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Now screening: a revolution

It was an epitaph that spoke of a bygone era. “Now screening: Chanakya Razed,” said the headline of a newspaper last month, referring to the demolition of a Delhi cinema hall that had been, for long years, a veritable landmark in the capital. After a protracted legal wrangle, Chanakya — a single screen theatre — was demolished, yielding an empty land where stood a building that captured a slice of cinematic history.

The yawning gap that was once Chanakya, however, is ready to make some more history. For theatres — contrary to popular belief — are not dying. A revolution is actually in the works. Chanakya is making way for a glitzy multiplex in a mall.

Mall-attached megaplexes and 3D-enabled film screens are the new kids on the block. Forget five or six screens. Later this year, the world’s fifth largest exhibition company, the Mexico-based Cinépolis chain, will open a 15-screen cinema stadium near Pune. Anil Ambani’s BIG cinema has already launched its nine-screen megaplex for 2,000 viewers in a mall in Mumbai and more are on the way. Films like James Cameron’s Avatar saw a scramble for 3D cinema halls in the country with the number climbing from the existing 12 to 48. BIG has opened a 6D Park which provides a multi-sensory cinema experience in India through a six-dimensional show.

Clearly, far from fading, cinema halls are morphing into new creatures, bolder and dynamic. Standalone theatres which are well located are finding takers among multiplexes. And old wobbly cinema halls that want to stay solo are being resuscitated.

“It’s not just about going to the movie — the screening has to be in a certain ambience, with recreational activities to follow,” says Amitabh Vardhan, CEO, PVR Cinemas. “The idea is to provide a seamless experience.”

The revolution has taken the Cassandras by surprise, for they had been bemoaning the death of cinema halls — convinced that few halls could battle the twin threats of television and piracy. After all, hundreds of single screen cinema halls all over the country have shut because of high costs and low viewership. Even multiplexes don’t have it easy. Last year’s face-off between Bollywood producers and multiplex owners over revenue sharing resulted in a two-month drought of new releases in multiplexes.

According to the Eastern Indian Motion Pictures Association (Eimpa), over 250 single-screen cinema halls have closed in Bengal (excluding Calcutta) over the past couple of years. “Video piracy in the suburbs and districts where people watch mainly Bengali films is killing the theatre business. In most cases, cheap pirated copies make their way to Bengal from Bangladesh,” says Eimpa president Surinder Singh.

Calcutta’s loss is more severe. According to Arijit Datta, who owns Priya cinema and runs two other theatres on lease, the Bengal capital has lost 300 cinema halls.

In Mumbai, Ram Vidhani is both disconsolate and angry. The president of the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association of India blames the high rate of entertainment tax charged on single screen theatres for their decline. “West Bengal charges no tax on Bengali films and 30 per cent on Hindi films. Many states charge as low as 15-20 per cent. In Maharashtra the government charges as much as 45 per cent while multiplexes get a tax holiday for the first five years and an extension after that,” he says.

Undeniably, theatres face enormous challenges. After all, the latest releases are beamed direct to home within two weeks. Films are being released on other platforms such as satellite, video and DVD. The Salman Khan-starrer Main aur Mrs Khanna was aired on television while still being screened in cinemas.

“Part of such moves has to do with efforts to stem piracy,” says Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO, UTV, producers of the film. He stresses that doing business in a technology-driven era calls for innovative ways to ensure profits.

“Nothing can equal the cinematic experience. Movie goers will throng theatres if the fare is attractive,” he says.

A theatre scores over other platforms when it comes to factors such as location, ticket price, audience and type of film. “Going to a movie is still a major outing,” stresses Vardhan of PVR.

Even single theatre halls are doing what they can to meet the challenges that multiplexes pose. Dara Mehta helms Chitra which his grandfather started in Dadar in the heart of Mumbai in 1940. Mehta moved with the times — when multiplexes threatened to squash single screens he took an expensive risk and refurbished his theatre. In came plush seats, LED lights, cafeteria counters and a sophisticated sound system. That was 10 years ago. “The location and ambience at affordable ticket pricing (maximum: Rs 100) have got me loyal middle class patrons,” Mehta says.

Single screen theatres are also being bought out by multiplex chains that are fanning into smaller towns and converting existing theatres into multiplexes.

Technology too is playing its part. While the life of a movie in a cinema hall may have shortened owing to technological innovations in distribution, it has come as elixir to theatres that were drowning under high costs of print and projection. “By converting to digital screens, a cinema hall in remote areas can now release a film on the first day without having to wait for a print. It also saves much needed money in print and running costs,” says Omprakash Sao, area manager at the Mumbai-based Interworld Digital Cinema, the first among several companies in India to provide digital prints.

“We can release extra digital prints without extra cost compared to the old analogue prints which cost about Rs 70,000-80,000 per print. This is particularly helpful for small theatre owners,” says Sao.

The movie theatre business is indeed reshaping itself, at times literally. And India is going to see more, instead of fewer, movie halls. Cinema as a national passion is not going to ease out in the near future.

Consider these figures. India sells three billion movie tickets every year. And this is when the ratio of screens to audience is tiny. There are 12.5 theatres for a million people in India, when the US has 117 theatres for a million, and Europe 60.

The number of halls has to keep pace with audiences in a country which produces the largest number of films every year. According to one estimate, the bulk of theatre-goers is the urban population in the 15-34 age group whose numbers are set to soar from 107 million in 2001 to 138 million by end of 2011.

“We are targeting a segmented customer base that is both discriminating and mainstream,” says Milind Saini, country head, Cinépolis India. “Bells and whistles are not always necessary. Just provide good viewing experience, good audio-visual quality, ambience and content, and that is a sufficient value proposition,” says Saini.

Last year, Cinépolis opened its first multiplex in Amritsar with four screens but its main focus will be on megaplexes, double-digit screen complexes attached to suitable malls. Others chains waiting to add screens include IMAX, INOX and PVR. The last plans to add 30 screens this year and 50 by 2011 end. Technology-driven films are adding to the demand for new halls. With Hollywood setting to roll out at least 10 3D films this year, distributors will be looking for compatible theatres — especially since Avatar ran to packed houses in both 2D and 3D versions (including Hindi versions in 3D).

Cinema halls are also undergoing market segmentation. There is something for everybody — from single screens and Rs 65 tickets in small towns to movie viewing at BIG’s Cinediner where a meal and ticket could cost Rs 500 or PVR multiplexes’ premium lounges.

Exhibitors, PVR’s Vardhan points out, have to understand consumer expectations. Else the consumer would prefer to watch a film on DVD or TV.

Many are already doing so. Roy Kapur points out that a satellite release happens in 45 days and a full movie download is a future option with the improvement in broadband service quality. But a good film will always have a run in a movie hall as long as it is well maintained and equipped, he stresses. “Nothing can replicate the sensory and visual cinematic experience of a film in a movie hall.”

But getting the right choice of halls for an enhanced movie-going experience has not been easy. Cinépolis, which favours large stadia-like theatres complemented by gourmet dining, has had to go slow after announcing its target to open 100 screens within a couple of years. It is now settling for 40 screens.

“We were gated by lack of opportunity. Capital is not an obstacle if there are sufficient options in investing,” says Saini of Cinépolis India, which wants high quality shopping malls in 40 cities.

Saini warns that unless the film industry works with multiplex owners, it will end up killing the golden goose by cannibalising its own ware. Hollywood too had to arrive at a suitable compromise so that a film’s screenings on various platforms — halls, television, DVDs, etc — did not overlap. “The laws of capitalism will ensure correct flow for all,” Saini adds.

Dara Mehta would agree. “The cinema hall charm — you can’t get it in your drawing room,” he says contentedly.


BIG SCREEN, BIG CHANGES

Multiplexes are adding more screens — they’re buying out single screen cinemas as well as fanning out to more cities and towns

3D digital films are leading to more 3D compatible cinemas (Hollywood is set to release at least 10 3D films next year)

Nationwide, analogue film halls are being converted to digital cinema theatres

Megaplexes with 16-18 screens in one place will be the next big thing — BIG has started one in Mumbai, Cinépolis will open one at Magarpatta near Pune

Cinema stadia are on the drawing boards, for big ticket experience such as cricket matches and FX films

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