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Cinema – They were better off closed!?

If at all the cinema business has to bounce back, it will have to wait till vaccination hits the market and the flow of films with crowd-pulling star cast resumes

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The cinema chains, which pleaded and lobbied hard, with various state governments and the Central Government to lift lockdown and let cinemas get back into operation, got their wish eventually. However, it was not going to business as usual. There were to be many restrictions like occupancy percentage, sanitising before each show and such.

With such guidelines to follow, one wondered why the cinema owners wanted the withdrawal of lockdown. Because lockdown was not only for the cinema houses. It must be for the first time that all activities — industries, trades or whatever enterprise one did the world over — had come to a standstill, and its cause was the pandemic Covid-19.

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Let alone commercial activities, even the movement of people was blocked. Building and residential societies were under lockdown. Nothing like this had ever been imposed on people before. Of course, there was something worse that a generation had witnessed earlier in many parts of the world. That was World War II. To people losing their mind or patience because of Covid 19 restrictions, that is the example I cite.

We have lost patience and started defying precautionary measures by stepping out, not wearing masks and not maintaining safe distance. And, we have been into it for, say, seven months? World War II lasted for all of six years.

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In the case of Covid-19, those who stayed and followed the guidelines were expected to be safe. There was no such guaranty for people for those six years. There was no food, no electricity and, mostly, no saying if one would see the next dawn as carpet bombing was the norm. It was not as easy as staying at home, washing hands and keeping safe distance. No, your house could be bombed even while you tried to sleep.

So, what was the calculation, if there was any, or logic about cinema chain holders being insistent on reopening? The men who own or manage these cinema chains are said to be masters of business administration and this has been their test, and none of them have been able to prove their mettle.

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The greatest learning is always on the job.

Since the multiplex era began in India at the cost of single screens, the film business has changed for the worse. With single screens out of business, the trade has lost the viewership of the masses and the audience from smaller towns and theatres, which catered to a definite strata of moviegoers.

There was a class of movie lovers who were compulsive cine-goers. Catching a film on its day of release was a qualified one as a buff and being the first-day-first-show watcher of a new movie was a boast. Any star cast movie would be assured of a full house in the first show, rest depended on its merits because the first show audience spread the word, good or bad.

All those who enter India to do business count on volume, with the country having a mass consumer base. Imagine cellphone tariffs of Rs 16 a minute both ways (caller and receiver both paid) when launched, or airplane fares! That was till they decided to go for increasing the consumer base and do business by volume and not tariff. (You know, many who go to dine out, order food after checking the right side column of the menu card!). The exhibition trade would have done better to follow this tested and successful practice.

So, where has that compulsive moviegoer gone? Mumbai roads are flooded every monsoon as a norm. As a result, the cinema houses in the low lying areas also get flooded. But, the show was not stopped. Screenings continued for whatever audience wished to come and watch the movie from balcony of the cinema!

This preamble is necessary because the devoted moviegoer of yore does not exist anymore. People are flocking the markets, temples and even the eateries and gyms. However, they don’t seem ready to spend at the cinema, yet.

The cinema chains seemed to be aware that reopening was not going to bring the audience back so soon. Because, most chain holders did not even open all their screens. Some smaller chains did not even bother to reopen. Now, those which opened up are either curtailing the number of screens, shows or closing down again.

The situation was desperate and the multiplexes, which had become used to dictate terms, were on the receiving end when Zee dictated its own terms for a no-face value film, “Suraj Pe Mangal Bhaari”. The film would not even have attracted viewers in the normal time. But now the film was commanding terms and the multiplexes complied! The result? Not very heartening.

This week there is a no film to screen at all. The re-run of old films is not working. The one-week figures of a successful film like “War” (starring Hrithink Roshan and Tiger Shroff) stood at a poor Rs 8,850, while “Uri” collected Rs 10,700 and “Andhadhun” managed Rs 13,350.

A Ghaziabad single screen cinema hall, which was converted into a two-screen property, states that it costs Rs 3.5 lakh per month to run the cinema, and owners see no scope to recover even half of that amount in the present circumstances! Imagine, how much it would cost to keep a five-screen property afloat!

Some cinemas expected footfalls during the Diwali weekend and ran as many as seven to nine shows to cut down immediately, due to lack of response.

Cinema managements are reconsidering a voluntary closure now, as this Friday saw no new release. There seems to be no hope even on the 27th. The exhibitors of Gujarat met on Friday to consider the future course of action but postponed the final decision till Monday, as the state government announced a 60-hour weekend curfew in Ahmedabad, due to which the cinemas will remain closed anyway. Meanwhile, a popular cinema house, Pradeep in Junagadh, Gujarat, announced a permanent closure effective November 20.

If at all the cinema business has to bounce back, it will have to wait till vaccination hits the market and the flow of films with crowd-pulling star cast resumes. Running cinema halls till that time may only add to the losses.

–ians, Vinod Mirani

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