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Diwali and ‘Sooryavanshi’ Promise Revival, Exhibitors Willing

Sooryavanshi - The cinemas to reopen from October 22 onwards, it is back to business for the film distribution and exhibition trade.

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There is a great sigh of relief in film exhibition circles as well as the film trade in general. With the green signal from the Maharashtra government to the cinemas to reopen from October 22 onwards, it is back to business for the film distribution and exhibition trade.

The cinemas in almost all states in the country were allowed to open up gradually, except in the state of Maharashtra. For the Bombay circuit, Mumbai city and suburbs contribute a big share to the box office. Besides, the city is also the heart of everything in Hindi films. No wise man with stakes in crores would want to release a film till the cinema lockdown is lifted in Maharashtra. Now that the new films are releasing in cinema halls, it is back to business for the film trade; back to business alright but, it is not yet back to business as usual.

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Two new films released on October 22, the day cinemas reopened for the public, “Bhavai” and “Babloo Bachelor”. There is not much of a public response yet. I think the reopening as well as the opening features were not publicized enough or, rather, not at all. Was the flocking of crowds taken for granted? The reason to say so is that, had “Bhavai” released on OTT, it would have definitely received a much better response. And, that is because Pratik Gandhi, who plays the pivotal role in “Bhavai”, has established himself as a performing star material with “Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story”. And, people would have wanted to watch “Bhavai” for his sake at least (which, they may eventually do).

Since, this is about cinemas reopening, the films released on October 22 were not even expected to draw crowds. Traditionally, pre Diwali fortnight has always been considered a dull period for film business. People’s priority is to plan for the Diwali celebrations, spend money towards that end and not on watching a movie.

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Unfortunately, the new generation corporate honchos have neither been taught about traditions nor have they learnt from experience. Consumer goods or even luxury items may sell during this period (the period is all about adding comfort to your family and life). Even Diwali day won’t get you the desired footfalls except in some metros. So it has never been wise to release a new film on the eve of Diwali. Diwali is a family and social festival, outings happen thereafter. It is a wise decision to release “Sooryavanshi” on November 5, a day after Diwali.

The cinemas, especially some of the multiplex managements, did try to attract viewers with schemes for their opening fare, “Bhavai” and “Babloo Bachelor”. The schemes proved to be a bonus for the few who came and not a lure for others. It is not yet time for the cinema owners to rejoice even if the long awaited “Sooryavanshi”, which stars three (these kinds of multi-starrers have not been seen since the 1970s) top actors, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Ranveer Singh. To add to that, it is a Rohit Shetty directorial film and he believes in delivering thorough entertainers.

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“Sooryavanshi” is a high budget film and would need full capacity cinema screens to make its mark, for even if it collects between 90 per cent and 100 per cent, the real figures would amount to only half of that. And, this is because many states have allowed the cinemas to function but with the restrictions of filling only 50 per cent of the full capacity and that is not conducive to a good business for a film like “Sooryavanshi”.

But, the multiplexes, especially the top few chains, which call the shots, are acting pricey. Having come out of the year-and-a-half of lockdown, they have started dictating terms again with the makers of “Sooryavanshi”, the film which was held back for the same amount of time for the cinema release instead of going for the OTT! The multiplexes want “Sooryavanshi” to share the play time and screens 50:50 with the Hollywood release, “Eternals”. The multiplex managements’ contention is that Hollywood keeps them supplied all year long while a Hindi filmmaker gives just one film a year! Is the Hindi industry made of just one producer and one film a year?

The haggling has already started but this will definitely be a bad experience for the filmmakers. The market for Hollywood films has grown tremendously in India and their various dubbed versions in the regional languages has broadened the market for them. But, it makes little sense to sacrifice the potential of a major film like “Sooryavanshi”, that too during the Diwali festival, for a Hollywood film. It is rather selfish of cinema managements. The audience for “Eternal” is not going anywhere. The release of “Sooryavanshi” will also be the post Covid-19 pandemic test for the cinema business, it will determine if the people have come out of the pandemic fear. The film’s stay and the business at the box office will decide if the people are ready to take to cinema going, yet.

Least that is needed to boost people’s confidence some more is for the governments all over India, including and mainly Maharashtra, to allow the cinemas to function at 100 per cent occupancy as a Diwali bonus (the Delhi administration has done so this week.). Not only cinemas, all the trades will stand to gain. People have been thronging the local markets, and crowded transport services, restricting cinema occupancy to 50 per cent makes no sense, really.

Even as they start dictating terms, the exhibitors should understand that while they were facing a lockdown, a major alternate entertainment source had not only taken root but had also grown by leaps and bounds. And, that is a horde of OTT platforms with their huge repertoire from all over the world even as they go on adding the original Indian content. The OTT platforms have a lot of advantages when compared to cinemas in options, rates, comfort, sharing with family and friends and so on. The OTT needs a mention here because it brings back to mind when a Sunday evening telecast of a feature film on Doordarhan was a cause of noticeable drop in box office collections. Who could one complain to after all? Films telecast on Doordarhan were supplied by the filmmakers’ own brethren, all for Rs 3 lakh to Rs 5 lakh (middleman’s commission not excluded for nothing here worked without agents!) per telecast. If a Sunday telecast of an old film on Doordarshan affected collections, OTT is certainly going to be a bigger competition for the exhibition trade.

The OTT has managed to create its own star system (besides giving a chance to many out of work actors to showcase their talent and earn whose films would not get a fair playtime at cinemas). While the cinemas dig big star films, thinking that is their survival model, OTT don’t care for the lot. They seek content and have been successful to some extent. So far, all films had their only outlet in cinema screens. The cinemas played hard to get for small films though without them it would be hard for cinemas to fill up their 52-week playtime. After all, how many big films release a year, 6 or 12? These small films now make their films for and opt for OTT as the outlet. So, even while the exhibition trade may celebrate the reopening, they face new challenges and a rethink.

Cinema was called opium of the masses and the masses have long been driven away with the advent of multiplex and high admission rate exhibition trade. “Sooryavanshi” is expected to make the miracle happen if the exhibitors know what is good for them.

–By Vinod Mirani

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