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Single-screen cinemas look at long-term survival amid windfall of hits

Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jawan had crossed the  ₹300 crore mark within India alone at last count.
Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jawan had crossed the 300 crore mark within India alone at last count.

Summary

Single-screen theatres in India are seeking partnerships to transform into multiplexes as they look to sustain their recent success with mass market movies.

New Delhi: Single-screen theatres in India are heaving a sigh of relief with a recent stream of mass market movies keeping the tills ringing. But they are still looking to expand into multiplexes well aware that such strokes of luck don’t last.

Facing challenges even before covid-19 and struggling ever since the pandemic outbreak, single-screen theatres have been able to attract audiences from small towns thanks to films such as Gadar 2 and Jawan, aided by affordable tickets.

However, cinema owners are conscious that such films and favourable conditions are relatively rare. So, many are actively seeking partnerships to transform their establishments into two or three-screen multiplexes in line with the evolving dynamics of the cinema industry.

“It has been a good comeback for us. However, most single-screen owners are looking to remodel their properties. They have five-year plans to either tie up with builders or explore arrangements with national chains," said Satadeep Saha, director of SSR Cinemas Pvt. Ltd, a West Bengal-based company.

To be sure, the opportunity cost of running these cinemas remains high. Theatre owners admit that mass-market content is rare and will not arrive consistently in the Hindi-speaking belt, unlike in the south. That explains why Saha is already remodelling theatres in his state, working with builders and exploring properties in virgin territories to set up multiplexes.

Yet, there is a positive sentiment among single-screen theatre owners after long. Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jawan had crossed the 300 crore mark within India alone at last count. Meanwhile, Gadar 2, released mid-August, has crossed the 515 crore mark at last count, while Pathaan had earned 543 crore in January.

“Theatre owners are aware this isn’t a year-long phenomenon and are looking to tie up with chains or convert (into two or three-screen multiplexes) in order to sustain," said Ashutosh Agarwal, owner of Star World Cinemas in Uttar Pradesh. Filling up an 800- or 1,000-seater cinema is going to be increasingly impossible, Agarwal said, and the only solution is to split the property into 200-300 seaters and play multiple films at the same time.

“While stars like Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan turn older, no new or fresh faces are finding the same kind of draw. Plus, music isn’t that great nowadays. These are huge worries for the industry," Agarwal said.

That said, single screen owners find it heartening to see film-makers realize the potential of catering to the lowest common denominator among the audience, and the kind of footfall that small-town audiences can bring when films appeal to their sensibilities. Despite reasonable ticket pricing, these small screens have brought in 35-40% of overall revenues in case of mass-market hits such as Gadar 2, according to theatre owners and trade experts.

“By virtue of their ATP (average ticket price), multiplexes aren’t meant for the common man, but only a certain privileged and wealthy class. An overwhelming majority of this country can only afford to single screen cinemas and it makes sense for any film-maker to cater to them instead of the hyper niche. The past few months that have flipped the ratio (in favour of small-town theatres) have been an eye opener," independent exhibitor Akshaye Rathi said. Despite pandemic-induced challenges, at least 90-95% of India’s single-screen cinemas have upgraded infrastructure including air-conditioning, projectors and seats, Rathi added.

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