At a Theatre near you… A Film will Eventually Release!

20 Nov,2020

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

As we enter the ninth month since the start of the Covid-induced lockdown and the various unlocks that have followed, most sectors, including those in the entertainment business, have started their journey back to recovery. But there’s one sector whose journey is still waiting to kickstart: The theatrical business.

 

It’s been over a month since theatres started opening in the country. Being a state subject, it was left to the discretion of the various state governments to allow theatres to open or not, within the broad guidelines set by the Centre. Eventually, most states have given the nod, and multiplexes have started to open.

 

But there is no audience yet. Except a couple of festive weeks in West Bengal and a few footfalls in the South where some niche films have started to release, the audience have not gone back yet. It could be easy to see this as a measure of audience’s sentiment regarding the perceived Covid threat in a theatre visit. But that’s not a valid argument. Not for now, at least.

 

Audience in large parts of the country have not gone back simply because there’s no new content to go to. The first 3-4 weeks saw reruns of old Hindi films. It was understandable that with Maharashtra theatres still closed, no new Hindi films will release. But now, that’s not the case, and all major states have allowed theatres to re-open. A lot of single screens have chosen not to open yet, because unless they get new content, the running operational cost would far exceed the ticket sales from rerun content.

 

It’s the classic Catch-22. ‘What comes first: The audience or the content?’ The Hindi film industry is hoping the answer is ‘the audience’. But that’s wishful thinking. We saw that this week with the first proper Hindi release since March. It was brave to see Zee taking the plunge and releasing its film Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari on November 15. The film didn’t get much traction, but it may have struggled even during normal times. The film simply lacks the scale that’s needed to get the audience back.

 

The only practical answer to the question above is “the content”. And some content needs to announce its arrival soon. We are entering the sixth week of theatre re-opening, and there’s no announcement on the release date of Sooryavanshi or 83 (both Reliance films that were ready for release pre-Covid). Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has released in all the major countries worldwide, but awaits a specific date for its India release. It may end up being the first major release of a Hindi or Hollywood film since March. Wonder Woman 1984 is scheduled for a Christmas release, but given the escalating Covid situation in the US, that date may not be met.

 

In this tentativeness-laden scenario, single screens and smaller multiplex chains in India wait eagerly for some announcement. When theatres were closed, announcements regarding films releasing on OTT platforms came in thick and fast. But the same level of urgency is evidently absent when it comes to theatrical announcements. Tamil and Telugu industries have been more proactive in putting out some teasers and dates, but there’s been complete silence from their Hindi counterparts.

 

While one can understand the scepticism regarding the potential loss of business a big film can suffer if it releases “too early”, someone has to simply take the plunge for the larger good of the industry. Otherwise, the case for smaller theatres to permanently shut down will become stronger by the week. And that damage may last years, not months.

 

There’s enough research to indicate that the audience is willing to come back, but also to indicate that they will not all come back on Day 1. It will be a slow process over a few weeks, over three-four major national releases, flanked by key regional ones. But we need a brave soul to set the ball rolling by locking a date and put it out in the public. Or at least announce clearly what their plans are, and the rationale behind those choices.

 

Inaction can be worse than imperfect action. I hope the Hindi film industry doesn’t have to pay a huge price for its current state of indecisiveness.

 

 

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