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Multiplexes: The best in business have exhausted their reserves?

The multiplex story: The best in business have exhausted their reserves, are deep into new debts of borrowings

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Film and television production has come to a halt again due to the second lockdown. The production sector will bounce back soon as the things are back to normal, and so will most of the film-related sectors albeit with bruises. But what happens to the multiplex cinema properties that sprang up like wild mushrooms all over the country?

Now that is a tough situation there. The first multiplex at Saket, Delhi, came up in 1997, owned by the PVR group. The 20th century was nearing its end, and the 21st century promised to be the era of multiplexes. Not only the big corporate houses, investors and even foreign companies entered this exhibition trade. There was no bases or logic in the build-up to the multiplex rise.

This unchecked growth of the multiplexes was becoming a burden on the exhibition trade. Instead of catering to the captive movie watchers in one locality, around which the cinema was built, the multiplexes in many places came up in close proximity of each other vying for the same local viewer and thereby creating a competition for each other.

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In fact, having four to five and, in many cases, even many more screens in a single property was creating competition for itself. But to have as many as 15 screens within a kilometre was unviable and made no business sense. The multiple screens became a norm. Mumbai’s Link Road in Andheri is one example. To beat that is the bunching of as many as 40 screens on Pune’s Magarpatta area. At least two properties have more than 10 screens! It was each to his own and there was no control over this growth. As the existing chains went on adding to their screens, a lot many independent entrepreneurs who made money in other businesses started investing in multiplex properties.

One of the reasons for the early multiplex rush was the favourable sops available to them from the governments in the form of tax holidays and such. While this led to the growth of multiplex screens, on the flip side it caused the downfall of the business of single screens.

Single screens had no such benefits like the multiplex properties. Too add to that, the novelty of the multiplex experience was a lure for the moviegoer. The single screen had no chance in hell against such odds. The dice were loaded against them for even while the powers that be helped promote the business of multiplexes, nothing was done to make sure the single screens survived, too.

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Multiplex cinema had not only driven the single screens out of business, it had also driven away the masses – the compulsive moviegoers – who had to catch a new film on its opening day, preferably, the first show. The admission rates were out of their reach.

Watching cinema at a multiplex had a snob value now. Everything about it was pricy, from popcorn to colas. But, even among multiplex cinemas, a sort of apartheid was created. Like, one or two screens in a cinema property were given special tags and, hence, higher admission rates. And there were those who would not be seen taking in a movie in any other screen but the costliest one! Then there were cinemas where the last one or two rows of back seats were priced doubly from rest of the rows. These were meant for college students and other couples to indulge, watching the movie playing on the screen being of least interest to them! Now, couples do indulge but to charge and make it convenient for them is not a very pleasant business practice!

There was a multiplex and there was a multiplex. Soon, they were being graded by the audience as well. The ones with high ticket rates, located in upmarket areas, and, most of all, managed by a big-name reputed chain scored over others. Even a local cabbie would suggest the big brand to you if you were in another city.

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Another factor that worked against the multiplexes, unlike the single screen cinemas, was that they milched a big star film to the last drop in shortest of periods. Multiple shows at enhanced admission rates were played together in all the neighbouring cinemas accounting for anything like 60 to 75 screenings per day. To their peril, there were few takers for a film after the opening weekend! How many big bill films released a year, 10 at best?

Compare this to the single screen era. There was this system of a main cinema, which would be located at the centre of a city and a limited number of cinemas (say, 18 to 20) spread over rest of the city and its suburbs, to cater to the local population around it. That way, every cinema house had its regular and loyal audience. And all cinemas ran just four shows per day. That gave a film longer run and steady box office.

So, what has happened to these single screen cinemas that boasted of the glory of screening many memorable films? Most of them are lying in ruins as dead properties. Some have gulped their pride and converted into storage depots or parking lots while those still standing are looking for an alternate use of premise. Also, some are stuck in family property disputes.

The renowned cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi, who has shot films like “Company”, “Maqbool”, “Kurbaan”, “Ishqzaade”, “Ungli” and “Brothers” among others, has embarked on a mission to record the past glory and the present status of single screens spread over the country. He has been visiting and shooting pictures of these cinema houses with the intent to publish a book.

Hemant has been posting the pictures on the social media of some of the cinemas he covered. To say the least, it is sad to see the pathetic state of these structures in ruination with vintage projectors, film reels, posters and other paraphernalia lying all over, nothing to say of the decor and the fixtures that saw better days in their prime.

Are the multiplex properties going the same way as the single screens?

Looking at how things stand now, let alone growth, the very survival seems impossible for a lot of them. To add to their problems is the boom of OTT platforms. The release of the major film, Salman Khan’s “Radhe” on Zeeplex this week, can set a trend that can mean a deathly blow to the multiplex business. (The next big film, “Sooryavanshi”, is expected to follow the OTT route with the probable release date of August 15).

The best in business have exhausted their reserves, are deep into new debts of borrowings from the open market. Monthly outgoing vary from Rs 35 crore to 45 crore. This has not only caused depletion of reserves but also led to liquidating personal stakes to raise monies to keep the properties business ready.

Cinepolis, a late entrant in the Indian exhibition trade, is said to have called it quits in the international exhibition trade. And to think that the group, with highest number of best maintained screens internationally, did not believe in any property smaller than 10 screens. Carnival cinemas has not been able to stick to its commitments to the landlords. E Square cinemas, has palmed of all but two of their 49 screens, the two which they owned are given on long lease. Then there is the biggest North India based SRS Cinema chain with 56 screens in 20 properties across 15 cities, it was in the offing even before the lockdown loomed. The story is the same with all such properties.

The borrowings and the rentals weigh heavily on multiplex properties as most such cinemas are located in malls, almost all rented properties face tough times ahead. If the situation does not change soon, the exhibition trade may be in the news for wrong reasons, like litigations.

–By Vinod Mirani

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