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NEW DELHI : With the film exhibition business seeing signs of recovery, multiplex chains such as PVR, INOX, Carnival, and Miraj are firming up expansion plans that have been in the works. Most chains Mint spoke with are looking to add 20-30 screens each across the country. INOX is looking at opening 30 new screens before the end of the financial year, PVR is aiming at 20. These will be across small-towns and metros such as Hyderabad, Jalandhar, Rourkela, Bhilwara, and Kolkata, with an additional focus on deepening penetration into south India, which remains dominated by single-screen cinemas.

A regular multiplex property can cost between `3 crore and `3.5 crore to build, while premium cinemas can cost more. However, companies are clear this should be a time for caution since losses of the past year-and-a-half cannot be wiped off immediately.

“This is an exciting time for us as we haven’t seen such numbers since March 2020, and we have all the reason to rejoice, but we’re also looking at it as a period of cautious celebration," said Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, joint managing director, PVR Ltd, admitting the company’s capital commitments this fiscal year will be lower than what they usually are. Bijli was referring to the impressive box office collections of Diwali releases, which, along with earnings of southern and Punjabi language films over the past few weeks, have made for more than green shoots for the film exhibition business devastated by the pandemic. The new screens that will open at locations such as Hyderabad, Patiala, Lucknow, Thiruvananthapuram, and Nizamabad will see PVR entering new markets, he said.

Rajendar Singh Jyala, chief programming officer, INOX Leisure Ltd, said the chain opened around 42 screens since the first phase of unlocking began last year. Still, many of these have only remained partially operational because of a lack of new content. “We’re looking at 30-35 more screens before March next year, for which work is on in full swing, and we’re awaiting licences for some," Jyala said, adding that the company hopes to commit more properties for construction if this recovery cycle doesn’t end abruptly. While new properties will be spread across tier-I, -II and -III towns, the chain is focusing on the south of India, which has, so far, seen lower multiplex penetration.

Rahul Puri, managing director, Mukta Arts and Mukta A2 Cinemas, said the company plans on opening 25 screens by the end of the coming financial year. “We focus on opening cinemas at micro-centres, where there is business scope and demand which has to be serviced. Our attention is divided equally between north and south segments, as there is immense potential in both markets," Puri said.

The pandemic may have altered timelines but has also opened newer ways of doing business where multiplex chains are working with real estate partners on a transparent revenue-sharing model, which is a win-win for all concerned, said Prashant Kulkarni, head of sales, marketing and new business expansion at Carnival Cinemas that is eyeing 50 more screens over the next few months.

The covid-19 pandemic was brutal for multiplexes and single-screen theatres, said Anuj Puri, chairman at property consultants ANAROCK, adding that expansion plans will continue to be impacted by fear of infections and anticipation of a third wave. “However, now amid low cases, most economic activity is back to normalcy in top cities and the vaccination drive has picked up significant momentum. This may bode well for the multiplexes as people may return to watch movies on the big screen," Puri said.

“We have always been bullish on the exhibition space but we’re a consciously aggressive player," said Amit Sharma, chief executive officer at Miraj Cinemas that has 20 screens ready in locations like Hyderabad, Jamshedpur and Delhi NCR and another 70 that are being planned since 2016-2017 and should open before March. On an average, India sees at least 350 new movie screen each year and has therefore lost out on around 700 screens in the past two years, making for a huge opportunity for chains like theirs, Sharma said.

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