India’s largest cinema chains are banking on American blockbusters and popular local-language films to lure movie fans back to theaters as the industry seeks to overcome challenges from changing tastes to the rise of streaming giants.
The release lineup for the next few months “is looking very good,” INOX Leisure Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Alok Tandon said, pointing to robust expectations for the recently released crime thriller Drishyam 2 and the upcoming Avatar sequel. “We should have some great numbers,” he said in an interview in Mumbai, without providing a forecast for box office takings.
That echoes optimism from Kamal Gianchandani, the head of business planning and strategy at PVR Ltd. — India’s largest multiplex operator — who told analysts last month that the upcoming slate will “perhaps surprise a lot of people on the upside.” Drishyam 2 ‘s latest box office collection is nearly three times its budget, bolstering hopes for the Bollywood studios and movie theaters.
The buoyant outlooks come after an extended downturn for the industry, which has struggled to revive itself after the Covid curbs in India and lockdowns that hammered revenue and permanently shut many theaters. INOX and PVR recorded bigger-than-expected losses in the last quarter and occupancy rates were less than 25% across both chains, which together run more than 1,500 screens in over 100 cities.
Theaters have had to contend with unprecedented changes in preferences in the country of 1.4 billion people, who have ready access to vast amounts of content on streaming giants like Netflix Inc. and Walt Disney Co.. INOX’s and PVR’s plans to merge, announced in March and estimated by Tandon to be completed by March 2023, were spurred in part by the onslaught of digital platforms.
A broader sense of malaise has also settled over the Hindi-language film industry. A series of Bollywood movies, usually sure-fire money-makers for cinemas, have flopped while regional-language offerings have proved unexpected global hits.
Those headwinds are hampering the industry’s much-anticipated rebound. Exhibitors will see a 25% to 30% rise in audience numbers in the three months ending Dec. 31 from the previous quarter, according to Karan Taurani, an analyst at Elara Capital in Mumbai. Hindi-language box office collections will hit 30.3 billion rupees ($371 million) this financial year, or 80% to 85% of pre-pandemic levels, he said, adding the next year will see a full recovery.
Entertainment executives and analysts say Indian audiences have become more discerning after being exposed to well-produced local and international content served up by global streaming giants during pandemic lockdowns, threatening the draw of established cinema houses.
“I’ve never seen the kind of evolution in taste as I’ve seen in the last two and a half years,” Monika Shergill, vice president for content at Netflix’s India business, said in an interview in Mumbai. “The flip side is that as they’re more open to experiencing the new. They’re also quick to dismiss what feels old or hackneyed.”
That seems to include some of the country’s top draw-cards. Laal Singh Chaddha — a remake of Forrest Gump featuring Bollywood star Aamir Khan — was widely panned, while action-comedy Bachchhan Paandey recouped less than half its 1.65-billion-rupee budget, prompting a mea culpa from its leading man.
“Films are not working,” Akshay Kumar, one of Bollywood’s top actors, said in August. “It’s our fault, it’s my fault.”
What has brought Indians to the silver screen has been outside of the Bollywood heartland of Mumbai. Once seen as a parochial creative backwater, southern India’s movie-making industry has produced some of the biggest hits this year, including action epics K.G.F. 2 and RRR. Films in regional Indian languages have benefited from wider dubbing and subtitling efforts and Tollywood — the moniker for the Telugu-language industry — eclipsed box office takings made by Bollywood in the last financial year.
INOX is optimistic major Hollywood films slated for release such as Avatar: The Way of Water, will get people back into theaters and the company will continue to show Bollywood movies.
“You can’t write off the Hindi film industry,” INOX’s Tandon said. “It’s been there for 100 years, maybe there’s a blip for the last six, seven months. Doesn’t matter, things will look up.”
Industry watchers are similarly positive on the outlook into the new year. More than three quarters of analysts covering INOX and PVR have buy ratings on the companies, according to Bloomberg data. INOX’s stock has risen 53% this year, while PVR’s has gained 43% — both outperforming the almost 8% increase of India’s benchmark BSE Sensex Index — on optimism around their merger and longer term prospects as they expand across the Indian market.
Tandon also said INOX will hit a target to add 77 new screens by the end of this financial year, after opening 33 new screens so far.
“Cinema itself is a pull, cinema is an outing,” he said. “Cinema is a part of every Indian’s DNA.” Bloomberg