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How premium single-screen cinemas are leading the fightback

A handful of old, independent cinemas are refusing to join the ranks of more than 1,000 single-screen theatres that have shut down over the past year-and-a-half, choosing instead to invest in their business in order to remain relevant.

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They have employed several strategies to help them gain traction among relatively affluent consumers, especially families in small towns.

These include continually upgrading their infrastructure and technology, including installing the 2K projectors that are mandatory to screen Hollywood films, putting online ticketing systems in place, tying up with food & beverage partners and encouraging local brands to advertise.

As new films are still scarce, some of these ancillary streams that contributed 30-35% of overall earnings for single-screen theatres before covid, have also generated revenue over the past few months. Annual maintenance charges for premium single screens can be around ₹1-1.5 crore.

“We have set up food courts inside the premises that are accessible to people even if they aren’t watching a film. These bring in natural footfalls that complement the cinema business,” said film distributor and exhibitor Akshaye Rathi, who has theatres in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Given that many single screens are decades-old and occupy prime locations in their cities, the opportunity cost for them is far higher than revenue from running one screen, Rathi said. This needs building new streams to unlock value.

Rathi has also built entertainment zones in some of his cinemas, with indoor cricket, football and basketball turfs.

“One of the perceptions about single screens is that only lower-income group audiences go there. But the truth is cinema no longer caters to the poor man, at least in the north. And if the theatre begins to appeal to the elite and youth and gives them a comfortable premium experience, on a par with the international exposure they are used to, it’s good to go,” said Vishek Chauhan, an independent exhibitor running Roopbani Cinemas in Bihar’s Purnea.

Chauhan said one way to attract the youth is by playing Hollywood films, which requires installing 2K equipment from digital service providers like UFO for a high and uniform standard of digital cinema viewing. Once youngsters start thronging to see Hollywood content, they will also feel encouraged to come for local films, he added.

In Kolkata, Arijit Dutta said his Priya Cinema is also hosting live performances and film festivals, including for children that see tie-ups with toy companies. Early October, the theatre will host the West Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Awards.

Ruban Mathivanan of GK Cinemas in Chennai, who has invested in RGB laser projectors and Dolby screens, said single screens should not depend on a single film at any given point in time. “Earlier, we played only Tamil films, but later switched to Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi,” he said, adding that their ticket rates are still nominal compared to multiplexes.

Unlike the north, he said, theatres in the south are already seeing signs of revival, having benefited from a relatively cultivated audience base. He expects things to return to normal by Diwali, if there isn’t a third covid wave.

“The advantage is unlike multiplexes, single screens do not have to pay high fixed costs like rent so they should build on that opportunity and turn their weaknesses into strengths. Single screens are often a socio-cultural phenomenon in their cities and the level of emotion with them cannot be matched by multiplexes,” Chauhan added. Live Mint

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