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So what’s the future of theatres?

Updated on: 21 December,2022 07:23 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

To end the year’s debate: Delhi’s Bijli Bros would know if cinemas were dying, post-pandemic. They say, hell, frickin’ no!

So what’s the future of theatres?

People watch a movie at a theatre. Representation pic

Mayank ShekharIn 2019, when I met Ajay Bijli, founder of PVR, India’s first and largest multiplex chain, we were talking about OTTs versus cinemas. Before I can even remind him about exactly what he’d said then, he interrupts: “I feel the same even now. Look around you, [on OTTs] people usually ask about shows, Khaki dekhi, aapne?” Ajay has just binged on The White Lotus S2.

Meaning, people are chiefly consuming long-form series on streamers. Conversations around cinema on the OTT are at best restricted to films commissioned directly by those platforms.

Which was obviously not the case soon after 2019, when the world, more or less, shut down—as did cinemas altogether, for 18 months. Ajay’s 886-screen multiplex empire survived from a corpus fund they created through ‘rights issues’ of the company, with investors chipping in, and mall-owners waiving rent. 

All this while, Ajay was certain that cinema was going nowhere: “It is India’s number one outdoor entertainment. They say it takes 21 days to kick a habit—I don’t even know a drinker or smoker, that’s true for!” 

Ajay Bijli and Sanjeev Kumar BijliAjay Bijli and Sanjeev Kumar Bijli

He was apprehensive alright, when Reliance’s Sooryavanshi (in early Nov, ’21) and 83 (Xmas, ’21) were hitting screens first: “They were gutsy enough to go ahead,” he recalls. Theatres were allowed to reopen at 50 per cent capacity, “which is neither here nor there, not good for PVR, nor Rohit Shetty.” 

Also Read: Naah, can’t review this Avatar 2!

It’s when RRR (late March, ’22) went off the block, on full capacity, hitting R900 crore at the box-office, followed by KGF2 (mid-April), going much past that, Ajay says he knew: “It was business as usual. Volatility [in what works, doesn’t] will always remain. But here we were at Rs 900+ crore, back-to-back collections, that never happened even before the pandemic!”

Evidently, public was returning to cinemas, albeit for individual movies, rather than as accepted weekend rituals alone. Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Ajay’s younger brother and PVR’s co-founder, tells me at the end of 2022, their business is at 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels: “The remaining 30 per cent will happen by next year, given the content pipeline.”

Theatre business, Sanjeev explains, operates on “two tent-pole releases a month, to sail through.” Say, for Dec, ’22, those two were Avatar and Cirkus. Further, during national holidays, that quarterly results depend on, there is a three-week buffer created for a big release, which if it doesn’t do well “causes a vacuum in the business,” Ajay says. 

As happened with Laal Singh Chadha and Raksha Bandhan tanking together (in Q2, ’22). Many other movies, especially from Bombay (but from the South too), bombed in succession. Generating a perception that there was such a thing as an ‘OTT’ and a ‘theatrical’ film. The former being the preferred home for anything not a spectacle. 

Take medium-budget entertainers with strong messaging that, say, Ayushmann Khurrana would headline. “I was excited about [Khurrana’s] An Action Hero, have you seen it,” Ajay asks me. “Yeah; thought killer first-half, with nowhere to go after,” I offer my solicited opinion. He says, “There you go, it’s about the film, always.” 

Take Drishyam 2, he says, that disproved all post-pandemic punditry—small film, shot over a “mile radius for a setting,” remade from a Malayalam movie, already on Amazon Prime—“crossed Rs 250 crore at the box-office, touching Rs 300 crore!”

Basically, nobody knows. They never did. Business-wise, what’s clear is the up-side on a theatrical release is infinite: “Consider Kantara or The Kashmir Files [fetching, say, around R350 crore plus at the box-office]. It would earn a mark-up of 20-50 per cent of the cost of production on an OTT. There too, the platform will be disappointed, if they don’t pull in enough new subscribers, basis the investment!”

Which isn’t to suggest the Bijli brothers, baaps of multiplex biz in India, don’t see OTT as a commercial threat. It is to counter that, among other reasons, that Sanjeev says PVR went in for a civil marriage with its main rival, Inox, that has about 700 screens, nationwide. Registration papers are in court.

The new entity, if/once merger is through, will practically be a one-stop shop for cinema in India, expanding to newer towns/territories. I wonder if they’ll further jack up multiplex rates. Often movie tickets cost more than a month’s Netflix subscription! 

The Bijlis are aware of this criticism. Ajay says it comes from a few people in posh parts of Delhi/Bombay, where there are expensive seats/audis, equipped with high-end projection, ICE tech (in NCR), recliners, blankets, butlers, food menus from master-chefs, the works. 

Both Ajay and Sanjeev themselves come across as spiffy, South Delhi, city-slicker show-biz men to me. Having met them separately, the other thing I find in common is perhaps their love for analogies. 

No matter how you’re seated, the movie remains the same, no—I tell Sanjeev. He says, “It’s like travelling on Emirates’ First Class, or Indigo, to Dubai—destination is the same, isn’t it?” Likewise, for audiences preferring OTT over cinemas, 2020 onwards, Ajay asks, “Did you visit a restaurant during the pandemic?” 

Nope, and not to theatres either, of course—hoping all through for lines before the box-office, soon. Because that’s what, by definition, movies are. And they’re back. Phew!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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