There is a glaring omission in the story of the Indian film industry’s growth. It is the complete absence of the single screen from any discussion. Yet Endhiran, Dabangg, Golmaal3 and 3 Idiots, 2010’s biggest hits, show clearly what unleashing the power of single screens can do. It can bring the volumes and variety of the Indian market into play in an increasingly metro-oriented, multiplex audience-focussed film industry. Co-opting single screens into the growth story will help the Rs 14,000-crore Indian film industry move from being the world’s largest by volume to the world’s most lucrative one — period.
The facts first. Of the 12,000-odd screens in India, 11,000 are estimated to be single screen. The remaining are all part of multiplexes. The entire discussion — creatively and commercially — however, focuses on multiplexes.
That is not surprising. Till 2000, India’s film industry was a basket case. It was prolific without being profitable, organised or even having enough screens. For a billion-plus people, India had 12,000 screens against more than 40,000 for 323 million Americans (2009 figures). Since there weren’t enough good screens and lots of alternatives, Indians stopped going to the theatre. In the last decade, cinema is the only media that has consistently shown a drop in audience numbers in every Indian Readership Survey.
The first few multiplexes in India became operational in 2002. Since then to 2008, box office revenues have grown 3.5 times. Average ticket prices have doubled and revenue leakages are being plugged. Multiplexes bring in roughly half of all theatrical revenues, especially in the metros. Since theatrical revenues form three-fourths of the total that a film generates in India, the growth of multiplexes meant good news.
However, their success skewed everything. The overriding belief among scriptwriters, film executives and firms was that only multiplex audiences who pay Rs 150 or more per ticket are capable of enjoying and paying for cinematic variety.
Sure, single screens by their very nature (average 800-1000 seating capacity) need more mass films. But that is a market too. So is the one for people willing to pay only Rs 50, but to watch a Bheja Fry or Dev D. The industry was not throwing up any variety — in pricing, content or in languages. This left vast portions of an audience with growing purchasing power with nothing to watch. A resurgent Marathi, Bangla or Bhojpuri cinema filled the gap, inadequately.
Three bad years from 2008-2010, rising costs and falling margins made one thing clear: a film cannot only depend on the multiplex part of theatrical revenue, you need films that do well with the single screens too. That is what gets the best prices for TV rights and improves the monetisability of a film. You can already see new studios, such as Eros International, working on building a national portfolio across genres.
On the retail end, there is consolidation happening as companies acquire single screens. More importantly digitisation is picking up speed. This helps bring in movies first-day-first show, kills piracy and improves walk-ins. Of the more than 2,500 digital screens in India, a bulk are single — meaning belonging to stand-alone theatres.
This has already changed the first weekend maths, which explains the numbers for Dabangg. It is not a typical multiplex film. The single screens in the metros and other cities are the ones which did the best business with this film. Also commercial deals with single screens are structured in a way that gets more revenues back to distributors and producers if the film is a success. So every big single screen hit means more money into the system.
Akshaye Rathi, director, Nagpur-based Rathi Group of Cinemas (a chain of 23 single screens), points out, rightly, that single screens cater to a much larger chunk of the movie-going population. But the focus of lobbying and policymakers is firmly on the plexes. He doesn’t grudge them their attention. What he suggests is some simple moves, like removing multiple layers of taxes to make single screens more profitable. Says he: “There is an audience for both and enough space for them to co-exist.”
Why is it taking the industry so long to recognise that?