Anirban Roy Choudhury

Indian cinema: What explains empty theatres in crowded malls?

As we enter a new year, will it be more action-packed as far as Indian cinema is concerned, as compared to 2020?

'Tenet', a film directed by Christopher Nolan, earned over Rs 4 crore in its opening weekend in India. Released in the country on December 4, the movie has so far raked in around Rs 10 crore at the box office. Then there is Christmas release 'Wonder Woman 1984' from the Warner Bros. It raked in over Rs 8 crore in its opening weekend. Yes, it is a sign of improvement, but when compared with a release in the same period last year (2019), the numbers are low. 

As compared to 'Wonder Woman 1984', 'Jumanji: The Next Level', which was released in December 2019, earned more than Rs 24 crore in its opening weekend. Despite all the deep-cleaning advertisements, the multiplexes are still relatively empty, even in crowded malls.

"DC Comics (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) is not Marvel. The lack of content is the reason," says Rudra Prosad Daw, business head, SVF Cinemas. Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF) is a Kolkata-based film production and distribution giant that owns multiplex chains and video-on-demand (VOD) platform Hoichoi. 

Currently, 'Cheeni', a Bengali film produced by SVF, is running in theatres across Kolkata. During the Christmas weekend, Kolkata's Park Street area was well-lit, as always. The street got so crowded that the traffic department had to divert the vehicular movement.

Quest Mall is within walking distance of Park Street. Throughout the long weekend, the mall had high footfall. Many people were clicking selfies with reindeer (not the real one), the giant Christmas tree and other in-mall decor. 

Glimpse of the busy Park Street in Kolkata on the same day the theatre was found empty
Glimpse of the busy Park Street in Kolkata on the same day the theatre was found empty

But in the same mall, the 6.50 p.m. show of 'Cheeni' had just five patrons. 'Cheeni', a movie with a strong storyline that revolves around a mother-daughter relationship, is better than five viewers for sure. The deep-cleaned INOX theatre, whose employees can be seen in masks and gloves, is definitely the safest place in the multi-storey (mall) building. Yet, the attendance was low.

"I disagree with the statement of empty theatres in crowded malls," says Saurabh Varma, CMO, INOX Leisure. According to him, multiplexes have been playing an extremely crucial role in fetching crowds to the malls for ages. "There are research reports which clearly state that multiplexes contribute to more than one-fourth of a mall’s footfalls and revenues." 

Varma, however, does concede that the footfall is low. "Of course, the impact of the lack of new content is visibly evident, as we are yet to reach our usual operational benchmarks, but the signs are optimistic. The current situation clearly highlights the importance of new movies to bring back the crowds to cinemas. We are expecting a steady flow of fresh content after a period of 3-4 weeks. The month of February (2021) will see a strong recovery." 

Saurabh Varma
Saurabh Varma

Low box office collection is a global trend. The COVID-induced lockdowns worldwide and dearth of new releases have reduced box office collection by 70 per cent. The direct-to-OTT releases have become a global phenomenon. With an uncertain tomorrow amidst the pandemic situation, the producers are reluctant to risk shelving ready-to-release films.    

Starting with 'Wonder Woman 1984', Warner Bros. will make 17 movies in its release slate available on HBO Max on the day they are released in the theatres. It is not only Warner Bros. that is disrupting the window that was there exclusively for the theatres.

Universal Pictures, a part of cable company Comcast, reduced its window to only 17 days before the films are made available on streaming platforms. Paramount Pictures, an arm of Viacom Inc., sold its films to Netflix and Disney in its investor day presentation. Disney announced a slew of Star Wars and Marvel releases on its streaming service Disney+. 

In India, the billboards of 'Coolie No. 1' say it is an Amazon Prime Video Movie, keeping it limited to mobile and smart TV screens. Disney+ Hotstar launched 'Multiplex' mid-2020 as an umbrella under which it will release movies before they hit the theatres. Akshay Kumar's 'Laxmmi Bomb' is one of them.

Rudra Prosad Daw
Rudra Prosad Daw

"That movie could have done Rs 100 crore in theatres. Akshay Kumar has that appeal," says Daw of SVF Cinemas. He believes that 'Sooryavanshi' and '83', the movie based on Kapil Dev's team India winning World Cup in 1983, are the sort of movies that would bring the crowds back to the screens.

The empty auditoriums don't tell the full story. Ashish Saksena, COO, Cinemas, BookMyShow, opines that the box office got off to a 'decent' start, with films like 'Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari', 'Biskoth' (Tamil), 'Irandam Kuththu' (Tamil), 'Dracula Sir' (Bengali) and 'ACT-1978' (Kannada). They helped attract audiences to the theatres during the festive season.

"Tenet’s excellent box office performance, coupled with the remarkable response for the other new releases, resulted in a 3x jump in ticket sales from November to December, on BookMyShow in 2020." 

West Bengal was the first state to initiate the reopening of cinemas, with 'Dracula Sir' being the first new movie to release post-lockdown, during Durga Puja.

"The film saw a phenomenal response from audiences in Kolkata, making it the first market to return to movies, post-lockdown. Currently, the consumer behaviour in Kolkata is in line with the general sentiment across the country, responding well to newer content as it makes its way to the big screen. Kolkata is amongst the top five cities for movies, post-lockdown, as per data on BookMyShow," Saksena adds.  

Ashish Saksena
Ashish Saksena

The multiplexes never had to flex their marketing muscles to get people to the theatres. The giant Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan posters were enough. The screens limited their promotional activities to value-added services and loyalty programmes. This is the first time they are forced to go out and scream that they are clean and tidy. The producers have time and again complained that the multiplexes are unable to win the trust because they are not communicating properly. 

"Our consumer communication, since pre-opening, has revolved around safety and hygiene. We are utilising our social media channels, on-screen and lobby displays in cinemas. A massive PR exercise has been carried out and a lot of influencers have been engaged to put across the message on cleaning and sanitisation," asserts Varma of INOX Leisure.

"We also undertook a print campaign at the industry level, In fact, we have received a lot of appreciation from our guests on social media for the level of sanitisation and cleaning standards we have adopted in our cinemas, religiously across the country," adds Varma. 

Daw says, "We are losing the 45-year-old-plus audience, who make a significant chunk of the movie-goers. I understand the 50 per cent cap on seating capacity, but if two people are coming together, they should be allowed to sit together. Mandatory seating a seat apart is working as a deterrent to younger audience too."

Hrithik Roshan sitting a seat apart from his son with whom he lives in the same house
Hrithik Roshan sitting a seat apart from his son with whom he lives in the same house

Varma opines that the industry is in the middle of a revival, which started in mid-October. The industry is still a fair distance from the usual buoyancy that it is known for. Regional language movies have an aura of their own and, therefore, they have a role to play in the overall recovery process of the industry.

"We were blessed with five new releases during Durga Puja. We witnessed house full shows for these releases. There have been instances of regional library content doing extremely well. Case in point being a Gujarati movie 'Chaal Jeevi Laiye', a 2019 release which is still doing well in Gujarat," Varma informs. 

The hugely anticipated Tamil movie 'Master', starring Vijay, is releasing on Pongal, along with other movies like 'Krack', starring Ravi Teja and Shruti Haasan, and 'Red', starring Ram Pothineni and Nivetha Pethuraj.

"These movies are going to weave a magic and hasten our recovery. 2021 is going to be an action-packed year as far as Indian cinema is concerned, with content across genres, concepts and languages ready to enthrall audiences," Varma concludes on a high note.