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Cinemas face the prospect of losing out on footfall if small-budget films release directly on OTT platforms as this will lower footfall in small towns and render going to the cinema into luxury spending, a cinema owner said.   (AFP)
Cinemas face the prospect of losing out on footfall if small-budget films release directly on OTT platforms as this will lower footfall in small towns and render going to the cinema into luxury spending, a cinema owner said. (AFP)

Theatres brace for tough times even as audiences show first signs of return

  • Production houses are demanding a greater share of revenues and a shorter window between a film's theatrical and digital release
  • Theatres are truggling with content mismatch, a lack of revenues and covid restrictions

NEW DELHI: Theatre owners across India are bracing themselves for tough times and unfavourable commercial terms with producers as they try to bounce back to business after seven months of shutdown. Cinema heads say they are likely to see filmmakers try to arm-twist them as their business is currently on the back foot and audiences are unlikely to return in significant numbers soon after reopening, as they remain wary of closed spaces and of being around strangers. That theatres can only operate on 50% of their seating capacity until further notice will also act as a deterrent to full recovery.

“The post-covid world will be different. We will have to re-think plans for the release of our films. It is unlikely that the old business model will be the only way forward given the way films have started going directly to digital," filmmaker Vipul Shah had emphasized in an earlier interview to Mint.

The first of these demands is likely to play out in form of a shortened window between theatrical and digital premiere of films that was stipulated at eight weeks before the pandemic for Hindi films.

“Producers will definitely push for a shorter window but they don’t realise many parts of India don’t get to see the film in the first few days or weeks and it takes time for the offering to penetrate deep into the country," Bihar-based independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan said. If films, especially those featuring non-mainstream names and made on small budgets are taken to digital platforms without theatrical showcasing being given an adequate chance, cinema may lose its mass market audience, Chauhan pointed out.

“If people (such as those in small towns) face a lack of content, their habit of going to the movies is often broken as they find other ways to seek entertainment, cinema will not be seen as a staple sort of activity, in that case, but as luxury product," Chauhan pointed out.

Trade analysts said under condition of anonymity that Zee Studios, which has committed to a Diwali release for its comedy drama Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari, has demanded a digital release for the film on its pay-per-view service Zee Plex two weeks after theatrical release, higher percentage of the revenue share for producers in week one and two and no reduction in shows for the film across theatres in week two regardless of collections.

As per the current producer-exhibitor equation, in the first week of a movie’s run, the share is divided equally between the two, while in the second week, there is 60:40 divide in favour of the exhibitor, which changes to 70:30 in the third week.

“The revenue share may just depend on the individual film and its prospects now," independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai said.

PV Sunil, managing director at Carnival Cinemas, admitted several terms such as shortening of windows were in negotiation even before covid struck. But trade experts point out that the pandemic has accelerated these changes by several years. This July, American multiplex chain AMC Theatres signed a deal with Universal Studios to release its titles online just three weeks after their theatrical launch and the theatre getting a share of the digital revenue. In India though, how much theatre chains agree to give in remains to be seen. However, the fact that national multiplexes refused to screen titles such as Gulabo Sitabo and Dil Bechara that had already gone to OTT platforms during the pandemic, even in these desperate times, is a strong statement in itself.

To be sure, not all is lost as the first signs of recovery are evident. Trade website Box Office India said the three new Bengali films released in West Bengal, Dracula Sir, Rawkto Rawhoshyo and SOS Kolkata registered an average occupancy of 40%. That is promising, given that these theatres can only allow 50% capacity.

“It’s going to be a challenge to run the show for a while given the lack of revenue and the fact that we don’t have the content we want but we expect things to be normal by December," Sunil said.

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