Since the beginning of the Coronavirus-induced lockdown, there have been multiple webinars and talks between producers and exhibitors on how to take forward the operations in the post-lockdown world. However, none of these tried to find out what the viewers have in their minds and what they desire once the theatres open. Do they have any suggestions or fear?
On Saturday June 6, a unique webinar took place where prominent exhibitor Akshaye Rathi got fellow exhibitors on board and also around 30-40 moviegoers. The latter got a chance to give their suggestions and clear their doubts from the exhibitors themselves over a two-hour video meeting.
By now, the moviegoers are fully aware that once theatres are allowed to resume operations, they will be taking sanitation very seriously. Temperature checks of all moviegoers and staffers, placement of hand sanitizers at regular intervals inside the premises, enforcement of social distancing etc would be adhered to. Hence, very few questions were asked on this aspect, at least initially.
Releasing in cinemas vs releasing on OTT
However, the discussion began majorly while talking about a few films going directly on OTT platforms. Vishek Chauhan, owner of Roopbani Cinema in Bihar, on this issue, made some interesting points, “Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are very particular about releasing their films in theatres. You might argue that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman went directly on Netflix. But then, Netflix for the first time, gave a four-week window to theatres. However, AMC, Regal and other big chains of the USA declined this offer. The bottomline is that everyone wants to put their films in cinemas”.
He then narrated an interesting incident, “There was a film called Crazy Rich Asians which was released in 2018. The producers and director of this film had the Warner Bros team sitting in one room and the Netflix executives were seated in another. Now the offer from Netflix was twice the amount from Warner Bros! Yet, the producers of the film chose to partner with Warner Bros for the social impact that the film would create once it hit the theatres.”
Vishek Chauhan argued that when a film goes digital, it doesn’t get wide viewership. He said, “Gulabo Sitabo’s producers are releasing their film on Amazon Prime. Shockingly, half the population doesn’t even know that an Ayushmann Khurrana starrer is releasing! Had it been releasing in theatres, everyone would have known. So, the touch and feel goes away when you stream your film on a digital platform.”
On why theatres are important and detrimental for movie business, Vishek opines, “How would you differentiate between big films and small films if everything starts going digital? Where would you create stars? Can you create a Salman Khan on digital? Similarly, can you create a Tiger Shroff on Amazon Prime or Netflix? Tiger Shroff, Hrithik Roshan, Amitabh Bachchan etc were all created inside movie theatres. The reason Avengers is Avengers is because it does $2.7 billion at the box office and there was mayhem in the first three days to watch the film. Right from an upscale multiplex in New York to my theatre Roopbani cinema in Purnia, Bihar, there was a huge crowd dying to watch Avengers. If you take these aspects away, the whole movie industry shall collapse. All we’ll be left with is web series and web films, devoid of stars.”
Karan, an RJ from Mumbai felt that “the transition is evident”. He told, “When PVR and Inox raised a complaint over release of films on OTT, a large number of netizens began to compare the costing dynamics.” Pointing out the cinema-going experience becoming expensive along with films coming on digital platforms in 8 weeks, he stated, “The turnaround time has reduced and in 2 months, a film is out on digital. So there are lot of audiences who prefer to wait it out for a few months especially for smaller films.” He further said, “The fate of a film is decided the same day or probably a day before by the critics. Films of Shah Rukh and Salman Khan failed because the critics bashed it so badly.”
The exhibitors, however, didn’t agree with him. Vishek Chauhan immediately pointed out, “Critics bashed Kabir Singh also very badly. Also, Milap’s film Satyameva Jayate, was ridiculed and it was a super-success.” Karan then replied, “Those were exceptions. And I am just pointing out the ground realities. I am connected to my listeners who are mochiwalas and tailors. Probably they have the subscription of Hotstar and other platforms. They tell me that ‘Mirzapur kamaal hai’ and all.” At this Kolkata-based exhibitor-distributor Satadeep Saha jumped in and asked a valid question, “Is it possible for the mass audience to subscribe to all OTT platforms?”
At this point, many admitted that perhaps, a section people are watching the web series on pirated versions, or using the accounts of their friends or families! Vishek Chauhan argued, “People keep telling me that the theatrical window has now reduced in India and abroad. However, the DVD rip files of all films are available by Saturday evening. Practically speaking, the theatrical window was never in place. In fact, I would call this theatrical window ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’!” Satadeep Saha also took an interesting stand and said, “OTT platforms need 365 movies or shows for 365 days and only then, they can run their business. So it’s not even easy for the OTT platform in these competitive times as well. And once theatres open, even they’ll struggle.”
Less box office clashes in post-Covid world?
As the discussion came back to the principle topic, a moviegoer named Kushal made a recommendation, “Every business has started a package system. Maybe you guys can give us a package. Say, that viewers need to pay Rs. 2000 and for the next few months, they can watch unlimited films. Viewers would just need to book their time slot.”
Mohit Maheshwari, another moviegoer who clarified that he’s “not connected to movie business at all” asked, “Clashes are bound to happen. If 2-3 films release on a single day, how would you manage to screen all of them in your single screen? And how do you ensure that you don’t give the smaller film an odd time showcasing?” Akshaye Rathi replied, “Not just cinemas, but production of films too have been shut. So it’s a wrong notion that there will be a flood of movies that will come to cinemas when they open. So a film like Gangubhai Kathiawadi which should have come in September this year will now probably release in summer 2021. Aamir Khan-starrer Laal Singh Chaddha, which was expected in December 2020, will probably come in December 2021 now! Hence, we can assure you that every movie that comes will get great showcasing including the smaller and mid-budget ones. You’ll be able to watch your favourite film at your time of convenience.”
Safety measures to be adopted by theatres
Another moviegoer, Vivek Sharma, stated, “Social distancing is a priority for me. I’d like to keep the seat vacant next to me, even if I am going with my family.” Akshaye reminded, “The thought process we plan to follow is to keep every unit together. So if you come with your family of 4, so all of you would be seated together. One or two seats would be left vacant and then we shall allot the seats to the next person or unit.” Vivek, at this, retorted, “I’ll still stick to my point and keep the seat vacant next to me, even if I am with my family!” Kushal jumped in and said, “How will this idea work on the online booking websites is something that you need to see”. To which Akshaye revealed that work on this is already underway. Rajesh Mishra, CEO, UFO Moviez clarified, “Families would like to sit together but a group of friends might want to maintain social distancing. And cinemas should give that option. I am sure exhibitors won’t have a problem and would oblige with such requests. And anyway, look at airlines, who are selling the middle seats right now and there, you’re much closer to the person next to you.
Amit Dadhich, Co-Founder of Mumbai Subtitles Database and an avid movie watcher, then got a chance to voice his opinion and he said, “You need to welcome patrons to cinemas and not intimidate them. Asking them to wear PPE kits is intimidating. Show slides about safety and ways of maintaining social distancing in the very beginning. But once you start showing general ads and trailers, don’t try to interrupt by putting another Covid-related ad or announcement. That’ll break the moviegoing experience.” All exhibitors found his suggestion welcoming, including Rajesh Sharma, who said, “We’ll put up posters and slides but the ads would be shown before the movie. We would not want to break the momentum at all. People should feel safe and not be scared.”
Need for cinema halls to have active social media pages
This writer then went next and suggested that all single-screen cinemas should have an active Facebook and Twitter page so that viewers can post their complaints. Further, the page should be regularly checked, preferably by the manager or the owner and action should be taken immediately. Vishek Chauhan surprised everyone as he said, “Since the last 6-7 years, I have an active Facebook page of my cinema hall and I encourage audiences to send their complaints and feedback. If they have a complaint against a staffer, I tell them to send me his name or photograph. Believe it or not, I have fired 7 employees till now based on audience complaints. I, in fact, make it a point to address each and every audience issue whether it’s about rude staff, quality of sound and screen not being upto the mark etc. This is something that has helped me build a lot of trust.” Suman Sinha, owner of Regent cinema in Patna, agreed and said, “Most of us are doing it and if some of them aren’t, they should immediately go for it.” Ashutosh Agarwal, who runs Star Cinema in Prayagraj, suggested that exhibitors can tie-up with BookMyShow who can help them in passing on the complaints.
Change in admission price points of cinemas?
Mohit Maheshwri asked a question that’ll be paramount in the mind of viewers – that of pricing and safety. He asked, “Are you guys going to thoroughly disinfect the auditorium after each show? And are you going to increase the ticket price?” Ruban Mathivanan of GK Cinemas, Chennai answered the second question, “We are not going to raise ticket prices. It doesn’t make sense in such times. Instead of focusing on rising prices, we’d like to create a situation wherein the audiences feel safe.”
Pratik Munot of Panchasheel cinema, Nagpur then came next and replied, “I believe there will be a lot of government mandates which will already be putting a lot of burden on the exhibitors. There’ll be enhanced cleaning after every show and possibly, deep cleaning will be undertaken after all the 4 shows of the day are done with. As for fear of the customers, they’ll have to tide over it themselves. If they trust that we are maintaining an appropriate amount of cleanliness, then they’ll visit our properties or else they won’t. Having said that, these are extraordinary times and we’ll have to put in extra effort to gain their trust.”
Exit plan required to avoid the IndiGo fiasco
Karan came in again and said, “I don’t rest my head on the back of my seat in theatres as I am always worried who must have used it before me. Post-lockdown, theatre owners maybe can keep a plastic on the headrest and change it after every show. Also, there has to be proper exit procedure for viewers so that they don’t crowd around at the door. We all saw the viral photo of IndiGo airline wherein people were seen flouting social distancing rule while trying to come out.”
Rajesh Sharma agreed and said, “The ushers will have to ensure that the crowding doesn’t happen. Otherwise, the social distancing rule will go for a toss. At the end of the film, maybe we can put a slide to inform viewers that they need to adhere to social distancing.” Karan also suggested that staff should ask viewers, row-wise, to leave the audi. Vishek found this query pertinent and said, “I think we need to have an exit plan in place which needs to be communicated to the audiences over and over again.”
Policy on latecomers, pre-packed snacks in cinemas post-lockdown
A question was also raised, by Amit Dadhich, as to what should be done if a viewer walks in late? “How will social distancing be followed if the latecomer is sitting in my row and he/she will have to walk past me to reach his/her seat?”, he asked. The exhibitors assured they’ll work on this problem although they did suggest for now that they might ask the person already seated on the seat to get up and then let the latecomer pass. The idea that the moviegoers should not be allowed if they walk in late was dismissed.
Akshaye Rathi also asked viewers whether they’ll be comfortable having fresh food like samosas and pop-corn or would they only prefer pre-packed food for safety reasons. The opinion was mixed. This writer pointed out that if people are already thronging restaurants and food joints, which resumed activities from June 8, and don’t have the apprehension of eating at these places, then they’ll surely be ok with eating fresh snacks in cinemas as well, also reminding that “A cinema experience is incomplete without pop-corn for many viewers”.
Finally, a few others also suggested that whether or not there is a virus scare, washrooms should be kept clean at any cost. In the same regard, viewers requested that one should not cut a crucial dialogue or scene while forcing an interval sequence in Hollywood films!
As it was time to wrap up, Nitin Datar, head of Cinema Owners & Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI), was optimistic and said that patrons would definitely return once cinemas start. He remarked, “In many small towns, the only entertainment venue for families and friends to hang out is the cinema theatre. There are no gardens or museums. Hence, I am expecting a decent turnout once we open the theatres.”
Akshaye Rathi signed off by saying, “We’ll start off by playing old films as new movies won’t release immediately. We don’t know if you guys will be compelled enough to watch these flicks. But yes, we can assure you that we will use this time to ensure that all the security measures are well oiled. And once viewers have the confidence that we exhibitors will take good care of you all and that you don’t walk out with the virus from the cinema, that’s when the big ticket movies will start coming. It won’t take more than 3 to 4 weeks from the day cinemas are allowed to open for us to build that confidence.” He further added, “We operate in Nagpur and Raipur. We’ll make sure that we call the local press on the day of the reopening and we’ll take them through the procedure so that awareness is built in all respects.”
These security measures will also mean viewers will take time in getting in as they get their temperature checked and follow social distancing. Shaji Vishwanathan, Head of the Exhibitors Association of Kerala, had the last word as he requested, “Dear moviegoers, please come on time!”
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