Time to Unlock the Cinemas?

21 Aug,2020


By Shailesh Kapoor


We have officially entered the sixth month of the Covid-induced lockdown. Like life in general, the media sector is limping back to normalcy too, to whatever limited extent the situation permits. Streaming and digital sectors have boomed through this period. Television, despite seeing higher viewership, has a long battle ahead because of its high dependence on advertising revenues. But it’s the third segment, i.e., theatrical business of films, that continues to face the maximum brunt.


Various states have reopened public places, including public transport and malls, with reasonable restrictions to ensure social distancing. Yet, there is no talk of reopening cinema halls at all. It’s a topic that’s doesn’t even seem to be in the purview of discussions. The decision to keep theatres shut, like many other decisions in the five months gone by, is just ad hoc.


If theatres are allowed to open with clearly-defined social distancing and safety guidelines, it’s not as if audience are going to throng the theatres to watch films within the first week. As much as regular theatre-goers are starved of their theatre diet, two important considerations will come into play. The foremost is about the content itself. Films have to release for audience to visit. Audiences won’t go back to theatres for re-runs. And no big film is going to release within a week or two of theatres reopening, as they would want to build adequate interest via their marketing, while theatre chains do the same via their marketing efforts to communicate the precautions they are taking.


In such a scenario, it will take at least about two months from theatres opening to any substantial footfalls actually materialising. In any case, all states won’t open on the same day, and some theatres, especially single screens, may choose to stay closed for some more time voluntarily. Which brings us to the second point: Individual choice. Audiences will make their own assessment regarding their comfort with the idea of visiting a theatre, like they will do for any other public place. With the right regulations in place, theatres, especially the organised chains, seem like a safer option than small retail outlets, where social distancing is being implemented only loosely, and seeing people without masks is not uncommon.


The film industry does tend to become a soft target at times, and this is one more example. I may not visit a theatre myself in the first few weeks of them re-opening, but that doesn’t mean those who want to shouldn’t be allowed to, within the norms laid out, especially because other public places have been opened up gradually.


Earlier this week, it was announced that a theatrical-worthy film (Coolie No. 1 remake starring Varun Dhawan) will release on streaming. Of all the announcements of this nature since April, this was the most desperate one. Coolie No. 1 had the potential of grossing Rs 150-200 cr at the domestic box-office. It is the kind of entertainment that a wider, pan-India audience connect to but don’t get in good measure. But one can understand the makers’ decision to move on. Where there is no clarity on the way ahead, how long can one really wait!


Over the last two months, the film industry has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. There isn’t much to show by the way of content, and controversies have taken the spotlight instead. It will take a reopening of theatres to change the discourse over a few months. But even the start of that change doesn’t seem in sight as of now.



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