Cinemas are reopening! On the back of this announcement, a wave of exhilaration ran through our WhatsApp groups. This ecstatic behaviour is sometimes inexplicable. The COVID virus is still lurking around; we’ve seen all the new releases sitting at home… so why this fuss about cinemas reopening, especially as most of us had learnt to live without this ‘discretionary element’, the movie theatre?
Many of my friends had upgraded their home cinema equipment in readiness for the ‘new normal’. We all watched movies like the Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer ‘Dil Bechara’, ‘Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl’, ‘Shakuntala Devi’, ‘Shershaah’, the Akshay Kumar-starrer ‘Bell Bottom’ at home. Video content – both movies and web series - was being lapped up on TVs. Everyone had taken subscriptions of all streaming platforms – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Sony Liv, Zee5, Disney+Hotstar. So, where was the need for a multiplex screen, after all?
A SOCIAL NEED INDEED
This is not the first time that obituaries of the cinema have been written prematurely. Naysayers predicted curtains for cinemas when movies became available on VHS tapes, VCDs or DVDs, blu-rays and now finally streaming on demand. The AV quality got better each time, and hence movie buffs would love the convenience, it was presumed. COVID was considered the final nail in the proverbial coffin of cinemas.
But, cinemas have carved a space for themselves, and continue to evolve and be desirable. For instance, in the US, paid memberships on Netflix nearly doubled from 38 million in 2014 to 75 million now. However, despite this phenomenal growth, the US added over 1,500 screens in this period (taking the total to 41,000). The number of movie-goers, too, didn’t drop until the COVID pandemic erupted. Content consumption at home went up, but people didn’t really move ‘away’ from their dose of cinema outings. In India too, media consumption habits shifted drastically in favour of OTT during the pandemic, but the deep-rooted desire to go for a movie outing is ostensibly there.
Anyone who surmises that movie outings will die with the movie coming into homes is missing one key behavioral trait – a movie outing addresses a social need and is a very social activity. It’s an experience – the outing, the mall, the shopping, the popcorn, the company of friends, family, spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend and yes, sometimes the movie itself! Though important, the movie is not central to the experience. Haven’t we gone for a movie outing sometimes, knowing well that the movie is not so great? We went for ‘time pass’!
Of course, when the movie is good, the reasons get amplified. You watch the movie undisturbed, without homely disruptions, in a dark ambience, on a large screen and immersed in hi-fidelity sound in the company of a lot of other people - a hall full of people laughing at a joke or holding their breath together during a climax scene is a feeling like no other – overall, divine. We have been to a cinema to watch the same movie more than once, or sometimes after having watched it at home on TV. Why? Because this movie is meant to be enjoyed in a cinema hall, we say.
THE MOVIE ECONOMY
Cinema-owners are realizing this, and moving from just exhibiting movies to including hospitality in the deal as well. Premium format screens like Insignia, VIP, Gold Class, Director’s Cut, Luxe, Onyx and the like offer high-definition projection and frills like premium lounges, leather recliners and gourmet food with butler on call. This experience can’t be replicated at home. Hence, despite the plethora of pre-pandemic options of watching a movie at home, cinema screens were thriving. New international players like Cinepolis entered India and large domestic players expanded fast. For example, PVR displayed optimism by using the COVID times to upgrade their flagship PVR Priya in Delhi to a P[XL] format with enhanced laser projection systems and immersive sound, etc.
Multiplexes provide a big upsurge to the economy of the mall they are hosted in, as they drive footfalls. Movie-goers eat, shop and turn the wheels of the economy by their discretionary spending. They are every brand manager’s delight.
Finally, India is amongst the largest producers of movies in the world. We churn out almost 2,000 movies annually across languages and genres. This includes a lot of regional movies and special interest/niche cinema. In normal times, some of these may not find a screen for a theatrical release, as they would just be squeezed out of theatres by big banner movies. Currently, India has just about 10,000 screens (~3,000 multiplex screens and ~7,000 single screen cinemas) and we’re growing fast. Post pandemic, niche cinema will be a big beneficiary as the customer has got habituated to streaming her movies now. She is now planning to ‘reclaim’ her pre-pandemic life by watching that big-banner mega budget movie on the large screen. In the meantime, can I get tickets for the latest James Bond flick ‘No Time to Die’? Recliner seats, please!
(The author is a senior professional in the corporate sector and writes on varied topics that catch his fancy. The views expressed here are his own.)