Before the pandemic shuttered movie theatres in Mumbai, movie-going was a popular form of family and group entertainment, and a retreat from everyday life, even if for only three hours.
Reel 1: Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge.
Mumbai is a rare megacity that coerces married couples into surreptitious rendezvous at movie theatres – the only dark places that offer relative safety, a barrier to prying eyes, and an intimate setting that’s as hard to find as compliance to social distancing in Mumbai’s kholis. And that’s just one positively charming detail about the city’s theatres, which mean different things to Mumbai’s colourfully diverse age and socio-economic groups.
Reel 2: The biggest hit!
In summary, the current state of the movie industry is all about deferred releases, stalled shoots, digital releases that challenge the old normal of watching new releases in theatres, and much confusion on when and how theatres will reopen. August 1 was the expected reopening date. Malls opened on August 5 without theatres. Distributors are now pinning their hopes on September.
The biggest hit for movie theatres in Mumbai has been the non-existent box office collections since the first lockdown in late March. For cinemas in Mumbai’s, the crisis has triggered the lowest of financial lows as far back as memory goes. The short-term impact is devastating, and the future unsettled. Amid the upheaval, will the communal nature of movie-going survive strict social distancing norms, and the looming fear that a movie outing carries the risk of contracting a dreaded virus?
This is not the first shutdown in the history of movie theatres. It happened during the Spanish Flu pandemic from 1918 to 1920. That crisis transformed America’s movie industry, giving rise to the mega-Hollywood that’s being duplicated again today. While Hollywood came full circle between pandemics, Indian cinema was charting the road ahead even before the pandemic—the rise of studios and corporate money, a noticeable inclination towards good content, increasing disregard for the star system, and the coming of age of streaming platforms in India.
Reel 3: The curtain is rising on TV.
When theatres went dark, streaming platforms lit up. Digital releases put movie buffs and platform owners in a happy place, but the backstage arithmetic is not as cut and dried. Netflix and its peers make money from subscription, not from digital releases. Studios and indie producers sell movie rights to on-demand and streaming platforms, and TV broadcasters, but their most lucrative revenue comes from box office collections. Exhibitors (theatres) too get a share of ticket sales, but also from food and beverage concessions and advertising. As a whole, the movie industry earns up to 60% from ticket sales.
The entire chain can forego these revenue streams only for so long. Even when theatres reopen, pre-pandemic level footfall will take months. The situation is forcing studios into tough decisions—delaying theatrical release or opting for digital release. Four months into the lockdown and some of these decisions have already split the industry down the middle.
The pandemic inadvertently helped streaming platforms to bypass the release window, breaking through another significant movie industry bastion, something they have been doing for a while.
Traditionally, movie industries observe a ‘theatrical release window’—the number of days a film has to run in cinemas before releasing on TV, streaming platforms and DVD. Hollywood observes a 90-day window while it’s eight weeks in India. The pandemic inadvertently helped streaming platforms to bypass the release window, breaking through another significant movie industry bastion, something they have been doing for a while. For instance, original movies by streaming platforms compete in scale, cast and budget with the biggest made-for-cinema productions. They’re also competing for critical acclaim and peer recognition—Netflix earned 24 nominations at the 2020 Oscars, more than any other movie studio or media company.
Reel 4: From ‘Now playing’ to ‘Now buffering’.
Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ hotstar led the charge on the release window with a slew of big-ticket Hindi movies for digital release, including regional titles, and regional languages that will sidestep a convention honoured by producers, distributors and exhibitors, making some industry segments roundly unhappy. Netflix wasn’t to be left behind, announcing 17 new and exciting Indian originals across genres.
PVR, India’s largest theatre chain expressed its disappointment in no uncertain terms. Their CEO, Kamal Gianchandani, told PTI, “Theatrical release is the best way for audiences to experience the labour and creative genius of our film-makers. This has been so for decades and not just in India but globally.” He labelled some producers “fair-weather” friends for choosing digital releases, but appeared confident that people will return to theatres once the situation returns to normal. Does Gianchandani’s confidence stem from business insight or India’s obvious love for movie-going. And can this love survive a pandemic that threatens life itself?
Reel 5: Just another Intermission.
Cinema survived the onslaught of video and fended off piracy for decades, only to face new foes in satellite television and streaming platforms. Record-breaking box office numbers generated by the likes of Baahubali and Avengers Endgame indicate that cinema didn’t just survive, it found new ways to keep pace with competition.
After months of being cooped up indoors and watching movies on TV and digital devices, patrons will return to theatres when they reopen. The magic of the big screen with its attendant ambience, sound, food, technology like IMAX, and the bang for buck provided by 3D and 4D motion seats cannot be matched at home. The joy of flocking to a theatre in good company will continue to drive out-of-home entertainment. At this time, however, the analysis is pure conjecture. Or is it?
Reel 6: Lights, camera, action, again!
‘Back to the Theatre’ is a report by Ormax Media on the expected theatre-going behaviour in India during COVID-19. Conducted in May, the online survey involved 1000 Hindi, Tamil and Telugu-speaking regular theatre-goers across 58 cities. Even as an overwhelming 82% respondents claimed they miss going to the theatre, the big question is will they return? A solid 42% will return to theatres 2-3 weeks after they reopen, and a heartening 28% will rush to theatres immediately, conditional to sanitisation and social distancing norms being met. 70% said safety is the biggest barrier to the immediate return to theatres.
Overall, a shade under 3% respondents do not foresee returning to big screens anytime soon because they are used to watching movies on TV and streaming platforms. Another insight of consequence is 69% respondents saying they will visit theatres not just for big-budget flicks, but for medium and small-budget films too. The sentiment partly explains the popular reception to Gulabo Sitabo, which released on Amazon Prime Video in early June. Given the current sentiments for good content over big budgets and stars, the movie’s theatre run may have had the same outcome.
What’s on the mind of cinema-goers from Mumbai? According to the survey, ‘Mumbai shows an exceptional pro-theatre sentiment’. 93% respondents from Mumbai are missing their movie theatre fix. Despite the wave of digital releases, and tough social distancing and hygiene measures proposed for reopening theatres, Mumbaikars are overwhelmingly inclined to return to a big screen.
Here’s another positive tell-tale sign for movie theatre buffs. Netflix added a record 15.8 million new subscriptions in the January-March quarter, doubling Wall Street’s expectations and outdoing its own. By its own admission, though, the boom will wane when people ride out the quarantine. Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, remarked, “Our guess is subscribers will be light in the third and fourth quarter”.
Reel 7: Housefull goes out of home?
With the dread of COVID-19 transmission exacerbated in enclosed spaces, could there be a case for open-air and drive-in theatres? Mumbai’s only drive-in cinema breathed its last in Bandra in 2003. There’s been talk of a revival since 2016 but no more. A proposal by PVR for a drive-in theatre in BKC has no opening date, but their CEO believes, “Whether there would be renewed traction in drive-in properties because of COVID-19 or there will be an uptake in numbers, that is something one will have to see when this whole situation is a little more settled.” The vagaries of Mumbai’s weather and its sky-high real estate prices make drive-in theatres an unlikely proposition. But who foresaw a pandemic upturning life the way it has?
Reel 8: Picture abhi baaki hai!
My earliest lasting memory of a movie theatre involves Hindi cinema’s most epic picture, audio cassettes and a doting dad. At age 11, I had played back every dialogue, song, pause, sound effect and music interlude from Sholay many times over on a two-tape audio cassette set. Each playback re-shaped my imaginary screenplay of the movie, until I watched Sholay on the big screen nine years after it released, thanks to my movie-buff father who was quietly aware of my love for all things Sholay. That day at the theatre, I learnt three life lessons: watching Sholay was way better than ‘hearing’ it, watching movies on the big screen is a peerless form of entertainment, and movie-going can be fantastical, joyous, emotional and bonding; all at once.
Theatres have survived wars, pandemics, attacks by zealots, bans by faithful, competition from technology, and pathbreaking changes in the production and consumption of movies. When theatres in Mumbai are back in business, Mumbaikars will return to their three hours of glorious entertainment with friends, family, samosas, and an ambience that is the sole preserve of the movie theatre.