Open-air cinemas look to revival of past trend amid Covid-19 pandemic

Topics Movie tickets | movies | theatres

The government’s decision is significant because this is perhaps the first time that open-air theatres have been publicly acknowledged on a policy level
In early May, The Guardian, on its website, published a photo essay that captured the newfound popularity of drive-in theatres. It had some lovely images: a family of four in Utah huddled together in their car, waiting for the screen to light up; the audience arriving for an open-air movie screening in Tehran for the first time since 1979; and a group enjoying a film while being seated on the edge of an airport runway, with planes taxiing in the backdrop, in Lithuania. The pictures cut across geographies, an ode to a concept that many felt had failed the test of time.

There was, of course, no mention of India in the images on show. But that looks set to change. With the government allowing open-air theatres to resume operations from September 21, owners of such establishments are gearing up to open their doors to moviegoers after a break of almost six months. This, even as regular cinema halls continue to remain off limits.

That’s partly why the government’s decision is so significant — this is perhaps the first time that open-air theatres have been publicly acknowledged on a policy level. “This is quite a big deal for us, to be recognised in the national directive as a separate category,” reckons Abhijit Shah, co-founder, Under the Stars, which offers the open-air movie experience in and around Bengaluru. Shivangini Bathla, manager for marketing and content at Delhi-based Sunset Cinema Club (SCC), says they’ve always operated in a supposed grey area, and the latest announcement comes as a stamp of legitimacy. “People remember such places for the way they used to be. Very few are actually familiar with how they look now. This might change.”

Once a popular mode of entertainment, open-air theatres — mostly the drive-in kind — came back into vogue only a few years ago. Shah started Under the Stars with two friends in 2017, confident that the balmy environs of Bengaluru would help pull in crowds to the movies. Open-air cinema, after all, is largely contingent on the weather. SCC, on the other hand, viewed the concept as a convivial alternative to conventional theatres — an idea rooted in a sense of community. Nostalgia, of course, only added to the allure.

Now, with most forms of leisure deemed to be unsafe, open-air cinemas are hoping that demand for their novel offerings will pick up. “This is a format that is tailor-made for the pandemic times; you don’t even have to step out of your car,” feels Atin Lohia, co-founder of Gurgaon Talkies.

Located in Gurugram’s Gwal Pahari, Lohia’s drive-in theatre can accommodate up to 40 cars, and the open-air space can seat 150 people, a figure that will drop to 60 due to social-distancing norms once business gets back underway. On an average, a ticket costs Rs 400, with two shows on most days.  

Despite the fun element — at Under the Stars, pre-coronavirus times also had arrangements for bean bags and meals from food trucks — the challenge is that open-air cinemas are normally unable to screen new releases. SCC, for instance, has collaborated with production houses such as Yash Raj Films, Dharma Productions and Warner Bros, and has in its repertoire hundreds of titles, but the latest ones available are only from January 2020. Similarly, at Under the Stars, the focus is on older films. Shah explains the reason behind that: studios demand that their films be shown on digital cinema initiative-compliant projectors, exorbitantly expensive equipment that theatres operating on a small scale simply cannot afford.

There are exceptions, however: Ahmedabad’s Sunset Drive-in-Cinema and the Prarthana Beach Drive-in Theatre in Chennai are both permanent installations that do play new releases. Lohia says that while offering the latest releases is not an option right now, Gurgaon Talkies will give the audience a chance to watch films that have just made their way to various OTT platforms. In March, it was able to screen Irrfan Khan’s Angrezi Medium almost immediately after its release.

There are, however, only a handful of open-air cinemas in India. Miffed at not being allowed to open but keen on adapting to the current climate, multiplex chains are also working on the drive-in model to revive growth. According to a report in Mint last month, PVR Cinemas, INOX Leisure and Carnival Cinemas are all exploring the drive-in route. PVR, however, confirmed to Business Standard that “this concept is a niche programme and PVR has just one of these being launched in the coming months out of our 845 screens”. In the past, PVR Cinemas Chairman Ajay Bijli has doubted the efficacy of the model in India. Instead, multiplexes want the government to permit the audience to watch movies the way they used to.

Says Alok Tandon, CEO, INOX Leisure: “Considering that restaurants, offices, gymnasiums and hotels were allowed to operate, we too were anticipating a chance to resume operations. The meticulousness and the detailing of our revised SOPs (standard operating procedures) reflect our commitment towards ensuring a safe and hygienic guest experience. Given the kind of socio-economic influence we have, we earnestly hope that we are allowed to operate sooner.”

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