Will movie theatres be consigned to the history books?

Movie theatres pose some of the biggest infection risks since they put people in a closed space for an extended period of time, where the virus can spread easily

Will movie theatres be consigned to the history books?

V Venkateswara Rao

Cineworld, the world’s second-biggest cinema chain, will close its UK and US movie theatres this week, leaving as many as 45,000 workers unemployed, as it fights a coronavirus-related collapse in film releases and cinema-going. The company said the reluctance of studios to go ahead with major releases such as the new James Bond film had left it no choice but to close all its 536 Regal theatres in the U.S. and its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse theatres in the UK from October 8. “From a liquidity point of view, we were bleeding much bigger amounts when we are open than when we were closed,” Cineworld Chief Executive Mooky Greidinger said.

The other major multiplex chain in America, AMC Theatres, has not announced plans to close, although S&P Global last week warned that AMC risks running out of liquidity within six months, “unless it is able to raise additional capital, which we view as unlikely, or attendance levels materially improve,” The Hollywood Reporter said.

Cinema theatres reopened in parts of India from October 15 under “Unlock 5.0”, after seven months of shutdown. Nearly 10,000 theatres in India closed in mid-March when the government imposed restrictions to fight the virus. The Central government has allowed cinemas to reopen with 50 percent capacity uniformly across all states, irrespective of the varying level of infections in different states. By comparison, the US state of California has a four-tier system that dictates capacity. If a county has 4 to 7 daily new cases per 1,00,000 population, cinemas can open with 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower. In comparison, among the Indian states reopening cinemas, Delhi leads the way with 17 daily new cases per 1,00,000 population.

The safety protocols to be followed by theatres are based on five tenets: face masks, zero contact, physical distancing, temperature checks, and relentless sanitisation.

However, authorities in Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, have put off reopening cinemas for the time being. The western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is the worst-hit state in India, with more nearly 37% of the country’s COVID-19 fatalities.

Cinemas are reopening by re-releasing films that are eight months to a-year-and-a-half-old. Older films like ‘Tanhaji’, a historical epic about a Hindu warrior who rises against the Mughals, ‘Thappad’, a social drama on domestic violence, and ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’, a romantic comedy featuring a gay couple, were played across multiple screens. Producers aren't sure that people will feel comfortable to step out and head into a cinema, and that's why Bollywood films continue to head to streaming.

Amazon Prime Video has unveiled nine Indian films — to be released October through December — that were originally headed to theatres. These include the Varun Dhawan, Sara Ali Khan-starrer Hindi-language comedy ‘Coolie No. 1’ and the Rajkummar Rao, Nushrratt Bharuccha-led Hindi-language black comedy ‘Chhalaang’. Every year, the $ 2.8 billion Indian film industry produces more than 2,000 films in Hindi and various regional languages.

This could very easily turn into a vicious cycle for cinema theatres, where the lack of new buzzy films and lack of audiences feed into each other. On October 15, however, movie theatres struggled to lure the public back when they reopened. Many theatres ran shows for small audiences. In the capital city of New Delhi, one cinema theatre has reportedly attracted just a little more than two dozen people for its late afternoon show. Most of the moviegoers were guards and the housekeeping staff of the shopping mall that houses the theatre.

Movie theatres pose some of the biggest infection risks since they put people in a closed space for an extended period of time, where the virus can spread easily. Medical professionals consider “going to a movie theatre” among the highest of risks, alongside gyms, buffets, and theme parks. With India’s virus cases surging nearing the eight million mark, the threat of infection remains strong.

So, what is the future of the theatre industry, and can it survive the pandemic? That’s uncertain. Cinema theatres right now are facing an "existential crisis”. It would appear that the moviegoers will be comfortable once again going to the movies, only after the pandemic is over or at least once an effective vaccine has been administered to much of the population. No one knows for sure how long a wait we’re looking at for that to happen. As per latest reports, vaccine distribution may happen only after a year's time. Till such time, do the cinema theatres have enough cash to survive?

(V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional.)

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