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Cinema halls are now open all over India, but trade experts remain cautious


With theatres in Maharashtra reopening today, one could be forgiven for thinking that the worst is over as far as the movie business goes but it may be a while before collections pick up.

File photo for representation

Keyur Seta

Shriram Iyengar

No sooner had the Maharashtra government announced that cinema halls in the state would be allowed to reopen on 22 October than film release announcements began flooding in. Among the films lining up for release were biggies like Sooryavanshi (2021), 83 (2021) and Laal Singh Chadha (2022).

With so many big-budget films lined up for release in a span of just a few months, the question arises whether they will get adequate number of screens and time to reach audiences. As it is, since the pandemic broke out early last year, nearly 1,500 single-screen theatres around the country are believed to have downed shutters permanently.

Trade analyst Atul Mohan agreed that it is likely that some films will hurt the business of others. “Normally, when a big movie comes [into theatres], there is at least two weeks' [gap before the next big film is released]," he said. "It is rare for two big films to come out within seven days [of each other]."

However, the analyst feels many of these dates may not be cast in stone and are merely the first step. "For now, producers have announced these dates [as] it is important for them to block the dates," he said. "[But] if some films change their dates, they have a chance [to move]. We still have time before things start rolling in.”

Exhibitor Abrar Memon, who runs single-screen theatres Victory, Vasant, Neelayam and Rahul in Pune, is not surprised by the rush to release and believes the exhibition sector has the stomach to digest all the fare on offer.

“Such a rush was expected after the [government's] announcement," Memon said. "Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, almost every week two big films were being released. Radhe was going to clash with Satyameva Jayate 2 [on Eid 2020] even before the pandemic came.

“There are multiplexes in every town. So these days there is no problem of films getting [a good number of] screens. Such issues only happen with single-screens. I feel this [rush to release] is good in a way because all screens will get filled.”

Memon pointed out the stark difference with the situation when theatres were allowed to reopen in Maharashtra last year in November, after the first wave of the pandemic had subsided.

“When theatres reopened last year, release dates [for big films] weren’t announced," he said. "I think producers were thinking they should release only after 100% occupancy is allowed. But now, they are mentally prepared [to release their films with pandemic-induced curbs]. We are looking at this unlock in a positive way.”

Memon also said adhering to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) devised by the government won't be such a big deal this time around. “We followed all the SOPs when the government allowed theatres to reopen last November,” he pointed out.

Despite so many big films headlined by big stars being lined up for release over the next six months, Atul Mohan said the trade and fans would do well to keep expectations in check, especially with so many single-screen theatres having shut down.

“Their contribution is going to be affected for sure,” the trade analyst said. “The rest of the cinemas, with 50% restrictions, you may add more screens and shows, but in one locality how many people will go to how many theatres? For instance, [let's say] you have a theatre in your neighbourhood. Now, if the theatre screens 10 or 20 shows of a film, only those who want to watch that film will go. It is not going to increase the number of people watching films. If your occupancy [limit] is 50%, then adding more shows will get you perhaps 20% [more collections].”

Kabir Khan's 83 is another film waiting for release since before the pandemic arrived

Speaking about the first big release Sooryavanshi, scheduled for Diwali on 5 November, he said, “The numbers will be good. It is a big movie with Akshay [Kumar], Ranveer [Singh] and Ajay [Devgn]. Rohit Shetty is one of the biggest commercial directors we have. I think, of course, we would love to say that films will earn Rs100 crore and Rs200 crore, but we have to face the reality.”

Also, while COVID-19 case and death numbers have come down drastically, one still cannot rule out the possibility of a third wave, even if it is one of reduced intensity.

Listen to Cinestaan.com's podcast on what to expect after cinema halls reopen in Maharashtra

Memon believes the trade should accept this reality. “We should [learn to] live with COVID," the exhibitor said. "The virus can stay on for another three or four years, maybe like a flu. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Also, now a lot many people are vaccinated, which is a positive sign. The vaccination drive is going very well in the country.”

He, however, also observed that cinema halls have become something of a soft target for the authorities during the pandemic. “Whenever cases start rising, movie theatres are the first to be closed," he remarked. "If you go to the local markets and eateries, they are crowded. Same is the case with air travel. Planes are packed. Theatres are better than planes. Theatres are vast and you can maintain [physical] distancing. You can’t do that in a plane.”

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Coronavirus Indian cinema