Festive season footfall in India’s cinemas needed to revive Bollywood’s fortunes

Producers are holding back big-ticket releases but cinema operators say without new films movie-goers won't return

People invited as 'Covid-19 warriors' and their families to a special screening watch Bollywood movie 'Tanhaji' in a cinema in New Delhi on October 15, 2020, with some states still keeping theatres closed amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.  / AFP / Prakash SINGH

At India's largest cinema chain, PVR, any customer that walks in is greeted with applause by the staff.

Its management says in the time of coronavirus, every cinema-goer needs to be celebrated, as the industry responsible for one of the most recognisable exports for the country – Bollywood movies – faces a tough time in bouncing back from the pandemic.

“We're not really saying that this is a thriving time for us; it's a surviving time for us,” says Pramod Arora, the chief growth and strategy officer at PVR, which has 845 screens across 176 cinemas in 71 Indian and Sri Lankan cities. “If we manage to survive through this catastrophe, there would be a time when we're able to thrive again.”

PVR, along with other cinema companies, reopened only some of its movie theatres in India this month after lockdown restrictions that forced their closure in March were eased.

“Consumers will take some time [to return to cinemas],” says Mr Arora, who admits it has been a very slow start. “Now our whole initiative is driven towards hygiene and building trust.”

Cinema operators in India had to shut theatres across the country – totalling almost 10,000 screens – seven months ago, as the government tried to curb the spread of the coronavirus. On October 15 the central government permitted them to reopen with strict social distancing guidelines. They were allowed to resume business, operating at 50 per cent of seating capacity, only if they maintain the highest level of hygiene.

But not all state authorities are in sync with the central government. Many have decided not to allow cinemas to reopen. While Delhi and Karnataka gave the green light, others such as Maharashtra whose capital Mumbai is the home of Bollywood have held back.

India continues to record huge numbers of Covid-19 infections on a daily basis – although fresh infections have reduced compared with September peak.

The country added more than 53,000 new confirmed cases on Saturday over a 24 hour period, bringing the total to over 7.8 million. More than 117,000 people have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the country of more 1.3 billion people, according to Worldometer data.

The pandemic has battered India's enormous movie industry, which produces some 2,000 films a year and generated 191 billion rupees ($2.6bn) in revenue last year, according to EY. Pandemic-related closures have left thousands of freelance workers, from costume designers to stuntmen, without work. Mega stars such as Salman Khan, adored by millions around around the world for his action movies, were forced to take a break from acting for several months.

Production on Bollywood films – which typically involve larger-than-life sets with hundreds of cast and crew members – has largely been on hold amid tight restrictions.

“The global outbreak of coronavirus impacted the entertainment industry worldwide – India being one of the worst affected countries, the impact was severe,” analysts at consultancy KPMG wrote in a report at the end of the last month. It forecast theatrical revenues in India in the current financial year to the end of March will plummet to 27.4bn rupees compared to 122.1bn rupees a year-earlier.

As cinemas start to reopen, they now have to deal with the double whammy of not enough movie-goers amid the still rampaging pandemic, and the fact that there is not a single major new release currently being screened at cinemas .

Production houses are awaiting footfalls in the cinemas to increase before they start bringing some of their new big-ticket films to cinema houses. It seems the industry is locked in a no-win situation. In the meantime cinemas screening old content and smaller, regional releases will struggle for business without new productions coming to the screens.

“I'm a movie buff,” says Durgesh Patel, a sales assistant from New Delhi. “I love going for the latest blockbusters. But if there's nothing new, why will I go? The excitement isn't there.”

According to KMPG, “there may be an extended period with no significant releases, which may be occupied by smaller or regional films”. If the situation continues, some cinemas may end up closing down permanently, the consultancy says.

Along with the struggle for content, cinema operators have to take on the additional cost of reassuring customers that stepping out to see a movie is a safe experience. Thermal temperature checks before entering the theatre, regular sanitisation of all areas, and in some cases, even heating and sterilising the popcorn under UV rays are measures taken to boost public confidence.

“There will be a lot of focus on the digital way of life,” says Alok Tandon, the chief executive of INOX Leisure, a major Indian cinema operator. “We will completely rely on e-tickets instead of paper tickets.”

The company is also innovating and pulling out all stops to keep revenue flowing.

“We are also looking to innovate with private screenings, where families or smaller groups of guests can book the entire auditorium and enjoy the content of their choice,” says Mr Tandon.

"The industry believes that if assured of safety, audiences will come back to cinema halls as India continues to have a strong movie-watching culture"

Ashish Saksena, the chief operating officer of cinemas at online ticketing company BookMyShow, says it is helping cinema operators with a guide, which allows people to see the safety measures they are taking.

Despite efforts to reassure customers, he says “it is still rather early to comment on the ticketing trends, as we await production houses' announcements on key releases for the festive season, based on the opening up of critical states such as Maharashtra and Telangana, amongst others”.

Like cinema operators, he is hopeful that as India enters into the festive season, peaking with Diwali in November, movie-goers numbers will pick up as people traditionally go out to watch films during holidays.

But Mr Arora at PVR says a lot will hinge on Maharashtra reopening its cinemas. Authorities in the state hit hardest by the pandemic have yet to announce when that will happen.
"Until such time that we see the Maharashtra government announcing the opening of cinemas, we are going to see this wait-and-watch by the Bollywood production houses [on film releases]," he says.

Big-ticket action movie Sooryavanshi, starring crowd-drawing names Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif, was originally scheduled to be released in May to coincide with Eid Al Fitr. With movie theatres now reopening, there were hopes that it might hit the big screen for Diwali next month. But media reports suggest the release may still be postponed until early next year.

Dil Bechara, a romance starring the late Sushant Singh Rajput, which could not be released on the big screen as planned, was instead released on a streaming platform, Disney+ Hotstar, where it enjoyed significant success. Several other titles have been released through platforms including Netflix and Amazon Prime, as consumers turned to the small screen for their Bollywood fix during the lockdown.

Although the popularity of online content has soared, industry pundits say it will not kill demand for cinemas among the movie-obsessed Indian population.

“The industry believes that if assured of safety, audiences will come back to cinema halls as India continues to have a strong movie-watching culture,” KPMG says. “The experience of watching a film in the theatre will never be replaced by other mediums”.

Pradeep Dwivedi, the chief executive, India, of Eros International, one of the biggest companies in the Indian film entertainment industry, agrees. He says Eros had three movies that were set for release when the pandemic struck .

“We actually had to hold back the releases and like a lot of other producers we were contemplating whether to go ahead and release those movies on streaming platforms ... and hope to monetise it there. We own one streaming platform ourselves.”

In the end, though, Eros decided to hold off and wait for the opportunity for a theatrical release, which offers an opportunity to generate higher revenues, he says.

The company now aims to release its movies in early 2021, when footfall is likely to pick up, he adds.

With production work having been restricted for much of this year, Mr Dwivedi says Eros has managed to complete post-production work on a couple of other movies, which the company hopes to release in a few months.

But he worries that by that stage there may be too much content hitting cinemas at the same time.

“The only challenge is that we're not the only ones,” Mr Dwivedi says. “There are multiple studios in India and I think the sheer backlog will create ... congestion.”