After a dull year, will box office rake in money for theatre owners in 2021?
It’s been a nightmare of a year for theatres, especially single screens. However, with big releases like Master coming, there seems to be hope still
When the covid disaster struck, movie theatres were one of the first businesses to get shut down, and now, the year has ended, but they are still only partially opened as a precaution.
For theatre owners, especially for single-screens, having a theatre closed for almost eight months has been devastating. “It’s not just about the lack of profits. It is about the absolute lack of income coming our way,” complains Rakesh Gowthaman, the proprietor of Vettri Theatres, Chromepet.
The partial reopening of theatres don't seem to have helped. He explains, "Regardless of whether new films are being screened or not, we have to pay our employees, which costs us close to three lakhs per month. There's also the installation of sanitisers, and the cost of disinfectants between shows that costs around a lakh for a screen. Where's the income to compensate for these expenses?"
Elsewhere in Kamala Cinemas, Vadapalani, the one-and-a-half minute trailer of Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal was played over and over again for an hour every day during the lockdown. Vishnu Kamal, managing director, had to get special permission to recruit a projector operator during the lockdown, to have this happen. “We did this because a projector has to keep running at least for an hour a day. If you don’t run it for a week, it may not even work after that. We did this throughout the lockdown," says Vishnu.
Mariyappan, the proprietor of Albert Theatres, Egmore, finds comfort in the fact that he’s not alone in this distressing situation. He believes that the single solution to all the theatre issues, is "Master". Actor Vijay’s upcoming Pongal release, Master, seems to be thought of as the ray of hope. “Only a star-vehicle like Master can pull in the crowds again, and for now, only big films can revive this industry,” believes Ruban, owner of GK Cinemas, Porur.
All theatre owners agree that most of the movies, barring Biskoth and Irandam Kuththu, failed to fill the 50% of the seating capacity that the government has allowed in theatres. “Biskoth pulled in audiences because Santhanam is a known face, and Irandam Kuththu was backed by the popularity of its first installment. Otherwise, the content has been abysmal,” says Rakesh. Vishnu agrees that the dip in the quality of the films coming out during this trying period leaves a lot to be desired.
“Even now, more than any other film, the digital release of MGR’s Anbe Vaa pulled in a lot of crowd into the theatre," says Mariappan. Meanwhile, Rakesh says that many of his friends don’t even know that the theatres are open, because the “mass films” aren’t running in any of them. "Master could be a solution."
However, there are some tricky issues here too. There is the matter of the extravagant celebrations that are very much a part of such star films. With theatre owners aware that people are hesitant to come to theatres on account of the virus, will these celebrations be permitted? Rakesh feels that if the 50% occupancy continues, controlling the crowd may be a challenge. “The people need to behave. Any celebration will only happen outside the theatre premises. Inside, everything will be in our control. Due to these constraints, the excitement of a big release may feel diminished.” Celebrations for star films at Albert Theatre are particularly famous, and Mariyappan does not see why it should be different this time, as long as "it doesn’t raise any concern.”
The second concern is the biggie: seat occupancy. With producers and theatre owners expressing their displeasure about the 50% occupancy slab, the issue seems to have got the attention of the star himself. Reports suggested that when Vijay met the Tamilnadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on Monday, among the requests was the permission to remove audience restrictions for his film. “If flights and buses can operate at full occupancy, why can’t theatres? If you step outside, you can see everything looks as it did before the virus onset. We just have to follow the safety guidelines, but we shouldn’t prolong this and hold back businesses. If this continues, the industry won’t survive at all,” says Ruban. Vishnu, on the other hand, says that even as full occupancy will satisfy all the concerned parties, if the government prefers not to change the rule, nobody can complain as the safety of the people takes precedence.
Stepping into 2021, theatre owners express the hope that business will pick up, and base it on the fact that it's a year likely to see the big releases of films like Valimai, Jagame Thanthiram, Eswaran, and more.
Ruban is also excited about the non-Tamil big releases. “We have RRR, Drishyam 2, KGF: Chapter 2, Krack, Red, and so on. We have an exciting line-up of English films as well, in titles like No Time To Die, Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, etc.”
Do these owners see the boom of OTTs as a threat? Surprisingly not, despite Surya’s Soorarai Pottru going to Amazon Prime, and now, Jayam Ravi’s Bhoomi ready to stream on Disney Hotstar for Pongal. "It's unfair to compare theatres with OTTs now. Once normalcy returns, we will know the truth about what people prefer. A film like Master is not meant to be streamed on an OTT platform," says Rakesh.
Vishnu, on the other hand, states an analogy to stress on the importance of theatres. “Though people can pray at their houses, they go to places of worship. Though they will have access to OTT platforms, they will come to theatres if they are allowed to."
Will they be? Is it wise to? Will Master swing the fortunes of theatres--single screens especially? 2021 has the answers