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PVR cinemas  (AP)
PVR cinemas (AP)

Southern India leads movie theatre re-openings post lockdown

  • The pandemic-induced lockdown, imposed in India last year, and consequent disruptions have battered the cinemas, with over a thousand theatres shutting shop forever. Movie business in the country is expected to contract 67% in FY21

NEW DELHI: Around 80% of movie screens in southern India are open now, with Kerala latest to allow cinemas to resume operations this January. In contrast, north of India has less than 40% of screens functioning, with states such as Rajasthan and Jharkhand yet to give permits.

There are, however, several cinemas which have chosen not to resume screenings despite being allowed to do so. In fact, trade experts say many theatres, both single screens and multiplexes, in states such as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra that had reopened in October, shut down again this January.

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“Most theatres in the north are waiting for a content pipeline to get streamlined," Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema said. With the release of Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi, sports drama ’83 and Salman Khan’s Radhe, hopefully starting March, many will evaluate whether they can continue in the business at all, Mohan added.

The pandemic-induced lockdown, imposed in India last year, and consequent disruptions have battered the cinemas, with over a thousand theatres shutting shop forever. The movie business in the country is expected to contract 67% in FY21, according to a recent KPMG report.

Earlier this week, Bihar-based distributor Vishek Chauhan tweeted that only five of the 21 cinemas in Purnia remain in business. In an earlier interview to Mint, Chauhan had said he knew of single screen owners who wanted to refurbish their theatres but were declined bank loans saying the business had no future with most films going directly to video streaming platforms.

To be sure, running a theatre without regular flow of content is a Herculean task for cinema owners, particularly single screens in northern India where dubbed south Indian films like Master will only find limited appeal. Master made around 1.75 crore and 80 lakh in Mumbai and Delhi NCR, respectively, over its opening weekend compared with 65 crore in Tamil Nadu and 17 crore in the Nizam and Andhra Pradesh region.

Further, these theatres will have to invest significantly in sanitisation and disinfecting operations which will add to their seven-month losses caused by the shutdown last year and aggravated by fixed employee, electricity and maintenance charges in absence of any government stimulus.

Earlier this month, Kerala became a rare state to offer relief to cinemas, waiving entertainment tax until March 2021 along with a 50 % reduction in fixed charges on electricity during the lockdown period since March last year.

“Cinemas are reopening wherever there is fresh content available," independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai said, pointing to the release of Master that has rekindled hope for cinemas in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Kerala. In north India, people are not as huge on movie as those in the south, and the habit of going to theatres isn’t that strong, Pillai added.

“If that comes down even further, it will spell disaster for the industry," Pillai said. To be sure, the lack of new Bollywood content is hurting theatres across the country. Not only are cinemas in north India dependent entirely on Hindi movies, south Indian viewers also watch films in the language, especially those in cosmopolitan cities like Bengaluru that is inundated with multiplexes.

“The time is right to open big movies with popular faces. There are only a couple of months left before the Ramzan period starts this year after which there will be a lull until Eid and by then, it will be too late," Pillai said.

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