Battle for survival
With the cinemas set to open sooner or later in the midst of pandemic, single-screen halls count options before them
The cinemascope for single-screen halls is narrowing down. Already under financial stress due to loss of business, the pandemic has brought in more devastation.
Though most of them are resolute to fight it out, they are apprehensive of a quick turnaround.
With just 225 single-screen halls running in West Bengal before the lockdown in March, industry insiders fear a few of them might shut shop, unable to cope up with the losses. Kolkata has only 20-odd single-screen theatres running after around 70% of the halls closing down in last 6-7 years.
But with the ministry of home affairs holding a meeting with cinema hall owners over a possible date for reopening of business, single-screen exhibitors are keeping a keen eye on the developments.
Piya Sengupta, president EIMPA (Eastern India Motion Picture Association), which looks after the welfare of the industry, feels the single-screen owners are the worst hit. "Theatre owners are worried about the reopening of the halls. They will be able to gauge where they stand only once they open. They also stare at additional recurring expense of sanitizing the premises. It needs to be seen how many viewers turn up as they have become shaky," she said, adding, "I'm not sure how many of the halls will be able to survive the extended shutdown."
Arijit Dutta, owner Priya Cinema, which reopened after a gap of six months when a fire damaged the theatre in August, 2018, is livid with the Centre's decision to keep the halls locked for so long. "If the restaurants, clubs and bars can open, why can't cinemas? All the fault, it seems, lies with the cinema halls. Are they following social distancing in the busses? With the Metro set to resume operations, will they be able to rein in on the crowd?" he wondered.
Expressing his grouse on the matter, Dutta said, "If they give us an October date then the Pujas will have to be factored in. If they do not allow us in October and force us till November then we will be compelled to say that we do not need to open halls this year."
Another exhibitor, with halls in both the south and north 24-Parganas, said he is worried if he will be able to buy new clothes for his family as he has to keep aside money to pay his staff.
Sunit Singh of Paradise too did not sound too optimistic of the business bouncing back once the halls open. "When we open, we won't have products to screen as almost 80% of the films have been sold to OTT (over-the-top) platforms. Only Salman Khan-starrer Radhe, Sooryavanshi, featuring Akshay Kumar and Coolie No. 1 are being held back for hall release. But, will the crowds be back? They have shifted their focus to OTTs," said Sunit.
For halls like his, which only show Hindi films, Singh faces a problem on another front. With shooting stalled in Mumbai, chances of catching a freshly-minted film is also remote. "Once shooting starts, it will take another 6-7 months for it to finish. Then, post-production work will take place. Once the film is ready, it will take at least a month's time for publicity. Also, for Bollywood films, the biggest market is Mumbai and Delhi. And Mumbai is still the worst affected. How can we expect shooting to start?" wonders Singh.
He added, "If the government asks us to run with 25% capacity, then it doesn't make sense to open. Theatre visits have become a weekend affair now. Slide in viewership was there even before the pandemic. Now, the virus is the final nail in the coffin."
Singh has a simple plan for himself – wait and watch. "Suppose, they are opening from October 1, I won't open. I will wait for a month or two to check crowd response," he said.
For Sourav Bose, one of the owners of Basusree cinema hall, the main concern is viewership. "My predicament is if we put on the air-conditioning system, we might scare our viewers. With the high cost of electricity, coupled with the salary payments, it will be risky for us to run the halls for anything below full capacity," said Bose, who has been paying his staff from his personal savings.
Bose spends close to Rs 60,000 per month on salaries and electricity during shutdown.
For Navin Chokhani, owner of Navina Cinema, hygiene is paramount to win the confidence of his patrons. "By strictly following the SOPs, we will be able to instill confidence in our patrons, so that they feel comfortable coming to theatres," he said.
Pragmatic and optimistic, Chokhani added, "For starters, we can even play older films, if the situation demands. Like any business, there are ups and downs in cinema. We have to be prepared for any eventuality."
Filmmaker Shiboprosad Mukherjee, who considers himself a product of single-screen theatres, recollects his experience of releasing 'Icche', his first film. "'Icche' was made in 2008 but released in 2011. I was told it had become stale and no one was ready to release it. Multiplexes had rejected it. Single theatres like 'Priya', 'Star', 'Jaya' and 'Mahua' were my only saviours, who agreed to screen my film. And the rest is history," said a nostalgic Mukherjee, who still remembers vividly the hits he saw at many of the single theatres as a student.