out of the hall during the interval to consume food. Keeping this in mind Carnival Cinemas has increased their interval time.

Moreover, cinemas will have to ensure social distancing by providing alternate seating. This means even family members cannot sit together to watch the movie. While this will ensure safety, it may also keep many away (including couples, who flock to movies for their dates). After all, who likes to watch movies seated alone?

The guidelines can also get complicated. For example, while double vaccination is not required to enter cinema halls in Maharashtra, it is mandated for entry in malls. And many cinema halls are located inside malls.

With theatres reopening are brands also looking to make a comeback with in-cinema advertising? While brands have initiated discussions with theatres, they are still waiting to see how the ticket sales do.

Vishal says it will take between three to six months for advertising to resume 100 per cent. “With Sooryavanshi, we should be about 50 to 70 per cent of what we were doing earlier. That’s a very good start. Even if we are able to get 50 to 70 per cent of our previous brands on board in the first three months we’ll be successful,” he said.

Carnival is incentivising their advertising by giving special rates to brands that are giving any offers to the consumers. “So if you're communicating any kind of offers or anything extra for the audience, then we give you a special deal for all of October and November,” said Kulkarni.

For advertisers who are still apprehensive about the footfalls in theatres, Carnival also offers them ‘a cost per eyeball’ model, where the advertisers only pay for the number of people seeing the ad. Cinépolis’ also has a similar model ‘Cost-per-Contact Model’, where the brand would have the advantage of paying for the number of attendees per show instead of paying a flat charge for that show, virtually guaranteeing footfalls.

Mohit Gyanchandani, head of media planning and growth at DCMN India, said, "Pre-COVID, the medium was growing 15-20 per cent annually. Cinema advertising will take time to return to its pre-COVID levels, but the opening up of cinema spaces in Q4 will give a substantial and much-needed boost for the channel. Provided case numbers remain stable, cinema advertising should make a healthy recovery in 2022."

In the last year and a half when theatres were shut, people shifted to OTT platforms to watch their movies. However now with theatres reopening, filmmakers are optimistic that the audiences will also return to the big screens. In her book ‘The Indian Media Business (5th edition)’, Khandekar writes that ‘the first and most important brick needed to rebuild the Indian film business is theatrical revenues’ as they bring in 60 per cent of Rs 191 billion that Indian films earned in 2019.

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