In the financial year ended March 2019 (FY19), the number of tickets sold by the top three multiplex chains in India rose 23 per cent over the previous year to more than 200 million. For many years now the cinema-going habit, measured in the number of tickets sold, has been declining, and the growth has come largely from rising ticket prices. For the past three years, ticket sales at the big three were almost stagnant. This rise then is an indicator that the tide is finally turning. “The financial year 2019 has been historic,” says Alok Tandon, chief executive officer of Inox Leisure, which posted revenue of Rs 1,692 crore in FY19.
According to rough estimates, Indian films sell close to a billion tickets. But in the absence of national figures, the big three multiplex chains offer a robust sample. PVR Cinemas
— whose revenue rose to Rs 3,119 crore in FY19 — the privately-held Cinepolis and Inox account for three-fourth of the 2,500 multiplex screens in India. These screens (of a total of 9,000) bring in, on an average, half of the box-office revenues of Rs 10,000 crore. And the box-office in turn brought in roughly two-thirds of the Rs 17,500 crore the Indian film industry made in 2018. If you want to discount the performance of the big three then the anecdotal evidence is strong too. Across the board, single screens and smaller multiplex chains are reporting a rise of anywhere from 20 to 40 per cent in ticket sales in 2018-19.
More screens, more OTT, more tickets “Our business is directly proportional to the quality of content. 2017 was a disaster year except for Bahubali. 2018 was breakthrough because the films that worked — Badhaai Ho, Stree, Veere Di Wedding — were not massive on budgets or casts but on writing,” says Akshaye Rathi, director, Saroj Screens, a chain of 31 single screens. True. The number of successful films that got a decent return in 2018 was way higher than the previous three years. And many of them — Raazi, Sanju, Bharat Ane Nenu, Rangasthalam — crossed Rs 100 crore at the box-office. This then is reflected on the exhibition/retail sector.
“There is no fundamental shift. If you give good content, audiences come. Also now since all screens have to be GST-compliant, single screens are moving to formal ticketing,” adds Rajiv Sharma, co-head of research at SBICap Securities. This means the total box-office figure now includes more from the 6,500 non-multiplex screens.
To this add the expansion being led by the big three. “The industry rose by more than 200 screens in past five years, an 8 per cent year-on-year increase. Every new screen adds an average of 130,000 footfalls a year. Audiences are there, acceptance is there. The question is how we supply more cinema,” says Devang Sampat, director, Cinepolis.
This flies in the face of the logic dished out by many Indian analysts for years. They reckon adding screens does not increase footfalls since capacity utilisation remains low at 35-40 per cent. The optimists point to China. It was at about 9,000 screens in 2011 when the state decided to push investment into building screens. By 2018 China had just over 60,000 screens. Its box-office revenues have shot up to $8.87 billion, second only to the US/Canada.
More screens do actually mean more tickets sold, more revenues and profits. However, unlike China there is no state push to building cinema infrastructure in India. Instead, the pace is frustratingly slow. “The biggest challenge in India is that there isn’t enough good quality infrastructure to do retail. Real estate is very expensive, the economic model has to work,” says Nitin Sood, chief financial officer, PVR.
Tandon says: “India is a cinema-obsessed country and we have about 3,000 releases every year, which means there is enough content. So there is demand and there is supply. But screen penetration is only eight screens per million citizens. What we need is a robust conduit of screens which can satiate the demand.”
And that is what the chains are doing — either by opening more multiplexes or by taking over single screens and refurbishing them.
Good films and more screens are normal reasons for people to walk into theatres more often, but how has more competition helped? “The consumption of entertainment across languages — Tamil films in North India or Punjabi in South India in dubbed or subtitled form — is rising. Thank OTT
(over-the-top — content that is provided via internet) for that. As people watch more OTT, the appetite for out-of-home increases. The biggest growth (in ticket sales) is coming from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. There is no visible sign to say that OTT
is stopping people from going out of home; they are complementary,” says Sood.
PVR alone sold close to 100 million tickets in the last financial year. “Regional films in Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati are doing well. Plus Hollywood has done well,” adds Sampat.
Tandon says: “Avengers Endgame and Kabir Singh have done well in the first quarter. Big releases like Mission Mangal, Batla House, Judgemental Hai Kya are coming up in Hindi. Saaho (in Hindi, Tamil and Telegu) is another big release. The entire slate for the year looks attractive and vibrant.” The industry then is hoping that footfalls will continue to rise.