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India's prolific film industry hinges on cinemas reopening
IN movie-mad India, millions of filmgoers are excitedly waiting for cinemas to reopen this week after a seven-month-long, pandemic-induced halt. It is a significant step toward lifting the fortunes of the world's most prolific film industry.
Avid fan Hema Chockalingam intends to hit the multiplex in the New Delhi suburb of Noida with a group of girlfriends last weekend. "I'm desperate for the movie-hall experience," said the brand executive who wants to return to her once-a-week fix. "Watching streamed content is no match for the real thing, I'm reclaiming my old life."
Nearly 10,000 movie theatres around the country closed in mid-March following coronavirus restrictions. On Thursday, cinemas will become one of the last few categories of public building to reopen.
The resumption of screening will be propitious for film buffs, big-ticket Bollywood movies awaiting theatrical release and Hollywood films such as Christopher Nolan's Tenet, key scenes of which were filmed in Mumbai.
While cinemas have opened in dozens of countries around the world including the US and the UK, India's restart comes just weeks ahead of Diwali, the festival of lights, a time when the biggest films line up for box office release.
But with 7 million people in India infected with Covid-19 - the second largest outbreak in the world, with the numbers soaring by the day - doubts remain over whether audiences will fill the 50 per cent restricted-capacity halls and if that will boost the country's prodigious movie-making industry.
"Indian films are made for the big screen and theatre audiences keep the industry humming," said Taran Adarsh, a movie industry analyst, who fears hygiene concerns and falling discretionary spends could affect ticket sales.
"After a bleak phase, this weekend and the coming weeks will determine the survival of the industry." Just weeks ago, multiplex owners had said in full-page newspaper ads that they had suffered US$1.2 billion in ticket losses and needed to open "on an urgent basis". The cascading effects of zero box-office returns and virus restrictions have already upended Bollywood and brought India's massive film studios to a grinding stop.
The shake-up could permanently hurt some studios, distributors and cinemas in a country that produces more films - about 2,000 each year - and sells more cinema tickets - over 2 billion annually - than any other.
Hanging in the balance are the livelihoods of an army of low-paid singers, stuntmen, spot boys and set designers in cities like Mumbai, as well as bustling local-language film centers such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. The reopening brings hope not just for workers but the likes of BookMyShow, the country's largest online-ticketing platform, which lists over 6,000 screens.
"Flights are full, parks are bustling with people playing cricket and restaurants' tables are filling up," said chief executive officer Ashish Hemrajani. "In a cinema, you sit side by side, you don't have to take off your mask and you don't talk so the risks of catching an infection are vastly lower."
BookMyShow is rating cinemas and multiplexes on safety indicators such as daily temperature checks for staff and the availability of pre-packed food and beverages. Multiplex operator Inox Leisure will use technology to create a hands-free experience, said CEO Alok Tandon. "There will be a lot of focus on the digital way of life going forward," he said. "We will completely rely on e-tickets instead of paper tickets. Each guest will receive an all-in-one SMS, which will allow them to locate seats, check in with QR codes, access food and beverage menu and download the complete e-ticket."
Concerns over growing online audiences
Meanwhile, cinema owners worry whether growing online audiences have permanently swapped big screens for smartphones and TVs. Netflix and Amazon have acquired dozens of movie titles starring the industry's biggest names for their streaming services after prolonged cinema closures.
Amazon snagged mega Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan's quirky comedy Gulabo Sitabo and the biopic Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, whose box-office influence over both urban and small-town crowds is unparallelled, announced that his dark comedy Laxxmi Bomb would be released on Disney+ Hotstar.
However, two of Bollywood's biggest potential blockbusters could be the crowd-pullers cinemas sorely need.
Owners are hoping that the big-screen debut of police drama Sooryavanshi and cricket action film 83, a eulogy to India's cricket World Cup victory in 1983, could reverse the tide. "The joy of watching stories unfold on the big screen: the clapping, laughing, and tears. We miss it. Can't wait to have you back at the movies! #UnlockCinemaSaveJobs," tweeted the official handle of the multiplex chain PVR. Shares of the operator have fallen 40 per cent this year.
As if the reopening excitement was not enough, slated to release this week is an up-to-the-minute pandemic thriller from well-known Bollywood director Ram Gopal Varma. The movie's title? Coronavirus. BLOOMBERG