Editorial: Back to the big screen

Deepavali is a harbinger of good fortune for Kollywood stars and thousands involved in the production and distribution of cinema in Tamil Nadu. It’s when the big names line up their most awaited festival releases one after the other to offer filmgoers a smattering of blockbusters that are usually counted on to set the agenda for the cinema industry in the year to come.
Representative Image
Representative Image

Chennai

The TN government had announced last week that cinema theatres would be allowed to function at full capacity from November 1 onwards, signalling that it might be time for Kollywood to get back to business. The pandemic had sounded a death knell for many operators in the business and this announcement could mean the difference between sustenance and obsolescence for these stakeholders. There are around 1,112 cinema screens in the state, of which 80 are in Chennai itself, and 180 in Chengalpattu. However, between these two regions, as many as 50 single-screen theatres have shut shop over the past few years, as per the TN Theatres and Owners Multiplex Association. Nationally, the number hovers around 1,300-1,500 single screens that closed due to lack of business during the 2020 lockdown. 
Many of them have been casualties of their own inability to adapt, but a significant number of them couldn’t find it sustainable to run a theatre in a season when there were no releases, and to top it off, pay exorbitant sums in electricity bills, rental and maintenance charges, and high taxes when there was no income. During the 18 months of the lockdown, theatres were fully closed for seven months and operated at half the capacity for the remaining period. The few complexes that managed to keep their doors open during the 50 per cent occupancy period just about managed to run their screens with a 35 per cent crowd, which is nowhere near breaking even as far as fixed costs are considered. 
Theatres were being asked to shut down even as almost every other public utility threw open its doors. Malls across the city are chock-a-block with window shoppers, many of whom drop their masks right after they get past security. Passengers at airports and in domestic flights are also royally flouting distancing norms while the middle seat PPE mandate has long been chucked out. Festive season omnibuses and state buses are filled to 100 per cent capacity, running multiple schedules per week packing passengers like sardines, which leaves little time for fumigation and sanitation, a practice which is religiously followed in multiplexes aft every show. 
While the caution about closed spaces such as theatres was not unfounded, it might have helped if the government had exercised some discretion when it came to drafting lockdown guidelines for such public places. In many European nations, cities made it mandatory for patrons visiting theatres and live performances to carry their vaccination certificates. Of course, that might not be practical in India, as a big chunk of our population is yet to be fully inoculated. There’s also the threat of OTT that poses a hurdle to theatres in this day and age. Thanks to cheap broadband and affordable home entertainment systems, many millennials are willing to wait it out and tune into their TVs for their fix of cinematic entertainment, most of which are now being directly streamed, and barely see the light of a theatre projector. 
In such a milieu, the State government could consider stepping in and playing a significant role in alleviating the pains of the cinema industry. Rather than looking at them as handouts, these measures should be considered as investments in keeping a sector alive. An extension of SOPs such as property tax rebate and waivers on electricity charges (both of which the government of Gujarat has waived for 2021-22), an entertainment tax holiday, and an easier access to the renewal of licences could go a long way in helping the cinema industry get its mojo back.

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