B-Town: Multiplexes to multitask!

12-09-2021 Sun 10:47 IST | IANS | Opinion

The multiplex chains, while trying to persuade the State Government of Maharashtra to withdraw the lockdown on the cinema halls, have also taken a positive step forward and decided to venture into the restaurant business. At least one prominent cinema management, INOX, has announced the start of a dining service.

These cinema properties have spacious lounges which they plan to use to accommodate the diners. And, one need not buy a cinema ticket to use the dining facility. Of course, the multiplexes have been in the catering business of sorts, so far serving refreshments through their cafeterias besides serving limited what may be termed as light meals or heavy snacks which includes a variety of Indian and international cuisines from their pantries.

Besides, making the patrons keep in touch with their local cinema, which they seem to have turned indifferent to with this year-and-half long lockdown, the scheme may also prove more productive in the future when the cinemas reopen. It would be an attractive and convenient idea for the patrons to follow a film with dinner, or vice a versa, something often done at different locations.

It is not the core business of the cinema managements to conduct such a business as dining and catering as such. For online table bookings, INOX has availed the services of the restaurant search app, Easydiner, which offers a handsome discount of 25 per cent along with the facility of table booking without a charge either for booking or for cancellation.

As they say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

Last year, Carnival Cinemas too ventured into the cloud kitchen business by launching a wholly-owned subsidiary -- Purple Foods & Beverages Pvt. Ltd. It has five labels catering to different tastes and preferences. But, that is branching out and some of the cinema properties have been turned into cooking facilities with plans to add more properties for the purpose.

Meanwhile, the cinema chain managements are vigorously trying to convince the Maharashtra Government, where the lockdown is still in effect on cinema halls, to withdraw it. Between the two of them, Maharashtra and Gujarat give over 35 per cent to 40 per cent of the all-India business, with Mumbai city suburbs contributing about 15 per cent. To convince the government, a press release has been issued listing the pros and cons of the effects of the closure.

According to the press release, the 1,000 cinemas in the state employ lakhs of people. Now, this has been a regular refrain of the cinemas that the lakhs whom they employ are suffering. Basically, all modern businesses like to deal with one source and not scores of employees and, hence, they outsource such jobs. These lakhs would not have starved for 18 months and found alternate employment. Also, the cinemas, which are appealing the authorities to vaccinate their employees, except for INOX, never seem to have taken the initiative to organise a vaccination drive for their staff like a lot of other organisations did.

The note states that only paying patrons visit cinemas and also cites the examples of malls, gyms, gardens and beaches, local trains, airlines, retail which have been allowed to open up. The comparison does not hold true since the other unlocked facilities like railways, air travel, gyms, restaurants, retail and even gardens don't come free. It is only that people do things during this period on 'need to do' basis.

As for comparing the cinemas with gyms, gardens, malls etc, probably people do use these facilities, but the cinema managements who have made this representation control cinema screens not only in Maharashtra but also in other states where the lockdown has been lifted at least partly. And, as such, these very same cinema managements have seen the outcome. It is poor to pathetic. People are not ready yet.

The cinemas did screen some non-star cast movies when the lockdown was lifted for a time till the second wave of Covid-19 followed leading to another lockdown.

Finally, the cinemas got the opportunity to screen Bellbottom, starring the current top star, Akshay Kumar. If any film offered an opportunity for the cinemas to mark their return, this should have been the one. But, that has not happened; even the current top draw, Akshay, could not manage to pull crowds.

Now, one can neither blame the cinemas nor the film, Bellbottom. But, blame the fear of Covid-19 instead and the hasty, may be also unfounded, predictions by those in power and the media about the impeding third wave! The people still seem reluctant to step into a cinema hall.

The handout issued by the multiplex managements of INOX, PVR, Cinepolis along with the Producers Guild of India and the Multiplex Association of India claims that at the rate of Rs 400 crore per month, the Maharashtra exhibition trade lost about Rs 4,800 crore during the two lockdowns.

In 2019, which was a normal year, all India revenues from the cinema exhibition business accounted for Rs 4,300 crore ( Rs 1,200 crore from Hollywood films and a very insignificant contribution from regional films in Maharashtra, mainly Marathi) while in 2018 it was Rs 3,300 crore (Hollywood Rs 900 crore) and Rs 3,000 crore (Hollywood Rs 750 crore) in 2017. There is no comparison with 2020 since the year faced a lockdown for the most part. So, one wonders at the amount of Rs 4,800 crore arrived at only from Maharashtra to make the case!

The claim by the exhibitors that cinemas continue to be the main form of entertainment for millions, the fact is that same cinema has now found a way into peoples' homes through OTT.

The cinema exhibition trade has overcome many obstacles and existential crises over its 120 years of being. It will ride through this one, too. It is a matter of time.

(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)

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