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More than a month after the movie started screening in his theatre in the middle of September 2009, Vishek Chauhan finally decided Salman Khan’s action drama Wanted had exhausted its run. In an era where jubilees had become a thing of the past and films were being taken off the screens immediately after the opening weekend due to flagging audience enthusiasm, Khan’s Eid comeback in the late-2000s had broken box office records—running for five weeks at Chauhan’s 300-seater Roopbani Cinema in Purnea, Bihar. He recalls that five policemen had to be pressed into duty to keep the crowds at bay for the first ten days.

“It was insane. I would get calls about what was unfolding because the queues would extend from the cinema to the main road and beyond. I recall this one kid, a Salman fanatic, who saw the film every day for the 35 days we played it," Chauhan recalled. Nearly 12 years later, this Eid season will be dull for Chauhan with cinemas in Bihar—like most other parts of the country—shut owing to the second wave of covid-19.

Moreover, Khan’s Eid offering this time, action thriller Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, a spin-off of the actor’s character in Wanted has released on a video streaming platform. For the few cinemas that are still operating, the new release might nonetheless offer succour. But trade experts believe that the second wave might spell the end of a significant number of movie halls—particularly single-screen cinemas—in India.

Bollywood fare has been conspicuous by its absence in movie halls over the past few months, with theatres in states like Maharashtra and Delhi, which account for most of the Hindi movie box office, shut indefinitely. In Bihar, where they had been permitted to remain open until mid-April, Chauhan played stray movie offerings released weeks ago, such as Mumbai Saga and Godzilla vs Kong, to keep the show running at his 60-year-old single-screen cinema. Expenses are high, government support is absent, and revenues are minimal, but he says he’s not giving up. He knows others in the business who have chosen to call it a day or are close to it.

“Every industry in the country is bleeding. How long can you stay on the treadmill when you’re sapped off all energy?" Chauhan reasons.

Family matter

Ownership of single-screen movie halls has become part of the family identity in most parts of India, with perceptions of the family’s fortunes and future prospects tied inextricably to show business.

Owners tend to be long-standing promoters or second or third generation inheritors and they have stories to tell—of glorious times, movie fanatics who go to great lengths for their celluloid icons and the blockbuster milestones that have sustained their family businesses for years.

Theirs is a business that cannot reconcile with a post-pandemic world and its norms of social distancing. Out of 9,527 screens India has, 6,327 are single-screen cinemas, and the remaining are with multiplexes, a 2020 report by Ficci and EY said. Nearly 20% of the country’s movie screens, especially properties of independent owners in north India, will not return to business post covid, trade experts say. While this translates into limited showcasing for the biggest movie titles going forward—especially in small towns whose audience will no longer have easy access to movies—a generation of entrepreneurs that grew up seeing their families’ lives revolve around cinema will also now need to find ways to move on.

“I was born in the lap of cinema and have never been interested in anything else. But I also know times will not be the same again," said 72-year-old Dinesh Gupta, owner of Dimple Cinema in Karnal who has been running the business since 1980. Gupta’s family of farmers and lawyers have owned five theatres across Haryana since the first one opened in 1947. Two of these have already shut shop and he’s waiting until June to take a call on Dimple.

There are specific reasons for the downfall of the single screen industry in India. While recurring costs, such as staff salaries, and zero income during the pandemic have proven to be a financial disaster, these cinemas were already struggling with weak footfalls and access to very few commercially entertaining films per year. Gupta, for instance, can vividly recall the hoots and whistles erupting in his theatre more than 45 years ago for Dharmendra’s action comedy Pratigya. The Bollywood entertainer released in 1975 was only one of a slew of blockbusters the actor, a true son of the Punjabi soil, notched up in Gupta’s single screen theatre over its nearly 50-year journey. Along with money-spinners like Hukumat and Zalzala, this is a track record matched only by Dharmendra’s son, Sunny Deol.

“As a film, his (Sunny Deol) Gadar even broke records set by Sholay. In fact, films by Sunny, Shah Rukh or Salman Khan in the 1990s were the kind of entertainers that could draw people to the theatres in hordes. Those just aren’t made anymore," said Gupta, whose cinema has served a sightly upper-class family audience in Karnal since 1973. The clientele has remained but small businessmen like Gupta have had to contend with the increasing dominance of plush multiplexes in their turf.

The penetration of multiplexes has been coupled with Bollywood’s obsession with releasing in as many movie halls as possible simultaneously. Under normal circumstances, a big-ticket film like Radhe would not have released in less than 4,500 screens across the country.

Sharad Doshi, owner of Central Plaza theatre in Girgaon, Mumbai, agrees that the segment has been on its death bed for 3-4 years now, given Bollywood’s insistence on having several thousand prints reach every single theatre in the country in order to have bragging rights and as a way to extract the most collections when the publicity around a movie is at its height. When the same film is playing in four different properties on the same street, it reduces opportunities for smaller players to maximise business based on choosing movies well.

For instance, released in about 4,000 screens across India, Ranveer Singh starrer Simmba earned 239.68 crore in domestic box office collections in 2018. However, industry experts point out that 80% of the action film’s earnings came only from the top 500 screens and another 15% from another 500 screens, meaning that nearly 3,000 screens contributed only 5% of the total box office collection.

“The biggest crisis and opportunity for Hindi cinema is that 60% of all box office comes from just two cities—Mumbai and Delhi-NCR, which is ridiculous for a movie-crazy country," producer Ronnie Screwvala had said in an earlier interview to Mint.

Decline of mass entertainer

To be sure, lack of compelling content remains the key to the single screen segment’s struggle. As Bollywood increasingly embraces niche narratives set in urban centres, bold themes and unconventional storytelling techniques which are intended to cater to city audiences, there is little left for those who don’t fall in that category.

Recent hits such as Gully Boy, Article 15 or Andhadhun may set the cash registers ringing in metros and multiplexes but have little to offer small-town audiences who are simply looking for an escape from everyday life. On the other hand, a Baahubali or a Salman Khan-starrer comes once a year, at best. Multiplexes with their higher ticket rates changed the economics of exhibition. Since Delhi and Mumbai alone accounts for more than 60% of the market in box office, film makers now make movies that appeal to urban sensibilities. These don’t always work elsewhere, spelling doom for single screens.

The contribution of these theatres, usually located in small towns, to the fortunes of Bollywood’s mainstream entertainers, on the other hand, has remained under-recognized. For instance, in 2018, nearly 40-45% of the lifetime box office collections of hits such as Sanju, Race 3 and Stree, among others, had come from non-multiplex zones in the country. In case of a mass-oriented action drama such as John Abraham’s Satyameva Jayate, 70% of the total box office collection came from single screens.

There are other ills plaguing single screens even as footfalls have consistently fallen over the past few years. For one, they have to renew the licence they receive for cinema exhibition from the state government every year—this could cost around 2 lakh. Then, to acquire a film from a producer, the theatre has to agree to a minimum guaranteed payment. If the film bombs, the theatre loses it all. If it does well, it has to pay more to the producer as per a pre-agreed formula.

Finally, single-screen theatres lack the bargaining power of multiplexes. If a film nets 6 lakh in its opening week, producers take 50% from a multiplex—about 3 lakh. From a single screen, on the other hand, they will take about 5 lakh. Theatre owners who refuse to agree can face sharp tactics from producers and studios, such as denying rights for the entire slate of movies from a studio during the year, for instance.

After years of slow decline, the pandemic has become the final nail in the proverbial coffin for many. With fixed expenses and no foreseeable revenue, cinemas say they have been seeking property tax waiver, a reduction in fixed electricity charges and automatic license renewal from the government, but to no avail. There may have been rare instances such as when the Andhra Pradesh government waived fixed electricity charges for all theatres, including multiplexes, for the months of April, May and June 2020. But for the most part, the small theatre lies forgotten.

Add to this the economic crisis looming across the country, and it is clear that entertainment is unlikely to be on the priority list for a long time, even after infection rates come down.

Logon ke paas ghar ka kharcha nahi hai (People don’t have money for household expenses), why would they come to watch a film?" reasoned Dimple Cinema’s Gupta, echoing the sentiments of an entire community of businessmen who don’t think Indians are coming back to the movies any time soon.

And while they recognize their family legacies, they are also in touch with ground realities. “I strongly believe that you shouldn’t do business in loss," said AVM Shanmugham, owner of the iconic AVM Rajeswari theatre in Chennai that closed its doors right before the pandemic hit in March last year. Founded in 1979, Rajeswari was the brainchild of Shanmugham’s grandfather AV Meiyappan, the veteran Tamil film producer who founded AVM Productions.

Beyond covid

It doesn’t help that most of the 1,500 theatres that stopped operations permanently during the lockdown last year have not been able to convert their properties into other businesses. On the one hand, law in states such as Maharashtra require that a plot that was originally designated as a cinema property must have a theatre on its premises even if it is refurbished for other ventures.

On the other hand, there are few takers for theatres in small towns where only a handful have been able to sell off or convert their properties into godowns at discounted prices.

These challenges notwithstanding, some owners like Bihar’s Chauhan feel it was important for single screens to have consistently tried to stay ahead of the curve and that many are downing shutters because they haven’t served the full spectrum of audiences enough—from young men to families to the lower class. Chauhan, who is holding on to the business for now, believes he can be in it for the long haul if he gets the strategy right.

“The future of cinema lies in being a premium, luxury space," he said, adding that he doesn’t believe cinema is a mass medium anymore, with south India remaining a strong exception to the rule. The “gareeb janta," Chauhan says, will always look towards the cheapest medium of entertainment and has already moved to AVoD (advertising video-on-demand), OTT services, and YouTube, if not completely pirated content that is downloaded from torrent sites. Luring the others who can afford it will require great technology and sound, plush ambience, gourmet food and a sense of exclusivity.

“The discerning audience that continues to throng theatres is in it for the experience," Chauhan pointed out.

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