CHENNAI: When Covid hit India, movie theatres were one of the first businesses to shut down and still has opened up fully, to try and keep the virus at bay. For theatre owners, especially single-screens, having a theatre closed for almost eight months has been devastating. “It’s not just about the lack of profits. It is about the absolute lack of income,” rued Rakesh Gowthaman, proprietor of Vettri Theatres, Chromepet.
The partial reopening don’t seem to have helped. He explains, “Regardless of whether new films are being screened or not, we have to pay our employees, which costs us close to Rs 3 lakh per month. There’s also the installation of sanitisers and the cost of disinfectants between shows which costs around Rs 1 lakh for a screen. Where’s the income to compensate for these expenses?”
Elsewhere in Kamala Cinemas, Vadapalani, the one-and-a-half minute trailer of Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal was played over and over again for an hour every day during lockdown. Vishnu Kamal, MD, had to get special permission to recruit a projector operator for this. “We did this because a projector has to keep running at least for an hour a day. If you don’t run it for a week, it may not even work after that. We did this throughout the lockdown,” says Vishnu.
Mariyappan, proprietor of Albert Theatres, Egmore, finds comfort in the fact that he’s not alone in this distressing situation and believes the Vijay starrer Master, which is slated for Pongal release, as a ray of hope. “Only a star-vehicle like Master can draw in the crowds again, and for now, only big films can revive the industry,” believes Ruban, owner of GK Cinemas, Porur.
All theatre owners agree that most movies, barring Biskoth and Irandam Kuththu, failed to fill the 50% of the seating capacity that the government has allowed. “Even now, more than any other film, the digital release of MGR’s Anbe Vaa pulled in a lot of crowd,” says Mariappan. Meanwhile, Rakesh says that many of his friends don’t even know that the theatres are open, because the “mass films” aren’t running in any of them. “Master could be a solution.”
However, there is the matter of extravagant celebrations that are very much a part of such films. With theatre owners aware that people are hesitant to come to theatres on account of the virus, will these celebrations be permitted? Rakesh feels that if the 50% occupancy continues, controlling the crowd may be a challenge. “People need to behave. Any celebration will only happen outside the theatre premises. Inside, everything will be in our control.
Due to these constraints, the expected frenzy would be somewhat muted.” Celebrations for star films at Albert Theatre are particularly famous, and Mariyappan does not see why it should be different this time, as long as “it doesn’t raise any concern.” The second concern is the biggie: seat occupancy. With producers and owners expressing displeasure about the 50% occupancy slab, the issue seems to have got the attention of the star himself. Reports suggested that when Vijay met Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on Monday, among the requests was permission to remove audience restrictions.
“If flights and buses can operate at full occupancy, why can’t theatres? If you step outside, you can see everything looks as it did before. We just have to follow the safety guidelines, but we shouldn’t prolong this and hold back businesses. If this continues, the industry won’t survive,” says Ruban. Vishnu, on the other hand, says that even as full occupancy will satisfy all concerned parties, if the government prefers not to change the rule, nobody can complain as safety of people takes precedence.
Stepping into 2021, theatre owners express hope business will pick up. Ruban is also excited about the non-Tamil big releases. Do these owners see the boom of OTTs as a threat? Surprisingly not, despite Surya’s Soorarai Pottru going to Amazon Prime, and now, Jayam Ravi’s Bhoomi ready to stream on Disney Hotstar for Pongal. “It’s unfair to compare theatres with OTTs now. Once normalcy returns, we will know what people prefer.
A film like Master is not meant to be streamed on OTT,” says Rakesh. Vishnu, on the other hand, states an analogy to stress on the importance of theatres. “Though people can pray at homes, they go to places of worship. Though they will have access to OTT platforms, they will come to theatres if they are allowed to.” Will they be? Is it wise to? Will Master swing the fortunes of theatres--single screens especially? 2021 has the answers.