Picture bleak for single-screen theatres despite recent hits

From around 8,500-9,000 single-screen cinemas across the country in 2018-19, around 6,200 are still operating, with a majority located in Andhra Pradesh

OTTs became the saviour for the movie industry at the height of the recent pandemic when theatres were shut and many releases got stuck in the pipeline.
OTTs became the saviour for the movie industry at the height of the recent pandemic when theatres were shut and many releases got stuck in the pipeline.

By Alokananda Chakraborty

The three big blockbusters – Pushpa, RRR and KGF Chapter 2 – from the south film industry have got audiences back into single-screen theatres in good numbers. So will the larger-than-life, raw action thrillers finally change the script for India’s single-screens, most of whom were counting their days before the end came? The consensus is except for the southern part of India and some non-metros, single-screen theatres may have at best got some breathing space; nothing more.

“Action genre movies tend to do well in single-screens, specially the south action movies which are technically superior. The single-screen audience is predominantly young male (as against families in the case of multiplexes), says Shailesh Kapoor, founder & CEO, Ormax Media.

But beyond that, the picture is bleak. Consider the figures: From around 8,500-9,000 single-screen cinemas across the country in 2018-19, around 6,200 are still operating, with a majority located in Andhra Pradesh. “At least 15-20% single-screen theatres have either shut down since they can’t manage operations anymore, or are exploring redevelopment,” says Bappaditya Basu, CBO, Anarock Commercial.

The cost of operating even a small theatre can run into ₹4-5 lakh per month, estimate analysts, and with ticket prices at `100-110 (in markets of the south it’s as low as `70) it can be debilitating for an operator who doesn’t have the deep pockets of a PVR.

The options are limited. Some of the theatre owners have gone in for redevelopment as a commercial property with a mall, multiplex and/or an entertainment zone. Take Delhi’s iconic Odeon, the erstwhile single-screen theatre, which was among the early ones to convert to a multiplex with two screens and state-of-the-art facilities in 2009 amid stiff competition from multi-screen theatres.

“Traditionally, the single-screen theatres have a seating capacity of 400-500 plus seats while the average occupancy is anywhere between 30-50%. As such, there is a significant spare capacity available and potential to optimise the space as well as enhance the movie programming mix,” says Ajay Shah, partner, investment banking advisory, EY. “Over the past few years, we have seen an increasing trend to convert the single-screen theatres into a 2- or 3-screen multiplex depending on the size and space available. The key thing will be investment required for such a remodelling (and the break-even period thereof) and we expect to see many models evolving to facilitate such a transition.”

But that’s not easy. A case in point is Alka Talkies, one of the oldest single-screen cinema halls in Pune. It is part of the city’s heritage. “Can you convert it into a mall or warehouse overnight? Unlikely, as there will be resistance from local people and even local authorities,” says a trade analyst.

Local regulation can also prove to be a bugbear. Take Mumbai. The state’s policy allows owners to redevelop their properties but Maharashtra has had this rule in place since the 1970s that mandates there should be a theatre at least a third of the size of the existing one in the new redeveloped site. This regulation was put in place at a time when there were fewer theatres in the city; now it has put many theatre owners, who do not have much open space to both comply with these diktats and monetise valuable real estate, in a pickle.

Then there is competition from over-the-top or OTT service providers to reckon with. OTTs became the saviour for the movie industry at the height of the recent pandemic when theatres were shut and many releases got stuck in the pipeline. OTT services are priced affordably, so are the internet packages provided by mobile service providers. The platforms went for producers with stuck projects. According to EY estimates, over 100 films released directly on streaming platforms. Another estimate says at least 20 big Tamil films released directly on leading streaming platforms.

A bigger problem, says Kapoor, is that most Hindi movies these days are made for multiplex audiences – for viewers who are ready to shell out, say `240-250 for a ticket and another `250-300 for F&B. “Those romcoms or Jugjugg Jeeyo type movies will not find many viewers in non-multiplex theatres,” Kapoor says.

It may not be time yet to write off single-screens, but one should not be surprised if more down shutters in larger cities, or just become a warehouse for giant e-commerce firms.

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