Single-screen theatres brace for litmus test

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A Kashmiri Muslim leaves after selling cold drinks at the Neelam cinema, the only functional cinema hall in Srinagar
A Kashmiri Muslim leaves after selling cold drinks at the Neelam cinema, the only functional cinema hall in Srinagar
3 min read . Updated: 25 Feb 2021, 01:41 PM IST Lata Jha Times have been tough for these independent cinema owners that have registered only 5-7% occupancies per day since reopening permits came in October

New Delhi: With more than 1,000 theatres having shut down over the past few months, single-screen properties are awaiting big Hindi film releases to revive their fortunes as they start releasing towards the beginning of April, with Akshay Kumar-starrer Sooryavanshi first in line.

Times have been tough for these independent cinema owners that have registered only 5-7% occupancies per day since reopening permits came in October.

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At least 10% of single screens in north India alone have decided to shut shop permanently. Others have their hopes pinned on upcoming big-ticket films to figure whether they can make it or sink. The interim period in March will be tough to keep their heads above water, they say.

“We’re incurring losses everyday with our revenues down to zero but electricity charges and staff salaries having had to be paid as usual," Bihar-based exhibitor Vishek Chauhan said. Had he known Bollywood would take more than four months to start scheduling major releases, Chauhan said he wouldn’t have opened his cinema in October.

There have been some bright spots for sure, such as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman and the dubbed Hindi version of Tamil film Master, but small-town theatre owners such as Chauhan had not anticipated that Bollywood would leave everything from Diwali to Christmas to Republic Day bereft of big, new offerings. The sector, Chauhan said, is in complete paralysis right now and the few films that have been hitting theatres wouldn’t have worked even in ordinary times.

“While the central government has announced 100% capacity in cinemas, a lot of states are yet to give the green signal due to threats in their own regions. We presume producers can’t release big films only in specific territories," said Pravin Chalikwar, a director at Priti Cinemas, a single-screen theatre in Parbhani, Maharashtra, who is yet to reopen his cinema but has been asked to pay 50% of the total electricity charges, including that for the lockdown period by the local board. That is a struggle for him given his dwindling savings and no clarity on what he can play till big films arrive.

A lot of people, especially in small towns, are also confused about whether theatres are open, and which ones at that, said Pranav Garg, MD, Maya Palace, Muzaffarnagar. Many families who want to sit and enjoy the experience together are not turning up since social distancing norms would require them to sit separately or not bring children and the elderly.

“The only reason we’re open, as of now, is to repose confidence in people (that cinemas are safe spaces) and to train our staff on how to deal when crowds to come in," Garg said.

To be sure, horror comedy Roohi, starring Rajkummar Rao and Jahnvi Kapoor and slated for 11 March, has brought some joy to exhibitors though the litmus test will only take place with Sooryavanshi that is still to announce an official release date. A lot of single screen owners are contemplating not returning to business and the coming weeks will help them decide.

“People want to step out and watch films but they haven’t been getting content all this while," said Chauhan, adding that the pent-up demand could ensure sky-high collections for Sooryavanshi, booking enquiries for which have already started in single screens.

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