Despite reopening permits from most states, movie theatres across India are in for yet another dull holiday weekend in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. The Independence Day weekend, traditionally a holiday period that has brought much gain from nationalist films, especially those featuring Akshay Kumar, will only see the release of Hollywood horror film The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It this year, which will be limited to around 200-400 screens across metros and tier-1 cities. Exhibitors who are far more hopeful of Kumar’s Bellbottom next week, say they’re not keeping high hopes from the current festive weekend with many cinemas unwilling to reopen for an English-language, upmarket film and several others still fearing the third wave. While Punjabi film Puaada, which also releases this week, has reported good advance booking, overall there is much greater buzz and excitement around the OTT (over-the-top) releases of the week—Shershaah (Amazon Prime Video) and Bhuj-The Pride of India (Disney+ Hotstar), both of which are cashing in on the nationalist sentiment.
“It seems like a fairly dull Independence Day weekend at the movies even though previous instalments of The Conjuring franchise have done well in India. However, it’s not that big a film and is unlikely to have any appeal beyond major metros such as Delhi, Pune, and Bengaluru,” film producer, trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar said. When released in 2016, The Conjuring 2 had managed impressive box office collections of close to ₹62 crore. However, things have changed drastically in the interim and an American horror film is hardly the kind of fare that will draw people back to cinemas after months of remaining locked up at home, trade experts say.
To be sure, with key states such as Delhi having permitted cinema operations last month, trade experts were pinning hopes on the Independence Day weekend for revival in film business. However, a big blow has come from reopening permits not having been granted by the Maharashtra government yet, according to Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema. The state that remains the heart of the Indian entertainment industry, contributes 30-35% of Hindi movie box office. “Hollywood has its own set of audiences, especially in south India, but even cities such as Chennai, need to open up for that,” Mohan said.
Bihar-based exhibitor Vishek Chauhan said pirated digital prints of The Conjuring are already available online since its release in the US which had anyway met with a lukewarm response. “The only thing going for it in India is that it is being dubbed in Hindi. But other than that, there is little excitement, there isn’t even a 3-D version up for release,” Chauhan said and added that many single screens that have had the courage to resume operations have chosen to play Salman Khan’s Radhe-Your Most Wanted Bhai that had had a pay-per-view release on ZeePlex, the TVoD (transaction video-on-demand) service owned by Zee Entertainment Enterprises, this May. Plus, The Conjuring is unlikely to have a wide release since most Hollywood films only go to DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives)-compliant theatres. DCI is a joint venture of several film studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros, to set up a common set of requirements that ensure a high and uniform standard of digital cinema viewing.
In the past few years, actor Akshay Kumar has dominated the Independence Day weekend as the poster boy of feel-good, nationalistic cinema. In 2019, his Mission Mangal had made more than ₹192 crore in domestic box office collections. Other hits include comedy drama Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission and crime thriller Rustom (2016) in which Kumar played a naval officer, that had managed ₹132 crore and ₹124 crore respectively.
Meanwhile, many other cinemas in the country are waiting for the release of Bellbottom next week to both decide whether to reopen now and to take a call on whether they want to remain in the business at all. Rahul Puri, managing director, Mukta Arts wand Mukta A2 Cinemas said at least in north India, most theatres are awaiting the release of Bellbottom and Fast and Furious 9 that will release on the same day, so only a few will open for the weekend before The Conjuring. “It could have some appeal in metros. It is likely to be quite muted though because there has been a lot of piracy of films that have been released abroad a few months ago. This will dim the keenest the mainly younger target audience has. Small-towns would rely on the dubbed version,” Puri agreed. Live Mint