Post-COVID-19, multiplexes will have to be ready for a second innings where they will have to move away from being multi-screens that just offer food and beverages to becoming Multi-Purpose Venues
Will COVID-19 accelerate the death of the cinematic experience in India? The answer is ‘No’. The lack of outdoor recreational opportunities in India, especially in urban centres, will ensure that the cinematic experience still remains — either via the multiplex or through single-screen theatres.
Going to the movies is not just a form of entertainment; in many parts of India it is a family affair, be it a weekend outing or a festival celebration, where all members bond together and get entertained.
Post-COVID-19, the patrons will be back in large numbers, and it is for the multiplexes to be ready for a second innings where they will have to move away from being multi-screens that just offer food and beverages to becoming Multi-Purpose Venues (MPVs).
In the past cinema and cinematic experience was challenged by television and home entertainment in its various avatars, such as home videos and even satellite channels focused on films. Each time the threat was thwarted by enhancing the cinematic experience with technological upgrades in sound and picture quality. The personal experience of watching cinema has also seen facelifts, from single-screens to multiplexes to plush luxury screens to cine & dine formats. The various formats of watching cinema have improved, from 3D to IMAX to 4DX, and even 7D cinema.
The OTT services, which have got a fillip due to social distancing and lockdowns, are likely to affect cinemas which were already seeing financially stretched balance sheets, even before COVID-19. Audiences by and large are preferring tent pole cinemas and those that generate good word-of-mouth publicity.
In such an environment theatres and multiplexes can survive is they can convert themselves into MPVs. Regal and Eros in Mumbai, Lighthouse in Kolkata are a few examples that come to mind of multi-purpose venues. The infrastructure at these venues, be it the stage or acoustics, can host events, plays and even jam sessions alongside cinema. At the height of the VHS boom in the 80s these venues survived when the cinema halls were hired for the Campa Cola jam sessions on Sunday mornings or the Britannia magic shows and film club activities.
The pubs that dot the cities and countryside in the United States survived and have overcome prohibition, the changing eating and drinking habits of people through the decades by reinventing themselves constantly. Menus have changed to healthier fares, and the beverages have moved from spirits with heavy alcohol content to milder versions and even non-alcoholic beverages such as an array of flavoured teas and coffees. The high cholesterol food has made way for the healthier variety, including a vegan menu. Green salads are now an option instead of french fries. Micro-breweries and local sprits are part of this change.
Herein lies the roadmap for cinemas survival where multiplexes change into MPVs — of course cinema will be the mainstay, but other channels of revenue will also come by. Live performances is an option. This could range from singers, bands, standup comedians, theatre, master classes, etc. Talent management agencies or event management companies will be the new distributors and these agencies also have a stake as they look to launch the next break out act. These venues will be the incubators for the talent management companies, production houses and record labels.
Another option could be to tie up with sports bodies, from Formula 1 to football, and from ICC to NBA. A tie-up between sports bodies and multipurpose operators will be a win-win for both — sports can reach more people through MPVs, and MPVs can offer more and thereby penetrate tier two and three cities. The broadcasters get a slice of the box-office and the clubs get a chance to sell merchandise to their fans.
Gaming arenas and professional competitive gaming (or e-sports) will be another avenue for MPVs. E-sports is a $1 billion industry with 422 mn in audience, which is predicted to reach 650 mn by 2022.
The MPV route will also attract FDI from AEG or Ticketmaster who have been looking at India given the demographic dividend.
The local administration will play an important role in this transition as laws will have to be changed to create these MPVs. It’s in the interest of both the Centre and states to support this transition of multiplexes into MPV’s. The film and television industry is an employment generator and also a direct revenue earner via GST and direct taxes.
Sports bodies and broadcasters should consider this platform to expand their consumer engagement. Film producers and distributors should also support this initiative or else the Rs 10,000 crore theatrical window will soon close.
The maxim ‘If you build, they will come’ has changed to ‘If you recreate, they will keep coming’.Blaise Fernandes is President, Indian Music Industry, and former Country Manager, Warner Bros. Views are personal.