BY VINOD MIRANI
Finally, light at the end of the tunnel for the cinema exhibition trade as the Government at the Centre has decided to allow cinema halls to reopen from mid-October. In these last few months, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused great harm to all aspects of life. The reopening directive also applies to gymnasiums, restaurants and shopping malls. All these will have to operate with 50 per cent capacity along with other precautionary restrictions.
Although there is no letdown in the number of coronavirus cases, the logic is that the economy can’t be on standstill for ever. These enterprises engage thousands of workers. There has been no movement of money, let alone circulation. An economy works on how many times a rupee circulates in a year. Sadder still, with lockdown, many or most in India had no money to buy basics. They may be the lowest rung in the economic ladder but they are the ones who crank the motor into motion.
For as long as six months, there was no economy movement. It has been a huge setback to economies of countries all over the world. No country can be locked down forever and normalcy has to return gradually. Since the first total lockdown in March, the easing of lockdown has come in phases. This directive of letting cinema halls along with certain other services is the fifth of the lockdown relaxations to come. To be candid, the Covid-19 cases and fatalities may not have varied in numbers during the lockdown than when the reopening process started.
Those concerned would be happy that, finally they are getting back into business. Of course, all those services that will restart will have to face a major problem finding a workforce.
These enterprises no longer employ supporting staff directly but outsource the work to agencies. That way, you don’t deal with individuals but just with one agency that provides you the workforce. There is no permanent staff. It is more convenient to let a third party handle your problems. That protects you from trade unions and strikes by workers.
This is something the Indian business community learnt the hard way. A union leader may often get despotic and paralyse a trade or an industry. Mumbai’s cloth mills are the biggest example ever. So, outsourcing the job workers is a wise way to work.
Sadly for the work force, during lockdown they were left high and dry. Nobody took their responsibility or looked after their livelihood. With restrictions imposed, not as many workers engaged by a cinema property will be needed now.
As for cinema halls, having been allowed to reopen is not even half the story as far as cinema properties are concerned. There are a lot of hurdles to cross.
The restrictions on the cinema halls are actually not conducive to business, and the property owners may realise that lockdown was less loss-making than such conditional reopening.
The conditions under which the cinemas are allowed to function effective October 15, 2020, don’t quite make a business promoting model.
To start with, the cinemas in the containment zones can’t be reopened. Cinemas will function at 50 per cent of their seating capacities. To add to the problems of cinema properties, they have to contend with the initial reluctance of the audience to come in, in the first place.
Of course, it will add to the routine of the workers at the cinemas to scan and sanitise every patron who enters. That is besides the exercise of sanitising the cinema halls before and after every show.
Most of all, how about the supply against recovery? At 50 per cent occupancy, you may just pretend that you are back in the business but, business is about making money, and this does not quite seem to be the right formula.
Then, there is the question of supply. Where are the ready films to feed the cinema halls anymore? The OTT streaming platforms have bought out all the ready to screen content that was available in the market. Not all the content the OTT bought out was worthy of cinema hall playtime. The cinema chain holders wouldn’t even have touched them under normal circumstances. But, on OTT, who cares?
On Friday, for instance, cinema halls are scheduled to screen new releases like “Unbroken” in English and “Halal Love Story”. There is a line-up of Hindi language films like “Comedy Couple”, “Love Story”, “Big Bull”, “Dracula Sir”, “Guldasta”, and “Kaale Khuhi” along with regional films like “Putham Pudhu Kaalai” (Tamil) and “Rawkto Rawhoshyo” (Bengali). The films listed for November release in all languages on the online ticket booking site, bookmyshow.com, goes into hundred plus!
This should look like a windfall for the cinema halls. But as far as Hindi films go, there is little that can provide solace to the cinema chain holders. No film slated for an immediate release shows drawing power, let alone staying power. If the viewers do decide to visit cinema halls, the government directive allows only 50 per cent occupancy. Again, the makers of few big bill movies with stars who command a draw have decided to wait till summer 2021 to release their films. With no scope to increase admission rates, it does not look like the cinema exhibition trade is due to turn profitable anytime soon.
Yet, the biggest problem for the cinema halls is that while allowing the cinema business to reopen with Unlock 5 guidelines, the Centre has left the final decision to the state governments. Not all state governments are inclined to go ahead just yet.
While some states have decided to wait till October 30, so far the state governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat have agreed to go ahead with the reopening of cinemas.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)