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Multiplexes need a makeover to pull back audiences

There was a time when movie-goers like me would scramble for the best offers on booking apps, use credit cards for free tickets, or even seek out friends in the cinema industry to watch the coveted FDFS — First Day First Show, followed by the opening weekend. Now here I am wondering how to watch the much-anticipated Tamil film Karnan featuring actor Dhanush which released a few days ago. The aroma of popcorn, pastries, and ice-creams at multiplexes is one of the many things audience, including yours truly, miss these days.

In India, similar to going to a restaurant or to a relative’s house, watching a movie too is an outing — a ritual almost. Tickets are blocked in advance, pre and post-movie plans are made, and the whole family or cohorts of friends are deeply involved in the process throughout.

All this changed and how since March 2020. It’s been a year since I watched a movie at a theatre or a multiplex. Much more for my family members. But in the past 365 days, we would have, as a family, watched more movies than in the last ten years. Initially, it was tough adjusting to a 9″/10.5″/13″ screen such as iPads and laptops of various sizes at home, on the couch or at the dining table. Over time, we simply got used to it. From connecting to chromecast or Apple Tv and playing the movies on a large TV screen with home theatre effect to simply watching on the go — especially while travelling — has become a way of living for millions of households worldwide.

OTT challenge
We used to log in to YouTube to watch clips from our favourite films. Now, we swipe through unlimited number of movies until we finally decide to watch one. The OTT platforms (combined) have, in fact, offered the human race more choices than what we deserve.And, add to it, Artificial Intelligence, rather the playlist history, which becomes the base for the system to prompt and help us choose the kind of movies that we should continue watching.

Having been part of India’s retail ecosystem since 1997, I have seen first-hand how multiplexes within malls drive business for all other tenants —food courts to restaurants, and of course, the large format retail stores or vanilla stores. It may not be an exaggeration to say that multiplexes actually propelled footfalls to malls which then engaged in other forms of retail therapy. With the continued lockdowns and a perceived threat about getting infected in places like a movie hall since they are closed, claustrophobic places, the business has hit a rock bottom over the last one year.

Even when the relaxations began, most multiplexes failed to take advantage of the situation, especially by focusing on the millennials — perhaps by offering weekday tickets at ₹100 flat, showcasing hit movies of the past decade and selling popcorn-cola combos at 50 per cent rates. At least, they could’ve recovered a small portion of the losses incurred over the past year. By offering movie outings for families and corporates, and by playing a movie on request, could have made a difference.

Need for reinvention
My angst is that the industry did not rise up to the occasion in times of crisis, and chose to stay rigid in their operating ways. The entertainment industry as a whole employs over one crore people annually, from production to exhibition and everything in between. While OTTs have taken a lion’s share of that, including winning awards at the Oscars, films are mostly made for the big screen, isn’t it? So, is there a revival in cards for multiplexes or theatres?

India produces around 2,000 feature films a year. Of which, half of them are in Hindi, a quarter each in Tamil and Telugu, and the rest across several other Indian languages. Over a 52-week period, that’s approximtely 40 new films which release every week. Seventy per cent of them fail to recover their investments, 25 per cent of them make marginal profits and the rest take home a bounty. This is with respect to the producers/production houses.

Standalone cinema halls, which were around 12,000 in number in India 20 years ago were reduced to less than 5,000 pre-Covid. I reckon at least 80 per cent of them would never reopen their screens once again, what with repeated lockdowns and high cost of maintenance and running the premises. Multiplexes in India are dominated by three large chains which have a 75 per cent market share of the number of screens and as per their balance sheet details, a significant share of their revenue comes from the non-film avenues such as food and beverage. In fact, a popular multiplex in Chennai gets frequented by people for its signature popcorn than the movies itself!

Going agile
With the second wave of Covid-19, Governments are closely monitoring the situation and implementing partial or focused lockdowns. It seems as if we would never see a full-house again at a theatre in the near future. Though, with the vaccination operation in full swing across India, there is still a silver lining that cinemas would reopen to the audience soon but with stringent safety measures.

But unless the businesses change their way of operating, their revenues shall remain bleak. It’s not just the ticket price, rather the entire experience of watching and enjoying entertainment. On the other hand, Amazon Prime has taken deep root in the Indian movie-hungry psyche while Netflix has garnered a niche for itself in the Western movie library genre. Regional films find little space in between here and that’s also being fast filled up by the likes of Aha! — Voot, Hotstar as well as native OTTs like SunNxt, Zee5 and Airtel, which offer thousands of movies for free.

Now, it’s absolutely up to the broadcasters and exhibitors to choose how they want to survive and remain relevant to a growing generation of millennials who never knew what it was to watch a movie on a VCR. Survival will depend, not on new technology rather than the desire to stay agile. Time will tell how this pans out. BLon Campus

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