With theatres reopening, film trade analysts weigh in on audience footfall and scope for tentpole releases
Film trade experts are confident that the movie-going business will bounce back with the release of event films, but caution that single screens will have to maintain top-notch hygiene precautions in order to survive.
In what has been a forgettable year headlined by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian economy is slowly but steadily limping back to normalcy. While major sectors have resumed operations in the past few weeks after a long hiatus, the Indian film industry has also recommenced movie shootings and completion of the post-production activities of already-filmed projects. The theatrical exhibition business, one of the severely hit sectors due to COVID-19 , has been among the last to resume operations.
While states like Karnataka (15 October) and West Bengal (coincided with the Durga Puja festivities in the state) were among the early birds to allow the resumption of the functioning of movie theatres, the Maharashtra government permitted the reopening of cinema halls from 5 November. The Tamil Nadu government has similarly allowed resumption from 10 November after multiple requests from producers, distributors, and theatre owners in the state. Fifty percent has been set as the occupancy cap by the state governments to follow social distancing norms and ensure the safety of moviegoers.
Firstpost spoke to experts in the film industry to know what lies in store for Indian cinema in the post-COVID era, whether cinema halls will recapture their lost glory, and whether audiences will look beyond the comforts of OTT at home and venture out to visit movie theatres again.
"The big-screen charm will never fade. I grew up in the '70s, and cinema has crossed several hurdles over the decades. I can’t wait to watch films again in a theatre. I miss that feeling of sitting in a theatre. These past six months have been like a reset, and I’m sure it’ll start rolling again, and naturally, not immediately as it’s a global pandemic, and not just regular flu! I’m an optimist; like how the sun rises every morning, the industry will also get back to its glory days soon," says popular film trade analyst Taran Adarsh.
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, producers and digital service providers are trying to find an amicable solution to the long-standing VPF (virtual print fee) issue before screening new movies in theatres. Producer Rajesh of KJR Studios says, "Before new films explore the possibility of a release in theatres, VPF issues have to be sorted out first with DSPs and exhibitors, and the global market also has to open up. Ideally, I wish Vijay sir’s Master releases first, to bring the audience back to theatres." Multiple producers have pinned hopes on its release to revive the movie-going culture in Tamil Nadu in the post- COVID-19 era.
Adarsh says Maharashtra contributes about 30 to 40 percent of the entire Indian business for a Bollywood film, and that it is a huge decision to allow reopening. "To begin with, we can expect Hollywood films, re-runs of popular titles like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaenge, Baahubali 1 & 2, Mission Mangal, Tanhaji to name a few, and maybe even a few small to mid-level new Hindi films. Big films will take some more time, and I’m sure that when they arrive, the crowds will also come in droves. The magic of big films is there throughout the country, and that will never fade. 83 and Sooryavanshi may arrive anytime between January to March, and Radhe may arrive for Eid 2021."
National Award-winning writer, producer, and distributor Dhananjayan is quite optimistic that audience will visit the movie halls soon. "The common man on the road is already back to his normal routine. Traffic jams have again become normal! Most of them are going about their daily jobs sporting a mask. I’m sure that they would want some big-screen entertainment too. Cinema would definitely bounce back," he says.
Noted trade analyst and producer Girish Johar is confident that the movie industry will thrive again soon since people are actually bored sitting at home. "In India, cinema is a movement spread across even the small villages; we are the land of movable movie units (touring talkies). Cinema is an anchor activity. A lot of other economic activities revolve around a trip to a cinema hall. People of all age groups engage with the cinema hall. I believe that the overall business will jump by at least 20 percent once a vaccine is out, and people feel secure about their health and safety. The movie-going culture just won’t fade away like that. I’m sure everyone would love to see a movie like RRR on the big screen, and not by sitting at home," observes Girish.
Adarsh says producers, distributors, and exhibitors will sit, meet, and figure out the release lineup for the coming months. "The announcement to reopen came just a couple of days back, and one can’t expect multiplexes to immediately start screening films. They must be in the process of scheduling content," he notes.
Producer Rajesh, who released Tamil cinema's first pay-per-view model through Vijay Sethupathi and Aishwarya Rajesh-starrer Ka Pae Ranasingam, says, "OTT first picked up in Tamil cinema during the infamous strike in 2018 summer, when digital subscriptions and official online viewership witnessed a substantial rise with the absence of new Tamil movie releases in theatres. Now, during the lockdown, OTT has zoomed to a different plane, in terms of audience penetration and viewership. The audiences have also gotten used to the comfort of seeing a film at home on OTT. That said, the effort of going to theatres will still be worth it for big films. That can’t be matched by anything else."
Johar feels that cinema hall will be even more driven by mass-oriented content and big star-driven films, going forward. "The upmarket elite films (small and mid-level budgets) have already found a home in OTT, which has grown by leaps and bounds during these pandemic months. The spread of OTT is predominantly in the top 10 to 12 Indian cities (due to internet outreach and the quality of television sets), and audiences in the 15-35 age group have been hooked big time. Before the pandemic, these elite concept films found good acceptance at multiplexes, and now, multiplexes have to make sure to attract such films again. OTT shouldn’t be the one-stop solution for such elite films because one can’t expect big films in all the 52 weeks of the year. Other content-driven films also form an integral part of the overall movie business," he notes.
Adarsh says the restriction in occupancy to 50 percent in movie theatres is viable. "Big Hindi films open at around 70 to 80 percent over the weekend, and during the weekdays, the occupancy falls below 50 percent. Ultimately, the content will always be king. A bad film will crash on the opening day itself even if there is 100 percent occupancy allowed. Good films can actually survive longer with this 50 percent occupancy cap," he adds.
Dhananjayan also notes, "The national daily occupancy average for a movie hall is around 30 percent, and the 50 percent occupancy cap is definitely viable. We need to now make sure to attract movie buffs to theatres with good quality content, and all the safety measures and precautions in place at movie halls. Exhibitors shouldn’t leave anything to chance with respect to hygiene measures."
Producer Rajesh says, "Besides Master, if any other (South) film has the potential to attract audiences to theatres, it is the adult horror-comedy Irandam Kuththu. The youngsters wouldn’t mind visiting multiplexes to watch this film due to the guaranteed safety and hygiene measures there. Smaller theatres and single screens have to make sure of the hygiene aspect if they nurture hopes of attracting the viewers again.”
Johar insists that single screens have to up their game and present a multiplex-kind of aura if they have to survive post this pandemic. "They have to be topnotch in safety, and also be versatile in their programming so that they attract footfalls consistently. They can’t just survive on big films all through the year," he says.
On a concluding note, Dhananjayan says, "With Diwali still more than a week away, the producer expects the VPF issue to be sorted out, and a couple of new Tamil films to release in theaters for the festival. It must be noted that Kalathil Sandhippom and Irandam Kuththu have already started active promotions with an eye on a Diwali release. It’s a 50-50 scenario for now, and a solution may be arrived over the weekend."
All images from Twitter.
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