The optimism was fuelled when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry approached the Home Ministry last week, with a request to allow cinema halls across the country to operate with a formula that involves keeping alternate seats in a row, and alternate rows empty. However, representatives from the trade, who were part of the closed-door industry interaction opposed this move, stating that running cinemas at 25 pc of its capacity could prove to be a greater drain on resources than keeping them shut.
The losses incurred by theatres are not a small sum. As per an Ernst and Young report released in 2019, India’s total theatrical revenue stood at $1.4 bn in the year 2018. This was up from the previous year’s revenues of $1.38 bn. Add to that, theatres across the country had begun shutting down by the middle of March 2020, which prompted industry watchers to estimate back then, that the business was slated to lose $1.4 mn (Rs 1,000 cr) if the 21-day lockdown were to be extended. The nation has technically been in lockdown for more than four months or about 120 days now. The quantum of losses piling up in the industry is quite apparent.
Shutting down of theatres aside, exhibitors have also been plagued by yet another fear - that of OTT platforms and the potential that they hold for non-theatrical releases of films. Since the pandemic began, many films starring some of Bollywood and Kollywood’s biggest names have found a lease of life on streaming platforms. There are notable exceptions to the rule like director Christopher Nolan, whose latest release Tenet, which he insists is a big-screen spectacle, has been pushed indefinitely owing to theatre owners choosing to stay shut in America. Closer home, actor Vijay’s next film is also awaiting a theatrical release.
It might not yet be curtain-call for theatre lovers as the culture of a shared experience of movie-going is especially strong in India - a nation weaned on the magic of the silver screen. Taking a cue from their counterparts in the aviation industry, administrators of theatres in anticipation of the opening are going the extra mile to ensure that the patrons are safe for the new and improved theatre-going experience - from paperless ticketing to sanitising the seats and the premises using electrostatic ULV sprayers to ensuring longer intervals, handing out popcorn and refreshments in sealed packets taken out of UV-sanitised cabinets, no queuing at counters and even longer gaps between one show and the next.
One thing is certain - the movie-going experience post the pandemic might become a particularly sedate affair, at least in Tamil Nadu, which has a colourful tradition of first-day-first-shows. It remains to be seen how audience members tone down the whistling, screaming, catcalls, and displays of exuberance when their matinee idol comes bursting onto the screen. After all, the real joy of the movies is when fans and film-buffs revel in the euphoria of 70 mm, surround sound, larger-than-life stars, and a chance to leave behind life’s troubles for three hours.