Coronavirus Outbreak: What is the road ahead for theatre owners and exhibitors post lockdown?

Raja Sekar April 20, 2020 08:03:30 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: What is the road ahead for theatre owners and exhibitors post lockdown?

The COVID 19 pandemic has created a big void in the film industry. Needless to say, everyone associated with the showbiz business has taken a hit. To revive the film business, the industry needs to restart two operations — resume paused projects and completed films should hit the screens.

Recently, reports have said theater owners are planning to approach the government to restart the movie-watching and entertainment business by filling only 50 percent of the seats in their respective premises and on seat food and beverage delivery. But can exhibitors assure 100 percent safety to their audiences? Also, can they get back the investment with 50 percent occupancy?

Firstpost caught up with a few theater owners to know the ground reality and the road ahead for them after this global crisis.

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Representational image. Reuters

"I have two screens in my theater complex. For April, I've to pay around 4-5 lakhs to my employees without any income. All my workers have been with me for several years. I can say no to the newly appointed folks but not to the loyalists. I've to take care of them but with no business, things are a bit difficult," says Rakesh of Vetri Theaters, a popular two-screen complex in Chrompet, Chennai.

Ruben of GK Cinemas, another two-screen complex also resonates with Rakesh. "Yes, we have managed to pay our employees for March but April is going to be difficult. Their lives are dependent on us. We can't say no to them now, it's unethical," says Ruben.

Can exhibitors run theaters with 50 percent occupancy? "I don't think we can run the show with half occupancy. Even with 100% capacity, the footfalls would be very low on weekdays. Any theater in our country, see some profits only because of the food and beverage business. If we run theaters with 50 percent occupancy, investment can't be recovered," says Rakesh.

But Nikhilesh Surya of Rohini theaters, a popular theater in Koyembedu says, "Something is better than nothing. At least, we can pay the bills and settle the remuneration to our workers. Personally, I feel that theater is a controlled environment. We can sanitize the place after each show, control the crowd, and make them follow social distancing."

Ram Muthuram Cinemas, a popular two-screen complex in Tirunelveli openly tweeted that they are planning to follow 50% occupancy in their theaters. "It's going to be a big challenge because unlike airlines we can't charge the price of three to four seats for one ticket. Cinema is not a necessity, unlike essential travel. Also, the seating plans are to be discussed. We have to make them sit in a zig-zag order to follow social distancing. This is an initial plan, we have to implement through the trial and error method. However, considering the seriousness of the situation, we can't take risks," says Ramasamy Raja of Ram Muthuram Cinemas.

Pathy of Sri Sakthi Cinemas, Mettupalayam says that cinema is the least problem for the government and people. "Though the government will not be getting the huge GST from the film business, they will allow us to reopen the business only after things get back to normalcy. I hope that we will resume operations from June or July of this year."

Rakesh of Vetri Theaters says, "People will visit movie theaters only after they believe that there is no more threat due to the COVID 19 pandemic. As the profit for theater owners mostly comes through the food and beverage section, operating with 50 percent occupancy will not be useful to us. If you ask me, once the situation becomes normal (say our country flattened the curve), we can kick start the trial by allowing 50% audiences and gradually increase the occupancy but operating with half capacity can't be a remedy and it's not a wise idea either."

Generally, exhibitors would revamp their screens in February and March so that they can attract more audiences in the Summer holidays. "Theaters which spent all their savings on revamping would be the most affected ones now. We revamped our screen with RGB projection last year so luckily we didn't opt for any renovation this year. Moreover, the theater business is all about rotating the money. No one runs the show with a huge chunk of money in their savings account," says Rakesh.

Theater owners say that 2020 is a disaster year for them as the COVID 19 pandemic has spoilt the big Summer box office collections. They say that April and May are crucial as theaters will be filled with kids and their parents due to summer holidays but the novel virus has now taken away crores of income.

Many exhibitors say that even if theaters open from June or July, people will start visiting theaters only if the government lifts the lockdown. The big films will start hitting the screens only after foreign countries lift the lockdown as the overseas business must also be taken into consideration. Most feel that Diwali will be the next big attractive season in showbiz business but if there is no virus threat in India, films will start hitting the screens at regular intervals.

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