Last week, around 5,000 of the total 8,000 operational movie screens opened up after an intermittent lockdown of close to 18 months. With Bollywood's first big Bollywood film release Bellbottom and theatres reopening in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, multiplex owners can finally sense some revival.
India's largest multiplex operator PVR—that runs a network of 846 screens across the country—says that the industry will be back to pre-COVID numbers only in the next financial year. "Till March 2022 it's going to be a slow journey. There will be green shoots in the middle. But that level of business which we had pre-pandemic where we served 100 million customers might take another 4-5 months," Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, joint managing director, PVR told Fortune India.
Bijli said that the revival will be dependent on many factors. "One of them that there is not going be a third wave. Second is that Bombay should open as soon as possible because with Bombay opening we'll have access to a lot many Hindi movies and it's the heartbeat of the industry and third I think it will be the comfort to come out to the cinemas," he said. "It's just a matter of perception that cinemas are unsafe and it's the wrong perception. If anything we're controlling crowds, we're requesting you to wear a mask, we've got high ceiling which in any case are ventilators for the viruses to die and people are not talking, they're pointing in one direction as opposed to a restaurant where you are facing each other," he added.
He said that Indian film producers have seen an experiment on OTTs and there's a divide there. "Shershaah came but no one knows its numbers. Where are the barometers of its success? In the last year, producers have also realized that they should wait for the big screen because that kind of traction you don't get on OTTs. We were out and injured so obviously OTTs had a massive opportunity. But even they're slowing down because they're also finding it very difficult to sustain those numbers. They're not seeing the traction now because people are getting bored of sitting at home now," he said.
PVR said that it's important for the company to focus on revival right now. "We're not looking at diversifying into anything right now because it is important to note at this stage of our business—that has been shut for 18 months and revenues have been dismal—we really have to focus on revival of the cinemas to the level and the glory that was known pre-pandemic. And then one can think of diversification," Bijli explained.
"Once we've been able to revive and re-establish the business, then we can look at diversification. We're looking at gaming, digital offshoots, distribution, food and beverages, etc. Basically, we're using existing resources that now have spare capacity because of cinemas being shut."
Analysts say that trends in other markets indicate that with good content, the audience is comfortable going to cinemas and regional films (Punjabi and Telugu) have opened up to a full house—with a 50% occupancy cap in the first weekend and healthy occupancy numbers on weekdays too post that—indicating signs of Box Office coming back to 50% of pre-COVID collection on an overall basis in the near term. "We believe this is a very promising sign as these numbers are only post 2-3 weeks of cinema opening in India post the second wave and despite multiple restrictions. Hollywood content has not fared well primarily due to Maharashtra state being shut as latter contributes almost 35%-40% of Box Office for English content," said Karan Taurani, senior vice president, Elara Capital.
Elara Capital says that over the next six to nine months, larger films across genres will release and collections for these too will breach towards 60% of pre-COVID levels—primarily helped by a larger portion of the population (middle and upper-middle class) being vaccinated with two doses and relaxation on restrictions (night curfew), an uptick in festive season towards Diwali/Christmas and more screens being allowed to open. "This is in line with our view that India will surpass global Box Office trends as globally Box Office has breached towards mere 40%-45% of pre-COVID collections, despite 90% of the screens being open since last six months," Taurani said.
"Medium to long term we maintain our positive stance as restrictions will ease off eventually; the problem post this second wave is not about people not wanting to go to the cinema or large film content not releasing, it’s more about things moving to normalcy, which will expedite once a larger portion of the population is vaccinated with two doses," he added.