Not too long ago, watching a movie in India mostly meant standing in long lines for tickets to spend three hours in a stuffy hall with bug-infested seats, a creaky sound system and a screen sewn up to hide holes.
A ticket cost about half a dollar, the fare offered was often formulaic saccharine romances or blood-and-gore revenge dramas, and movie hall owners had little incentive to improve things as business was reeling under the onslaught of cable TV.
That was until an enterprising businessman in this movie-crazy nation—the world’s biggest in terms of ticket volumes—stuck his neck out and built the country’s first multiplex, or a multi-screen cinema hall, in New Delhi about 10 years ago. The timing seemed just right: economic reform and liberalization initiated in the early 1990s had just begun to give Indians more disposable incomes and the spread of cable TV had also exposed them to newer cultural experiences.
Today, scores of multiplexes have mushroomed in cities across the country, bringing with them online or phone booking of tickets, perfumed auditoria, plush bucket seats and state-of-the-art audio and projection systems.
Some have restaurants attached or snacks delivered at the seats, tickets delivered home, gaming parlours and even valet parking. They show a choice of the latest commercial Indian and Hollywood films, although a ticket now costs about $3 (Rs121).
Moreover, many are located in big malls, adding the attraction of shopping to a day out at the movies. “Earlier, it was like one film in one hall, you don’t get tickets you go home,” said Dipti Varma, a young executive with a business forum. “Now you have a choice of films under one roof.”
“And if you still don’t get tickets, you can shop in the mall, eat, play and chill out. There are so many options.”
Such has been the runaway success of this cinema viewing experience that today, even though multiplexes make up just 2% of India’s nearly 12,000 screens, they account for more than half the box office revenue of Hollywood releases in the country and more than a third for Bollywood.
That success, however, has not been limited to the glitzy cinema halls.
Industry analysts say that multiplexes, with their smaller halls, have also redefined filmmaking by creating a niche for experimental cinema among urban, educated audiences.
“Today, the story-line, treatment, production schedules, even budgeting, distribution and pre-release promotions are tailored towards multiplexes,” said Derek Bose, an Indian cinema expert.
Multiplexes, where ticket prices are five times that at a single-screen cinema, ensure a faster return on investment for producers and, because of quick turnarounds, have become instrumental in raising the output of films, he said.
“The idea now is to recover investments within the first weekend,” said Bose, who has authored several books on Bollywood.
Independent film-makers like Madhur Bhandarkar agree, saying multiplexes have proved to be a blessing as many recent hits would never have been made if it were not for them. “Exhibitors would never run my films in a 1,000-seater hall,” said Bhandarkar, a leading director known for his unconventional films. For businessmen who kept their faith in movie halls and invested in multiplexes, it has been a gamble that paid off. They have thrived on the back of tax incentives over the last five years, and are now looking to expand, according to industry group Ficci.
Aiming to widen their base in search of greater profits, they are now moving to smaller cities and towns, where operating costs are lower, allowing for greater flexibility in ticket pricing.
“Multiplexes will first reap the more lucrative markets— reap the low hanging fruit first—and then move on to the smaller markets,” said Deepak Asher, director of multiplex operator Inox.
“It is just a question of time before multiplexes hit the B and C towns big time.”
While PVR Ltd, the pioneer, has about 70 screens, Inox has about 50. Adlabs Films Ltd, which branched out from film processing to multiplexes, plans to have about 80 screens by 2007-08.
The multiplex industry is expected to grow more than 44% to $220 million by next year, according to a recent report by brokerage B&K Securities.
The overall Indian film industry, now worth about $2 billion, is expected to grow to $4.3 billion by 2011, Ficci says.
While more and more single-screen cinemas are converting to multiplexes in cities, they still remain the entertainment mainstay for millions in small towns and villages.
They are also popular with the urban poor because of their cheaper tickets.
Analysts say high ticket prices have also meant that average occupancy levels in multiplexes have hovered at around 40%. They say that as multiplexes mushroom and begin cutting into each others’ territories, occupancy levels could plummet to 30%. “This could mean the multiplex boom is a bubble that will burst unless ticket prices are brought down,” said Bose.