Theatres in India reopen as antsy film industry holds its breath

Theatres in India tentatively re-opened on Thursday but the world’s most prolific film industry is on tenterhooks and unsure if moviegoers are going to throng cinema halls

Theatres in India reopen as antsy film industry holds its breath
Indian cinemas reopen with strict safety measures. Photo: Inox Cinemas.

(ATF) Cinema halls, theatres and multiplexes in several states across India reopened on Thursday after nearly seven months of pandemic-induced hiatus.

The move is considered the first step towards a reversal of fortunes for the film industry, which has seen an estimated half of its revenue wiped out. But, in the absence of enough new content and amid strict adherence to safety protocols, the world's most prolific film industry is nervously waiting to see how many of the country’s millions of film-crazy moviegoers will actually start thronging cinemas.

“The government has allowed seating to just 50% of capacity for each hall and little new content is going to be exhibited because producers and hall-owners are waiting for the moviegoers’ footfalls to follow,” Supran Sen, secretary general of Film Federation of India, told ATF.

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Besides, most of the movies that are going to run have been released already on over–the–top (OTT) media platforms such as Netflix and Prime Video and those that have not been released yet are not going to be released right away, he added.

“To sum up, I can say that the movie industry is anxiously waiting for the reaction of the Indian moviegoers on how they respond and whether they are willing to start watching movies in cinemas just yet,” Sen said.

Most prolific industry

Undoubtedly, hanging in the balance is not only the fortunes of a film industry that produces more than 2,000 films on an average every year in 20 languages, making it the largest by number of films produced.

But also the livelihoods of an estimated five million people who depend on the industry, including an army of low-paid singers, stuntmen, spot boys and set designers employed largely by Bollywood.

The Mumbai (or erstwhile Bombay)-based Hindi film industry known as Bollywood globally, accounts for over half of the films produced. Bollywood, a portmanteau of "Bombay" and "Hollywood", like its US counterpart, has also evolved as a powerful brand over the past 70 years.

According to industry sources, with a total box-office revenue of $2.5 billion, the industry has grown at an enviable average 11% each year in the past four years selling more tickets than any other country.

Indian hall owners have pegged the shutdown-induced loss at $1.2 billion, mainly on account of zero ticket sales.

The reopening is crucial then, for not just those who derive direct employment from the industry, but also for ancillaries like online ticketing platforms, BookMyShow- the country’s largest, and over 10,000 movie screens that employ millions more.

"After a long wait and no-show, we welcome the government’s decision to allow cinemas to reopen,” Ashish Saksena, the chief operating officer -cinemas- of BookMyShow told ATF.

But like any other sector, resumption of services and recovery will take a few weeks as millions of movie-buffs gear up to step out and get back to their favourite entertainment experience, he added.

Strict safety guidelines

According to Anil Nagrath, secretary general of Indian Motion Pictures Producers' Association, standard operating protocols (SOPs) issued by the Information and Broadcast Ministry to be followed at all cinema halls and theatres, are stringent too.

For instance, it is mandatory to maintain a minimum of six feet of distance between two persons in the common and waiting areas of the halls, that must have arrangements of contactless sanitisers within easy reach. For contact tracing, the phone number of every moviegoer has to be listed.

Thermal screening before entering the screens is also mandatory, and for ensuring 50% occupancy, seats that have to be kept vacant must be taped. Shows also have to be staggered and efforts should be made to ensure that there is no crowding in toilets.

That apart, temperature in the auditorium must be set at 24-30 degrees Celsius, with adequate cross ventilation and just a limited number of people should be allowed in lifts. The screens should be cleaned after every show while COVID-19 protocol of the government should be strictly adhered to as well, failing which action would be initiated under the Disaster Management Act, the ministry ordered.

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“In such circumstances, it remains to be seen if the cinemas can sell even half the tickets they are allowed to sell – 25% of normal capacity,” Nagrath told ATF.

Still, the industry is pinning its hopes on the reopening.

“There are a bunch of new and compelling films lined up for theatrical release across Hindi and regional languages and we should see those announcements over the next few weeks,” said Saksena, the chief operating officer of BookMyShow.

“We will also have more clarity on the films that are ready to hit the ground when all other states start opening up fully, which will lead to much higher ticket sales. That will also help accelerate the reopening of many more cinema screens across the country,” he added.

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