Rony Patra What ails the lonely multiplex June 12, 2020 https://www.nakedtruth.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/The-lonely-multiplex.jpg

As you read this, Amazon Prime Video, one of the largest over-the-top (OTT) video platforms in the world, will have started streaming Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar’s new Hindi film starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, that was earlier scheduled for a theatrical release in April this year.

The announcement of the same, which happened exactly a month ago, took everyone by surprise. Reams of newsprint were devoted to how Sircar and his co-producer Ronnie Lahiri, decided to hand over exclusive rights of the movie to a streaming platform, instead of waiting it out and choosing to rake in revenues by giving it a theatrical release. Various media outlets and commentators were quick to laud this initiative, saying that a Bachchan film landing online was Amazon’s very own “KBC moment”, just as Bachchan’s hosting of the quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati had turned out to be a game-changer for the Star India television network in 2000.

Now that Gulabo Sitabo is playing on a mobile, laptop, TV screen near you, one sector is sitting in the corner and licking its wounds, aghast at the way things have played out. The multiplex operators and single-screen cinemas are now wondering: is it the beginning of the end?

***

On June 9, 2020, INOX Leisure, one of the largest multiplex operators in India, declared that it had incurred a loss of 82 crores INR for the fourth quarter of the financial year ending on March 31, 2020. One might argue that there’s nothing extraordinary about this—most businesses go through various ups-and-downs—but the timing could not have been worse for India’s second-largest multiplex chain that operates 636 screens across 68 cities.

India went into a nationwide lockdown that began on March 25, 2020, and is still continuing with relaxations, now it is called Unlock, after completing four phases. INOX has had to contend with a quarter where they made losses, followed by a quarter where they haven’t earned any revenue. And its response to Gulabo Sitabo’s release on Amazon was brutally trolled online.

On the digital release of Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar told Firstpost:

I didn’t want to hold on to the film because I make one film at a time, and only then move to the next. Moving on from one film to the next film is very important. I have my crew, technicians waiting to collaborate. And it was looking a little uncertain at this moment. Then there are so many films in the pipeline waiting for release creating a bottleneck. Remember the kind of audiences that I have. I don’t know when this fear of going to the cinema freely, sitting, and enjoying the film will come back. Of course, it will come back but I was thinking about all these uncertainties, and that is why I took the decision of digital release. But once I took the decision, I never looked back. I stand by it, and I am so happy that Amazon is releasing it, considering the reach they have.

When a global pandemic hits daily life and throws it completely out of gear, most businesses suffer, irrespective of scale and geography. But, COVID-19 has not only upended global lifestyles, it has also changed priorities.

A recent study conducted by Boston Consulting Group and Facebook found that while 49% of the respondents preferred entertainment as an experience in pre-COVID times, 38% of the same respondents were willing to wait it out for a few months before deciding to pay a visit to the nearest big screen.

In a normal world, this last aspect would be considered sacrilegious. The movies, for all of us, has been a communal experience, with the long, serpentine queues in front of the ticket counter, the shady touts outside single-screen cinemas trying to make a fast buck by selling tickets in black, and the various stalls selling cold drinks and snacks. Families have turned up in droves for all the biggest blockbusters, with children in tow, even though most movies playing would not necessarily cater to a child’s tastes.

With the arrival of the multiplexes in the early 2000s, this entire collective experience underwent a glitzy—and pricier—makeover. Of course, the ticket prices were higher than usual, but as long as there was air-conditioning, better sound, better varieties of snacks, and a general aspirational, “upmarket” atmosphere, patrons didn’t seem to mind. For the rest, single-screen cinemas were still there.

It is not as if Gulabo Sitabo was the first film originally made for a theatrical release, that is now released online. In the last few months, a number of small and mid-budget films have preferred to jump on the digital bandwagon instead of begging distributors and cinemas for a theatrical release. However, what has provoked various players in the exhibition sector is the fact that a film starring Amitabh Bachchan is taking the digital route too.

A few people associated with the sector have laid the blame squarely on producers and filmmakers for being associated with their demise. An interview published by Bollywood Hungama saw many of these exhibitors lash out at filmmakers and producers for not being attuned to their needs. Bemoaning the lack of “pan-India entertainers”, the owner of a Patna-based cinema remarked, “This is because the film industry is controlled by the youngsters who do not have any idea of the ground reality. They have grown up with the western culture while the real India is more leaned towards the ‘Baghban culture’!”

One could argue that this is an impassioned view of the deteriorating health of the movie exhibition industry in India. Yet it is also true that India’s middle-class have increasingly shifted their priorities to more important things than spending on a cinema ticket.

A 2018 report in Businessworld listed India as one of the most under-screened markets in the world, with an average of eight screens per million people, as compared to China, which enjoys a healthier average of 26 screens per million. Across India, there are more chances of stumbling onto towns with a population of more than 100,000 where no cinema exists. The district town of Midnapore in West Bengal, for instance, located barely half-an-hour from the prestigious IIT Kharagpur campus, has only one single-screen cinema, despite having a population of nearly 170,000 as per the 2011 census.

Of course, people want to watch movies. But they want to watch it at their own convenience. And, preferably without burning a hole in their pockets.

***

Over the last few months, big multiplex operators like PVR, INOX and Carnival Cinemas, as well as smaller regional chains, such as NY Cinemas, Mukta A2 Cinemas and SVF Cinemas, have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown. Single-screen cinemas, that were already struggling to survive, are either closed or on the verge of closing down, to make way for residential and commercial complexes.

But this situation did not culminate overnight. There have been a variety of factors contributing to the slow demise of the exhibition sector in India. Rising unemployment, coupled with a general slowdown in the economy and growing inflation, has meant a realignment in the spending priorities of India’s middle-class. A trip to the movies is now seen more as a luxury.

And then there’s the cost of the “experience” of watching a film in a multiplex. Ticket prices can range anything between Rs. 100-Rs. 400, or even more in some properties. Then there’s the cost of refreshments such as popcorn, cold drinks or even a bottle of water, which is also priced exorbitantly. A family of three or four could end up spending anywhere between Rs 800 and Rs 1200 for watching a single movie.

In such a scenario, the growth of OTT platforms and increasing teledensity, as well as growing demand for smart TVs, is coming as a boon for people living in urban areas. They no longer feel the need to venture out of their homes for entertainment, when they can easily spend the aforementioned amounts on monthly or yearly subscriptions to OTT platforms and watch their favourite movies at a time of their choosing, with the option to pause and play whenever they want.

The lonely multiplex and OTT

Image is sourced from iStock by Getty Images.

Of course, these options exist for the people who can pay. But these same shows can also be accessed by the people who can’t.

Piracy has been a rampant problem in India’s entertainment industry for many years now, but now it feels ubiquitous. Earlier it was possible to get pirated versions, or “rips” of various movies and shows on torrents. With the Indian government’s stringent crackdown on torrents, it was expected that piracy would stop, but it has only changed its playing field. One of the most widely-used messaging platforms is Telegram, and it is an open secret that it is also an unofficial search engine for finding the latest blockbusters.

Chances are that by the time you read this, a good high-definition print of Gulabo Sitabo will be floating around on Telegram, ripe for direct download to your mobile device. Vast sections of the population are too poor to travel to a cinema hall for watching a movie, and for them, a smartphone is a life-altering purchase. While the data is dirt cheap, the smartphone becomes an all-in-one entertainment device and their window into the world of films.

So now, we have a unique scenario, where you have people who can afford to pay for the entertainment they consume while sitting at home, and you have people who can’t pay but still want entertainment anyway. Throw in the high cost of spending on transport, in addition to paying for the multiplex “experience”, and you begin to get a general idea of why multiplexes and single-screens are scared audiences might not return.

If multiplexes killed the single-screens, OTT could very well marginalize the entire exhibition sector.

***

Does this mean the end of the road for our “lonely” multiplexes?

It has been evident for quite some time that audiences wanting good, high-concept narratives as opposed to the masala blockbusters have been shying away from multiplexes for a while now. Various filmmakers have complained about how low and mid-budget films hardly get favourable timings, as opposed to blockbusters.

And then, you have the issue of the virtual print fee (VPF) which every producer has to pay to the multiplex for ensuring a minimum number of screens. Sometimes, paying a VPF for Rs 2-3 crores can be detrimental to a low-budget film’s chances of recovering theatrical revenue, as Ronnie Screwvala found to his cost while trying to release Love Per Square Foot. Fed up with this tactic, Screwvala released the film on Netflix.

But, people who want larger-than-life narratives and high-budget films will always look forward to the “big screen” experience. And it is this audience that multiplexes will increasingly cater to in the months to come.

People who still believe in the communal experience of watching films will make a beeline to the cinema halls. Over time, in line with Hollywood and the British film industries, India’s entertainment sector could start seeing a trend of various filmmakers trying to make films for both theatrical and online arenas, or preferring to stick to one medium, depending on audiences’ ever-changing tastes. And maybe then, multiplexes and single-screen cinemas won’t have to be the lonely bystanders anymore.

Like Sircar told Firstpost, “You will find your way to run your business, and I will find a way to release my films.”

“Their resentment is absolutely right, but this is not the end of the world. We have to move on.”

Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.

When he’s not busy watching old cricket matches and reaction videos on Youtube, or marvelling at how bad screenplays in Hindi cinema can get, this guy teaches English literature at a university in West Bengal, besides taking an interest in Indian (not just Hindi!) cinema, popular culture and global media industries. He can be reached on Twitter at @ronypatra, and on Mastodon at @ronypatra@mastodon.social.

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