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It is a million-dollar question that’s being repeatedly raised and there is no single, correct answer. For, both the film production and the film exhibition businesses are in a Catch-22 situation created by the prolonged pandemic, which has kept cinema halls locked for several months both in 2020 and 2021.

On the one hand, there is not enough fresh content available, especially Hindi films, to draw audiences to theatres. On the other, film studios and independent producers are not scheduling releases in theatres because there aren’t enough people going to the cinemas.

Theatres are also empty as there’s a 50% cap on seating capacity—to ensure social distancing—and even the number of shows a day is restricted. Not just that. Maharashtra, which gives Bollywood more than 30% of its business, continues to keep its cinemas shut on account of covid-19.

Meanwhile, the 2020 lockdown, which confined people to their homes, has seen streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Disney+Hotstar improve their subscriber base. Overall, video viewers jumped by 15% in 2020 to reach 468 million. This number is expected to grow to 630 million by 2023.

Also, India has the highest consumption of video views at 10.9 hours a week, an increase of 30% from 2019, according to data compiled by Ficci-EY in its March 2021 report on the media and entertainment sector. Paid video subscriptions crossed 50 million in 2020.

Not surprisingly, several Bollywood films took their new films to digital platforms rather than wait for theatres to reopen. Films such as Gulabo Sitabo, Laxmii, Coolie No. 1, Ludo and Shershaah arrived on OTT (over-the-top) platforms. While the producers recovered their production costs by selling digital streaming rights, they will never know if they would have made good money at the box office.

For survival, the theatre business is in dire need of audiences and blockbuster hits.

Producer Anku Pande is certain that the tide will turn. “Fear of covid may keep viewers away for a while but that will soon taper off as our country moves towards herd immunity. Home viewing cannot replace a theatre experience. Larger-than-life cinema is best consumed in a movie hall," she said, adding that going to theatres is a family outing, a date, a party and a place to meet friends.

Pande is, perhaps, championing the cause of theatres as she is co-producing the tentpole film Fighter starring Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone slated for release on Republic Day in 2023.

To be sure, the response to a mainstream movie like Akshay Kumar’s Bellbottom in theatres has been underwhelming. While some said Akshay Kumar is now passé, others argued audiences in metros are still shunning theatres.

“Most people in big cities have not even considered revisiting theatres. It’s possibly a trauma response to closed spaces," said Sraboni Bhaduri, independent consumer behaviour expert and clinical psychologist.

For a consumer, the idea of sitting in a confined place and breathing the same air as many others has led to a threat perception that is much higher than, say, visiting malls or even restaurants, which are packed, she said.

“Somehow, people don’t mind the lack of distancing in restaurants, though some of them have placed screens in between tables. So, while theatres may have taken the trouble of improving their air filtration systems, it is not something you can see. The restaurant screens are visible and offer a perception of safety," she explained. The darkness in theatres, earlier associated with thrill and excitement, may now be intimidating, she added.

Covid has also affected incomes and people may be hard up for cash to splurge on a costly film outing. “Besides, the ‘home’ experience has been elevated with people spending more time indoors. As work-from-home became the norm, consumers have redefined and refurbished their spaces. Entertainment has also moved in-home, whether it is consumption of liquor or watching a film or binge-watching OTT content on a large TV," she said.

The onus is now on smaller towns for a quicker revival of cinemas. Clearly, the sense of threat around covid is much lower in small-town India as crowds thronging cinemas for Shang-Chi and Bellbottom in, say, Patna show.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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