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PVR Cinemas employees wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits sanitise a cinema hall
PVR Cinemas employees wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits sanitise a cinema hall

India estimated to have lost 10-12% of its movie screens due to covid shutdown

  • The additional investment on hygiene and safety measures is not something that will be easy for a sector already fighting for survival

NEW DELHI : India, which is already one of the most under-screened movie markets in the world, is estimated to have lost around 10-12% of its cinema screens over these four-and-a-half months of covid-19 shutdown. If it continues much longer, the figure could go up to 15-20%, trade experts say. India had 6,327 single screens and 3,200 multiplexes as of 2019 according to the Ficci-EY media and entertainment industry report 2020. Clearly, that figure will further shrink.

“The film exhibition sector is in a mess thanks to the combination of an indefinite delay in making films in addition to the absence of clarity on a reopening date for theatres," said film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar. He referred to the fact that not only do theatres don’t know when they will be able to resume operations, they also have no idea on whether audiences will feel confident enough to venture out, even when they technically can, or whether there will be any films to draw crowds at all, given that production of several projects is halted while completed ones have opted for direct-to-digital releases.

Like India, the world's biggest movie market China is witnessing threat to 40% of its nearly 70,000 theatres in the wake of covid-19. Theatres that shut in January, reopened briefly in March but shut down again and have now slowly started resuming operations.

Single screens are bearing the worst brunt. Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema said that these independent properties were already struggling to provide entertainment to locals in small towns at nominal rates. The additional investment on hygiene and safety measures is not something that will be easy for a sector already fighting for survival. In the past few months, iconic theatres such as AVM Rajeswari and Maharani, both in Chennai, among many, have announced closures.

“So many single screen owners have gotten so disheartened that they don’t wish to continue in the business at all," said Bihar-based independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan. In the past few months, top stars such as Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, who could guarantee returns at a time when Bollywood is increasingly leaning on urban, niche, multiplex subjects, have taken their films Laxmmi Bomb and Bhuj: The Pride of India to digital platforms. When "these stars of the masses do not care to stand by the sector that is responsible for their stardom," there is no option for these single screens but to explore rentals by converting to either marriage halls or shopping complexes, exhibitors like Chauhan say.

Multiplexes may not admit to such despondence yet but the going is equally tough for them. Gautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Cinemas said it is normal procedure for non-performing properties to be laid off each year but trade experts point out that this unending crisis will compel many of India’s multiplex screens to close down, particularly in small towns and virgin territories where the penetration of movie halls is anyway negligible. This will automatically reduce access to cinema for people in these locations, who will now have to travel to nearby towns or lose out on films that don’t release around them due to lack of screening space.

“Also, Bollywood will probably not have fancy box office numbers to speak of for a while," Mohan pointed out. “Stars used to being part of the Rs. 100-200 crore club may now struggle to reach these numbers with many screens out of the game until new players come up to take their place," he added.

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