One of the first film industries to immediately release movies after theatres were allowed to reopen was the one in Bengal, which ran ventures such as SOS Kolkata and Dracula Sir.
These films saw good collections at the box office. Had it not been for the decent screen count in the state, the Bengali film industry’s gamble of releasing films immediately post-lockdown may not have paid off.
This is why SVF Cinemas, one of the largest cinema chains in Eastern India, is focussing on adding more screens in West Bengal despite Covid-19 slowing its expansion plans. SVF Cinemas is part of SVF Entertainment, which also has a streaming platform called Hoichoi.
"We were supposed to open nine new screens between July and Durga puja (October) last year. But we had to shut down on March 16 so we had to stop work. We were only a couple of months away from opening those properties. While we renewed the work by August end, getting vendors and labour from other States is causing a bit of a delay. So, in 2020 we could not open any screens," said Rudra Prasad Daw, Business Head, SVF Cinemas.
Due to Covid’s impact and the dearth of content, it is expected that as many as 1,000 to 1,200 screens will shut permanently, most of them single-screen theatres.
Not many screens added
While multiplexes are in a better position in terms of survival, when it comes to screen additions last year post lockdown, not much happened. PVR had added around four screens, while INOX was unable to add any new screens. Cinepolis, however, managed to add around 26 screens.
As for SVF Cinemas, while work is near completion, the company will only open nine new screens between August and October. This time it is the West Bengal elections that is causing the delay.
West Bengal is expected to head for Legislative Assembly elections in April-May.
“As soon as the elections get announced the licensing process comes to a grinding halt. The moment the elections get declared there is a rule that licenses cannot be granted to any private organisation. So, we will only open these properties once the elections are over. It would take us a month or so after elections to get licenses and open the screens,” he added.
The company spends Rs 1-1.5 crore on a screen.
In all, the target for this year is to open 15 new screens. SVF Cinemas currently has 16 screens that are operational and the target for 2021-22 is to reach over 30 screens. The company also intends to open 30 more screens by 2024.
SVF Cinemas for the first time will also open a screen outside West Bengal.
“We are launching a two-screen property in Tejpur, Assam. The place has a large Bengali speaking audience. Our primary target is to go to places where we can screen movies in at least two languages. Along with Assam, we are also looking at Bihar, Jharkhand, and even Tripura,” said Daw. However, the main focus remains West Bengal.
Why focus on only one market?
Daw said there were two reasons for focussing on Bengal. “If you go back at least a decade, West Bengal had more than 800 cinemas. And 600 of these were shut pre-pandemic and another 100 should shut in the next two-three months due to the Covid-19 impact. So, we are now looking at 10 percent of the screens there used to be a decade back. In West Bengal, for every one million people there is one operational screen. Hence, the State is a huge market to tap."
Another reason Daw cited was the dwindling box office collections of Bengali films.
“Our focus is West Bengal because we are also producers and distributors. For us it means a wider market. We (SVF Entertainment) had announced entry into the exhibition space in 2013 because of the dwindling number of single-screen cinemas in the State. In the 2005-2010 period, our movies would rate on the box office in the range of Rs 6-10 crore with ease and that number suddenly just crashed from 2010 onwards with theatres shutting down.”
He added: “There was a time when we could screen Bengali films in 150-200 screens. It came down to 100. Hence, the plan is to get back to the previous number so that Bengali movies can also survive.”
Audience preference for theatres
Daw said that there is an audience for the large-screen experience across the State and not just in Kolkata. “The first two-screen multiplex that we launched was in Purulia, which was apparently a Maoist area. Just as you find people walking into a theatre in Mumbai at 10:30 in the night, when I went there, I saw the same happening in Purulia, which once had just one screen. We have seen houseful shows of Avengers at 6:30 in the morning in Purulia.”
He cited the example of another place called Krishnanagar, 100 km from Kolkata. “Recently, we saw three to four houseful shows of Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84). And for Avengers (the film had released in 2012) we had seen 18 to 19 houseful shows in the city,” said Daw.
Many Bengali films ready to release in 2021
Along with theatre-going audience, the State also has a strong content lineup, especially for 2021. Daw said that there are at least 35 to 40 Bengali language movies ready to release in theatres.
Also, Bengali films that have released post lockdown have gained strong traction among cinephiles. “We had released Dracula Sir in October and the film's footfalls were only second to Christopher Nolan's Tenet. Our latest release Chini (the film had released in December) has done better footfalls than WW84. It also recorded more housefuls than Wonder Woman 1984,” he added.
Yet, business is not back to pre-Covid levels. But Daw believes that the release of a film such as Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi, coupled with a big Bengali venture, will result in business exceeding pre-Covid levels despite only 50 percent occupancy being allowed in theatres.