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Bollywood looks to rewrite script after low turnout at reopened cinemas

PATNA: After seven months of a pandemic-triggered lockdown, movie theaters across several states in India reopened on Thursday. However, some cinemas are reporting attendance as low as five to six people as opposed to 300 patrons before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sammir Dattani, an entrepreneur-actor-cineaste from Mumbai, Maharashtra, said he was not surprised.

He braved the coronavirus outbreak to see a film at a theater in New Delhi during a business trip, and while at INR400 ($5.45), the price of each ticket has remained unchanged, he was in the company of 11 people at one of the most popular cinemas in the capital city.

“I was watching Tanhaji (a historical blockbuster released in January this year) which I had already seen. The atmosphere in the theater was tense and far from enjoyable. I don’t think I’m going back until the temptation is greater. And that can only happen when a new big film is released,” he said.

With most films that had been lined up for a theatrical release being diverted to over-the-top (OTT) digital platforms such as Netflix, Disney-Hotstar, Zee5 and Amazon India during the coronavirus lockdown, the temptation to go for a quick profit has cost the Hindi film industry dearly.

The only two films to be held back were Reliance Entertainment’s Sooryavanshi, starring Akshay Kumar; and 83, with Ranveer Singh playing the legendary cricketer Kapil Dev in the sports biopic. Sooryavanshi is slated for release in December and 83 in January.

“From Day 1, we were very clear that Sooryavanshi and 83 would release in movie theaters whenever they open. These films are big-screen experiences. We are glad we held out,” Shibashish Sarkar, CEO of Reliance Entertainment, told Arab News.

Another major factor is the refusal by the government in Maharashtra, the hub of Hindi film production, to reopen movie theaters.

The authorities cite an uptick in coronavirus infections across the country, particularly in Maharashtra.

“With the Maharashtra circuit, one of the major contributors to national box office receipts, not opening yet, the response has been low,” Girish Johar, a trade analyst, said.

Johar said it was too early to interpret the initial muted response from audiences. The pandemic scare factor and the lower spending power of audiences will have played a role, but he hoped business will pick up during the Diwali celebrations on Nov. 14.

The Hindu festival is a time of celebration, when many families plan a trip to the cinema.

However, producer-director and film distributor Pahlaj Nihalani isn’t convinced.

“Why would a prospective patron pay Rs400 to see old films, and that too with the COVID risk being so high? Producers who sold off their films to the digital market have caused the current crisis of content in movie theatres. No wonder theatres look like wedding venues where the bride and groom have fled,” said Nihalani, who has also served as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification for two years.

Cinemas in the northeastern state of Bihar tell a similar story.

Several said they expected to cash in on Bihari actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by screening his old films such as Kedarnath and Dhoni: The Untold Story, but the idea fllopped.

A source from a leading multiplex chain said: “The attendance is poor. We are just grateful that it’s much better than zero. It will take four months to achieve 22 percent occupancy, which would be a break-even point for both producers and exhibitors.”

The situation is better in West Bengal where theatres re-opened on Oct. 1, a fortnight ahead of the rest of the country. Six new Bengali movies are being released during the current Durga Puja festival.

Elsewhere, the box office receipts are, in the words of trade analyst Amod Mehra, “disastrous.”

Producer-director-distributor Suneel Darshan blames the avarice of the multiplex chains for the current imbroglio.

“Cinema halls have opened up in several sectors but without a change in approach or business strategy. The multiplex chains had virtually monopolized the game for the past 15 years, and they resorted to practises which weren’t conducive to a fair and healthy business,” Darshan said.

He said that the only way to win back audiences is by providing “original, inviting content.”

“For multiplex chains to procure these titles, they will need to invest in content, something that they stubbornly refuse to do. The competition from digital platforms is staring them in the face, and their Nero-like approach will be responsible for their vacant seats in the days to come,” Darshan said.

However, Bihar distributor Kishan Damani is more hopeful.

“It will take some time to re-build the audiences’ confidence. We need some good original content and we will be back with a bang,” Damani said.

Trade guru Taran Adarsh has the last word. He said that the reopening of cinemas with a rerun of films was “never about box office collections or a substantial footfall,” but an attempt to bring the exhibition sector “back on track.”

“Jobs are at stake. The footfall may be scarce initially, but when big films release in the future, the cinema business will bloom again. The exhibition sector has faced several obstacles and COVID, in my opinion, is the worst setback ever. But let’s be optimistic. This too shall pass.”

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