The collapse of Indian cinema

It was a sad Eid last week. As the pandemic batters Indians, there is simply too much grief and suffering around to feel celebratory. The release of the much-delayed Salman Khan starrer, Radhe is the kind of film that opens on an Eid weekend to a sell-out crowd. It is an old-fashioned, “scream your guts out in a single screen” theatre kind of movie. When you price it at Rs 249 to audiences whose tastes are now honed by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, it is bound to fall flat. Just by virtue of the fact that it is a Salman Khan film, will draw huge amounts of viewership. It will also recover its cost and make money — from its overseas release, TV rights and its deal with Zee among others. But its lacklustre release captures both, the mood of nation, and of its battered film business.

More than two-third of Indian cinema’s revenues were wiped out last year. From Rs 19,100 crore in 2019 the world’s largest film producing industry now stands at Rs 7,200 crore, thanks to the pandemic. Theatres, the first to shut down and the last to reopen, took the biggest hit. Ticket sales slumped to 400 million, less than a third of 2019. A bulk of that number is probably from the first quarter, before the lockdown was imposed. Hundreds of thousands of daily wagers who form part of the industry’s 0.7 million strong workforce lost their jobs. According to the FICCI-EY report, anywhere between 1,000-1,500 single screens have shut down. Multiplexes aren’t in great shape either. The glimmer of hope the single digit trickle into reopened theatres had brought, is over with this terrible second wave. It won’t be a surprise if a couple of Indian multiplex chains too shut down a la Regal and AMC in the US.

By all accounts it will take at least a year to vaccinate all of India. Only then can the theatres left standing, re-open. They are the first, most important, part of the rebuilding process. Without functioning theatres Indian cinema cannot revive. More than 60 per cent of the Rs 19,100 crore Indian films earned in 2019 came from its domestic theatrical revenues. A film’s reception in theatres impacts the price of every other revenue stream — TV, OTT, overseas. Take 2019, a good year. Broadcasters paid Rs 2,200 crore for film rights bringing in 12 per cent of the business. This money resulted in estimated ad revenues of Rs 7,700 crore for broadcast networks. But this money from broadcast TV comes only when a film’s performance in theatres is clear. Both these media serve the masses — so the correlation between the two is strong. Without theatres fully revived the whole ecosystem simply doesn’t function. And digital or OTT cannot replace 60 per cent of the business. Note, last year digital revenues for film doubled, but the business is still down by over 60 per cent.

And it seems like people do want to go back to the theatre. Radhe not release earlier?  Because a Hindi release “is pan India. You need many states in position to take a release. Mumbai and Delhi alone bring in 40-50 per cent of revenues, overseas is a big chunk. A Tamil film it is only Tamil Nadu, a Telugu film for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. These are individual state driven,” points out Siddharth Roy-Kapur, president, Producers Guild of India. Hindi brings in the largest chunk of revenues for the film business. And till the pandemic settles a full scale Hindi release is difficult. Now add another factor.

Globally it is the big, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi (Hindi) — are meant for the OTT screen.

This cleaving of audiences means that besides a vaccinated India, theatres need a pipeline of big, spectacle films if and when things are normal. That is not likely to happen. “Film is a contact business. It involves many people working together for long periods, therefore you have to be careful. We can’t plan a Rs 200-300 crore film in this environment. Therefore we are doing more indoor films to try and make stuff more manageable in budget and logistics,” says Apoorva Mehta, CEO, Dharma Productions.

The business then is caught in a vicious circle that will break only when shooting and outdoor schedules can begin — say the end of 2022 or sometime in 2023. It is difficult to predict what shape an ecosystem that survives from film to film will be in by then. This is not just about big stars. It is about the thousands of writers, technicians, supporting actors, studios hands of every hue and colour. Though industry associations and individuals are doing their bit, across different cinemas — Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali — many have already switched professions in a bid to survive. The business may not die, but it could become a shadow of its former self. And it will take many years for it to come back to health, much like the rest of India

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