Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Road To Recovery

“New movie releases should flow in by December 1 and things should normalise by March”: Ashish Saksena, BookMyShow

The online gateway to cinemas like PVR Cinemas, INOX Leisure, Gold Cinema and Carnival Cinemas, is now also an opening for a newer dimension of entertainment.

Online ticketing platform BookMyShow (BMS) used to sell over 15 million movie tickets every month in the pre-COVID era. The platform has been the online gateway to cinema brands, like PVR Cinemas, INOX Leisure, Gold Cinema and Carnival Cinemas, in more than 650 towns and cities in India. In a bid to grow its non-movies (segment), BookMyShow entered the live entertainment scene (in 2017).

Over 65 per cent of the platform's revenues used to be driven by movies, and the rest came from live entertainment. However, with the advent of COVID and its accompanying evils, things changed overnight. Outdoor events and movie halls, the two key sources of BookMyShow’s revenues, were banned.

The platform quickly diversified into new formats, like live online entertainment, while also experimenting with merchandising. After a gap of over six months, cinema halls were allowed to reopen (barring a few states) from October 15, under strict guidelines (like 50 per cent occupancy, social distancing and compulsory face masks). With these developments, BookMyShow is making a gradual recovery.

After an initial dip in users, the platform saw people returning following the new initiatives. As the government allowed the reopening 'entertainment starved' users returned to check on new releases, etc.

Ashish Saksena, COO - Cinemas, BookMyShow, says that cinema halls were among the earliest ones to shut down, and will probably be the last ones to fully open. “We reinvented our offerings fairly quickly, and within a couple of days, started streaming events.” Saksena says that the platform explored virtual events in the past, but never took them seriously “because other things were more feasible.”

Ashish Saksena
Ashish Saksena

BookMyShow rolled out ‘Live From HQ’, its first virtual entertainment offering on March 25 (within a day of the lockdown), with artistes performing from their homes. As per claims, over four million people viewed these events within four weeks of the lockdown, with an addition of half-a-million viewers each week subsequently.

Most of the initial events were free. The ‘free’ period was used to assess genres, price points and formats, along with devising an economically viable pricing model, which was put in place by April-end, early May.

Currently, almost 70 per cent of the online events are ticketed, with a ‘sharp spike’ in ticket sales each month. Prices range from Rs 29 to a several thousand rupees, and as per claims, ticket sales, as of early August, had grown 7x since early April.

The top performing paid categories include comedy, workshops-cum-masterclasses, music and magic shows. Comedy, as a genre, grew over 300 per cent (in revenue terms) in June, as compared to April. Plays, gaming, music have grown consistently over 110 per cent monthly. The ticket sales for the music offerings have also catapulted, growing over 100x in less than three months.

Saksena mentions that a healthy repeat viewership for these events in metros and other cities indicates a positive appetite for the categories. “This has brought in audiences from markets that haven’t experienced live entertainment previously, reflecting positive outcomes when we start on-ground concerts and festivals again.”

"Virtual events brought in audiences from markets that haven’t experienced live entertainment previously."

He expects the trend of offline events to continue beyond COVID. “Once the lockdown is lifted from events, this initiative will still remain. It is not a makeshift sort of a move.”

On the cinema front, a LocalCircles survey (of 8,274 respondents nationally) revealed that only seven per cent of consumers plan to visit movie theatres within two months of theatres opening up. On the contrary, a BookMyShow survey (of 4,000-plus active customers across 235 cities and towns) from May revealed that 54 per cent of consumers are eager to get to theatres within 15-90 days of the lockdown lifting. The report also highlighted safety measures as a key user preference.

"The time between announcement of SOPs and cinemas opening was very minimal."

Saksena says that the company was anticipating safety requirements due to similar developments in countries that had already reopened cinema halls. “The time between SOPs (standard operating procedures) coming out and cinemas opening was very minimal. We expected this development and worked on three accepted SOP options knowing that one would be accepted. We did not take much time once cinemas opened.”

“We also knew that offline ticketing will come under constraints and developed a BMS point of sale (POS) option for offline counters. 400-plus cinemas currently have that option, where they allow ticketless entry into cinemas using our POS device.”

Saksena explains that since the ticketing software of cinemas was integrated with the BMS backend, BMS couldn’t go with its own system of selling tickets. “We had to follow what the cinema is doing and then adjust the backend to support the seat layouts, etc. It’s pretty easy to say that it’s just alternate seats, but there are varying factors, like where the seating starts from. Like from top left corner, etc. It varies from cinema to cinema, and we had to match that. Else, we’d be dealing with issues like duplication of tickets, and there would be chaos. It was done for everyone – multiplex, standalone, single screen.”

"It’s pretty easy to say that it’s just alternate seats, but there are varying factors, like where the seating starts from."

BookMyShow has rolled out the ‘My Safety First’ tag across its web and app platforms. It has been created in-house in collaboration with cinema partners from all over India. It highlights various safety indicators across cinemas listed on the platform. It includes in-cinema seat distancing, thermal screening, contactless security check, availability of hand sanitisers, daily temperature check for staff members, availability of packaged food/beverages, limited occupancy in restrooms, compulsory masks, social distancing in cinema premises, sanitisation before each show, among others. The platform also enabled cinemas to share actual pictures and videos of on-ground measures.

"We might not run cinemas, but we have to complement the way they were operating."

“We realised the need to educate customers about what to expect at a cinema hall, what kind of guidelines to follow and what kind of safety measures a cinema is taking. We might not run cinemas, but we have to complement the way they were operating,” says Saksena.

He says that the goal at the moment is just to open cinemas, ensure that the guidelines are followed and address the necessary repair and maintenance work. New releases have been put on hold, as major markets like Telangana and Maharashtra are yet to open. Many cinemas are operating in a single shift. The two main reasons to visit a particular cinema would be the proximity to homes and safety measures. BookMyShow has witnessed both individual movie-goers as well as families making a comeback.

"The true picture will probably come after the first week of November and the pre-Diwali week."

“The true picture will probably come after the first week of November and the pre-Diwali week. We are hoping that the markets will be open by then. We saw a good sign in the release of 'Dracula Sir’ in West Bengal. It saw full houses, (50 per cent occupancy). This gives us confidence and that’s the reason why a lot of big movies are holding on to releases. In the US, the theatrical business of films is about 25-35 per cent of the overall revenue. In India, it is over 65 per cent.”

Speaking about new releases, Saksena says, “It could be slightly delayed, but we are confident that cinema will continue to show the same growth. New movie releases should flow in by December 1, and things should normalise by March.”

"New movie releases should flow in by December 1, and things should normalise by March."

BookMyShow has also forayed into select merchandise related to cinema, popular culture and entertainment, which is available on the platform. The business, which started a few months ago, is in pilot mode and sits as an extension of various touch points under the entertainment umbrella. Offerings on the in-app shop range from T-shirts to home decor items.

Edtech startup upGrad partnered with BookMyShow to provide upskilling, career advancement courses for users.

“New movie releases should flow in by December 1 and things should normalise by March”: Ashish Saksena, BookMyShow

The ticketing platform has also been beefing up 'BMS Buzz’ and 'Watch Guide’, its content offerings that work as a support to the platform’s core offerings. These are aimed at helping users discover and choose entertainment options. 'BookMyShow Buzz' now has a broad content pool, including short videos, recommendations, reviews, games, etc. 'Watch Guide' exposes users to content and trends across streaming platforms. The sponsored content in the sections make it commercially viable.

In terms of expansion, BookMyShow has onboarded about 400 new screens in non-metro/Tier-II cities. “This will all add to the numbers once things normalise. We hope to get back in business in March,” Saksena signs off.