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NEW DELHI : Nearly 45% of India’s movie screens are yet to resume operations despite government permits having come in as early as October citing absence of fresh content and mounting costs.

Several theatres, particularly single screens, say the lack of new content featuring popular actors makes reopening almost futile since families in small towns are unlikely to step out. Several others don’t want to reopen in the same area as a competing player for fear of further splitting minuscule audience.

That is not all. Keeping a theatre operational is expensive as it requires additional spends on sanitization and disinfecting which will add to seven-month losses aggravated by fixed employee, electricity and maintenance charges in absence of any government stimulus. Cinema owners also do not see reason in starting at a time when they would have to reduce ticket prices to lure audiences and spend on repairing projectors, speakers and other equipment.

India had 9,527 screens as of 2019 according to the Ficci-EY media and entertainment industry report 2020 but only around 5,000 have managed to reopen, say trade experts.

“The fear of the virus is far from gone and people do not see the point in coming to watch films that are already available on OTT (over-the-top) streaming platforms," said Pravin Chalikwar of Priti Cinemas, a single screen theatre in Parbhani, Maharashtra referring to hits like Tanhaji-The Unsung Warrior and Kabir Singh that are playing in many cinemas across the country till new content arrives. Chalikwar is looking at January to reopen his theatre but expects viewers to only trickle in by April. Although he has managed to bring down employee expenses by 10-20%, fixed electricity, maintenance and salary costs still ensure expenditure of 50,000 per month. He expects regular sanitization and disinfecting to make for another 6,000, if the cinema reopens.

“Movies are meant to be a source of entertainment or a means to relax with the family. But the scenario is completely different right now. Your mind is so occupied with maintaining all safety norms that it’s no fun. Plus, why would you pay to risk your life?" Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema pointed out. A lot depends on the box office fate of comedy drama Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari, the only new Bollywood offering to arrive in theatres for Diwali, but all big-ticket Hindi titles including Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi and sports drama ’83 have already opted out of the 2020 calendar.

Kunal Sawhney, senior vice-president at Carnival Cinemas said multiplex chains like theirs have also reopened properties depending on the safety of the location or avoiding if a competing player has already restarted operations so as to not crowd a particular catchment. Even multiplexes have not re-opened all their screens in a single property and stayed limited to 50% capacity.

“Expenses of regular sanitization, disinfecting and fogging are impossible to bear," said Pranav Garg of Maya Palace in Muzaffarnagar who has opened his two-screen theatre but curtailed the number of shows per day to three per auditorium instead of six and sees around 50-100 people walking in daily, on an average. His ticket rates are down too—from 100-150 to 50-80. Reduced footfalls have led to a dip in food and beverage revenue.

“The new SOPs have enhanced our costs but it is a huge challenge to build confidence of people," Garg said adding that the only positive sign right now is that there have been queries from people on when Sooryavanshi and ’83 are expected to release.


Lata Jha

Lata Jha covers media and entertainment for Mint. She focuses on the film, television, video and audio streaming businesses. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She can be found at the movies, when not writing about them.
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