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Starve but splurge on movies
- Indians, rich or poor, spend Rs 8000 crore annually on film tickets

Mumbai, Dec. 17: Indians spend Rs 8,000 crore on movie tickets annually, at Rs 80 per member of the population, and the amount is expected to grow by 30 per cent in the next five years.

The figures, published by UK-based industry analyst Dodona Research in a report titled “Cinemagoing India”, highlight a different side of a country where one in four lives below the poverty line.

Pushpa, 17, was sent to Mumbai to work as a housemaid after her 37-year-old brother, a debt-ridden farmer, committed suicide. She is paid Rs 2,000 a month, of which she sends Rs 1,800 to her family in the village.

Of the Rs 200 Pushpa keeps for herself, she spends Rs 100 to watch two films every month during her time off.

Pushpa’s family thinks it’s a luxury she cannot afford, but the teenager doesn’t care. She loves losing her mundane worries in a dark theatre lit up with the faces of beautiful people.

“The Indian market is like an elephant in the room. It’s too big to ignore,” says Katharine Wright, research director of Dodona Research.

Pushpa, however, hasn’t watched a film in a multiplex yet, but hopes to be in one soon.

“My madam took me there once to babysit her toddler. But I am going to save and go there one day and eat a huge pack of popcorn while I watch a movie sitting in the soft seats,” she says.

India, says Dodona, is already the world’s third-largest cinema market, riding high mostly on run-down, single-screen theatres that exist side by side with the mushrooming multiplexes in the cities.

Yet, as theatre revenues increase, admissions are falling because of the rise in ticket prices, especially with the multiplexes charging substantially more for the high-quality cinema-going experience they offer.

“Multiplexes make their money out of the highly priced tickets and the over-priced snacks they sell. They don’t believe in numbers as long as a handful of viewers fills up their revenue target,” says Anil Nagrath, secretary, Indian Motion Pictures’ Producers Association.

And yet, multiplexes are just a minuscule part of India’s movie theatres. “The number of multiplex screens will be only around 450 at the end of 2007,” says Dodona Research. There is a rush to build, and some companies have announced plans for a large number of new screens.

Many state governments gave entertainment tax breaks to new multiplexes to encourage the development. But the older, single-screen theatres still had to pay up, to their owners’ irritation.

In Gujarat, for instance, the state levy doubles the cost of a ticket. But the inequalities may soon be reduced as this five-year tax break for multiplexes is nearing its end, Dodona reports.

“And this is generating a kind of nervousness among plex owners, who are upping the stakes in their negotiations with producers over revenues,” says Nagrath.

“That in turn sets the stage for more arm-wrestling between distributors and producers, especially as production budgets rise and the first-weekend performance becomes more crucial,” says Wright.

This August, Hollywood biggies Fox and Warner clashed with the Indian multiplexes over the terms of trade for The Simpsons Movie, and recently Eros and Sony fought it out with theatres over screen space and revenue shares for Om Shanti Om and Saawariya.

“India is still in the preliminary stages of transforming its cinema infrastructure, but with a successful home-grown film industry, investment in multiplexes and digital technology ó and a growing middle class ó it is an industry with a bright future,” says Wright.

Dodona forecasts a race over the next five years between the major multiplex players in order to establish regional hegemonies.

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