‘You First’: Theatres In India Open On Oct 15, But Will Anyone Turn Up?

Since 1993, when Baazigar released to an explosive reception at the box-office in 1993, the Diwali release window has been considered auspicious for Shah Rukh Khan.

The actor, who hasn’t filmed a new movie since 2018’s Zero failed, has enjoyed a 100% success rate as far as his Diwali release is concerned: from DDLJ to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Pagal Hai to Mohabbatein, Veer Zaara to Don and Om Shanti Om, Diwali is to Khan what Christmas is to Aamir Khan (Ghajini, 3 Idiots, PK) , Eid is to Salman Khan (Wanted, Dabangg, Ek Tha Tiger) and what any date on the calendar is to Akshay Kumar.

By October, many big and small movies have usually come and gone in theatres, and the industry would be gearing up to welcome its festive season releases.

But not this year. While cinema halls are set to open from October 15 across India except Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the former being one of the most critical revenue-generating territories, Bollywood’s release calendar is still in disarray due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the absence of a blueprint for a situation like this, trade experts are still uncertain whether the upcoming festivals will light up the box-office or if cinema halls will continue to suffer in the dark.

“There’s no precedence to what has happened,” said trade analyst Komal Nahta. “It’s not like on Day 1, people will run to the theatres. It will take a while for them to feel safe inside an enclosed space for a prolonged period. The big films are likely to see the response of people in the initial few days when they play something else, which puts cinema halls in a conundrum.”

The big movies that theatre owners hoped would drum up business—Sooryavanshi and ’83—are unlikely to release as per schedule.
In a statement, Reliance Entertainment CEO Shibashish Sarkar said, “We shall wait and watch before deciding the release of ’83 and Sooryavanshi. Look, even if theatres open in all states by November 1, we can’t release such a big film, doing only 15 days of promotion.”

The fact that cinemas can run only 50% of their capacity means a film will take that much longer to recover its cost and generate profit.

“They will have to run for more weeks. What they’d have ordinarily collected in 5-6 weeks will now take them 8-10 weeks,” pointed out Nahta.

Sources told HuffPost India that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, one of the biggest Hollywood films of the year, produced by Warner Bros., doesn’t have an India release plan yet, with studio executives waiting to see what happens in November.

The film had a limited run in the US, generating revenues mostly from international territories across Europe and South Asia where cinema halls have been open for the past few months.

Shiladitya Bora, who ran PVR’s Director’s Rare wing earlier and is currently handling the all-India distribution of the festival-trotting Sir, whose March theatrical release was marred by the pandemic, said that the performance of the big films at the box-office will give them an indication about public sentiment.
He’s confident of releasing Sir, which features Tillotama Shome and Vivek Gomber, in theatres by December.

Ordinarily, an independent film such as Sir would have comfortably found a home on one of the streaming platforms but thanks to the film’s international buzz, the makers are bullish about a theatrical release.

“There’s a false perception that the multiplexes don’t help small films,” Bora said over a phone call. “If your film is good enough and is attracting audiences, the show times eventually improve. Once theatres open, we’ll bring Sir out with full force,” he said, adding that the film is likely to come out in December. “If precautions like the airline industry is following are implemented, I am sure people will feel safe enough to venture out.”

But there’s another struggle that theatres are likely to face before a release chart is laid out: what movies will they play until producers finally feel confident enough to release their titles?

Several people from the entertainment business that HuffPost India spoke to say that that cinemas may re-release popular Hollywood films, regional films, dubbed films and classics to attract people back into the cinemas until the Hindi film industry organises its release calendar.

“There was a Gujarati film called Hellaro that we once played which did unexpectedly well,” Manoj Desai, owner of the Gaiety-Galaxy theatres in Mumbai said over a phone call.

“We might look at regional films again. But my bigger concern is I still don’t know when I can actually open my theatre. Will anybody even show up? Honestly, I don’t know and I’ve stopped thinking,” he said, sounding exasperated. “In the morning there’s one circular, in the evening there’s another contradicting it.”

“All my plans have been hit by lightning. My properties are fully empty. I haven’t even thought through the logistics of implementing the 50% capacity rule,” Desai, who also runs the Maratha Mandir theatre, said.

According to a report in The Quint, nearly 100 single-screen cinemas are likely to fold after suffering losses during the pandemic. “The number could be higher unless there’s a miracle. We have petitioned the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and sent a copy to the Prime Minister of India, but there has been no response yet,” Nitin Dattar, President of the Theatre Owners Association, Mumbai, was quoted as saying.

Hansal Mehta told HuffPost India that it’d interesting to see if theatres subvert

Nahta said while the current situation looks pretty bleak, especially for single-screen family owned enterprises, he’s hopeful of a revival in business, pointing out that Indians love the shared experience of watching a movie in a theatre and that a six-month gap isn’t going to upend that tradition.

“You’ve been patronising theatres for 20-25 years. You think not going to one for six months is going to change what you’ve been doing for decades? No way. The joy of watching a film with people you haven’t met and who you’ll not meet again is something else. The theatrical experience doesn’t have a substitute and will survive this pandemic,” he said.

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