IANS Sunday Special: Andhra shocker for the cinema business (Column: B-Town)

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By Vinod Mirani
The cinema business is not yet fully out of the bad phase forced by the Covid-19 lockdowns for over a year. In a number of states, cinemas are permitted to function only under regulations and conditions imposed by the state governments. And the toughest regulation for cinema theatre managements in many states is to sell only 50 per cent of the capacity.

Ever since the trend of multiplexes set in, cinemas are run on terms set by the management. Film producers or distributors have very little or no say in how their films are exhibited.

Earlier, the trend had been to plan a film’s release according to the audience it was aimed at. The system entailed that a film was released in every major city at one main cinema in the heart of the city, even as the release was spread out to a dozen or so screens around town to cater to local audiences.

The release plan, described as cinema chain booking, served families, young people and other audiences as well. Action and fantasy films had another kind of chains solely for screening these films. These chains catered to the working class.

With the new kind of cinema, where action was a part of a normal film, a movie genre then described as mass cinema with universal appeal, things changed. There were stalls which the masses filled, while the gentry occupied the balconies.

Then came the multiplexes. The masses were just ignored when the admission rates were fixed; they were driven away. It did not matter that the masses were the compulsive cine goers, while the gentry visited cinema theatres occasionally. I have been in conversation with many film lovers who now don’t even dare to think of visiting the cinema in the same way as they don’t dream of taking a flight.

One can’t really blame the multiplex model of business alone for driving out the masses. The lopsided policies of the various state governments are equally to be blamed for that. To promote the multiplex culture, the operators were given various sops, which included an entertainment tax holiday in the initial years, but the tax slabs on the old single screens remained the same: high.

The laws made it mandatory for the cinemas to secure as many as 22 licences, which needed to be renewed every year, which spelt corruption and, to top it all, a cinema theatre was not permitted to close business, however much of loss it incurred. The dice were heavily loaded against the single screens. Many such cinemas still stand, but in ruins.

The masses are left with no alternative. The impossibly expensive admission rates now leave out many film lovers. This, despite the film fraternity always propagating the idea of watching films on the big screen! The cinemas went on to add a certain snob value to the experience of movie-going.

It was not enough to set up high-priced cinemas; even in those theatres, certain screens were classified in a way that they were clearly meant for the very rich, the royalty. For the ones who loved to boast that they watched a film in such and such screen by paying Rs 1,200 or Rs 1,500 per person, it seemed as if a bad film feels good this way!

The multiplex model of business of increasing the admission rates manifold during the first few days when a big-star film was released was not a wise one, for those who were keen to watch a particular film knew the rates would be reduced to normal levels by the second week. And, now, one does not have to wait or spend even when the rates are reduced.

The film that releases in a cinema is bound to be available on an OTT platform within a few weeks. (A number of patrons, in fact, turned away from the screenings of ‘Sooryavanshi’ in Delhi recently when they saw tickets that should have been priced, say, at Rs 250, being priced at Rs 650.

Things are different now. For the filmmakers, multiplex chains, which have been calling the shots so far, are no longer the main revenue sources. They get their real, lump sum money from OTT platforms. The lockdown proved that you can still make a film and also make profits by opting for an OTT release.

Strangely, the multiplex managements are still reluctant to see the point in being a part of the film fraternity, as was the norm over the years since the start of the film industry. Cinemas, distributors and filmmakers considered themselves to be a part of one fraternity, for none is complete without the other.

We like to think and believe that films and filmmaking are all about Mumbai. No, it is not really so. The city is the centre of the Hindi film industry, which finds more takers in the country. The bigger movie-making industries thrive in the south, both in absolute numbers and in turnover/revenues.

The Telugu film industry is the biggest of them all and produces as many as 160 to 175 films a year and despite catering to a small region, divided now between two states, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it delivers many multi-crore hits each year.

For obvious reasons, misleading the public and other interested parties such as OTT platforms, filmmakers boast of huge box-office figures. And the discrepancies between the box-office figures of a film flaunted in the media and the corresponding GST returns probably set the Andhra Pradesh government thinking.

As a result of this belief, the Andhra Pradesh government this week passed a Bill in the Assembly to route all cinema theatre ticket bookings through a state-owned portal and not at ticket windows in the theatres.

The Andhra Pradesh Cinemas (Regulations) (Amendment) Act 2021 lays down that the bookings will have to be made on the portal run by the state-run Film and Theatre Development Corporation. This way, the number of shows and admission rates would both be governed by the state. The revenue generated would be transferred day to day to the cinemas though the Reserve Bank of India gateway.

The amended law also proposes restrictions on the daily screenings of a film to a maximum of four shows, unlike six or seven screenings that a cinema theatre normally manages. The state government found out that admission rates were raised to Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 in the name of benefit shows and it felt that the GST collections did not quite tally with the box-office collections, as they should.

This will not be the first time when a state has decided to regulate cinema admission rates. In the years when it was ruled by the communists, West Bengal did the same. The state government decreed that the cheapest ticket had to be priced at 95 paise (that is, less than a rupee), the maximum price allowed being Rs 4.

Tamil Nadu has similar laws laying down that tickets for front rows should be priced at Rs 62.74, the maximum allowed being Rs
162.14. No wonder then that film watching is not a luxury in Tamil Nadu.

This move by the Andhra Pradesh Government does not augur well for the cinema chains, especially if other state governments follow the example.

–IANS
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