RRR, Pathaan remind trade and studios of economic power of single screens

Can single screens be resuscitated?

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar Pune
RRR, Pathaan remind trade and studios of economic power of single screens

6 min read Last Updated : Mar 07 2023 | 9:14 PM IST

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Kohinoor Cinema (Suratgarh, Rajasthan), Cine Kamla Ponda (Goa), JC Palace (Badaun, Uttar Pradesh) and Lajwanti Talkies (Bishrampur, Chhattisgarh) are among the 25 single screens across India that reopened because of Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan (Yash Raj Films). The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer has become one of the biggest hits in Indian cinema with over Rs 1,000 crore in worldwide gross, so far. “More than 500 cinemas had shut down during the pandemic. Post-Pathaan a lot of these are opening,” says Rajesh Mishra, executive director and group CEO, UFO Moviez. It offers digital cinema solutions to over 3,400 screens in India. Of this 2,000 are single screens, which UFO also aggregates for advertising.
Between 30 and 40 per cent of the Rs 500 crore RRR, infused new energy and hope into India’s beleaguered single screens. About time, say analysts.

From 10,000 screens over a decade ago, India is now down to about 8,000 screens. Of these 3,500 are multiplex screens. These continue to grow even as single screens, now at 4,500 in number, shut with miserable regularity. In 2019, the last normal year the business saw, films made Rs 19,100 crore in total revenues. Of this, domestic theatrical revenue or the money Indian cine goers paid to watch films on a screen was the largest chunk at Rs 11,500 crore. Roughly half of this comes from multiplexes though their screen count is lower than single screens.
RRR and Pathaan have reminded the trade and the studios of the economic power of single screens. Whether this acts as a catalyst for their revival depends on how much of the systemic mess this round of growth clears up.

Single screens’ double trouble
Balgovind Raj Tadla is a partner in two single screen cinemas in Hyderabad. One of these, Devi (70 mm), was built in 1981 with 1,500 seats — now whittled down to 1,350. Like in most cities, films don’t last for more than a week in the theatre. If a film does earn say Rs 60 lakh over three weeks of release, on an average a single screen gets Rs 6 lakh of that. That is about a fourth of what multiplexes might get. “In the last one year more than eight screens have shut down in Hyderabad because of insufficient revenues. The reason is not less movies or less successful movies, but less revenue per movie. It is up to the producers to give fair revenue share to single screens, just like they give to multiplexes,” says Tadla.

The complete contrast in business models of multiplexes and single screens is the first systemic imbalance that growth will have to address.
Multiplexes work on a portfolio basis. They have four and six screens of anywhere between 100 and 400 seats and vary the number of shows, their time, ticket prices and even food according to the film and how it is doing. This mitigates the risk inherent in depending on one film or one source of revenue. Multiplexes operate on a revenue-share basis. The big ones get 50 per cent or more of a film’s collections.

Single screens, on the other hand, have to pay an upfront minimum guarantee to distributors if they want to exhibit the film. Many studio heads point out that an estimated 2,500 of the 4,500 single screens are still not computerised. That makes it difficult to gauge how many tickets are sold and how much money is collected. Therefore, the trade and studios prefer a minimum revenue upfront. Mishra says that UFO has been pushing theatres to become transparent but it has been difficult. “Whoever upgrades (installs air conditioning, computers) does good business,” says he.
This is perhaps more true for Hindi and Telugu — the two largest cinemas in India. In Tamil Nadu, the local government regulates ticket prices. “The average price is Rs 120 a ticket and the highest it can go to is Rs 190 a ticket,” says Ruban Madhivanan, managing partner, GK Cinemas, which owns 10 screens in Chennai. This has ensured that multiplexes, which generally have higher average prices, haven’t gained ground. More importantly, “there is no minimum guarantee in Tamil Nadu anywhere. It has been a revenue share for the last six-seven years”, says Madhivanan.

Analysts counter that nothing stops other single-screen owners from negotiating jointly with the studios for a revenue share a la multiplexes. But getting thousands of single-screen owners on the same page is not an easy job. That, then, is where things stay.
Getting them in

“In the earlier days with films running for long, a smaller share was OK. But nowadays there is no long run,” says Tadla. That brings this to the second systemic issue — there simply aren’t enough single screen (read mass) films being made.
With anywhere between 800 and 1,500 seats, each single screen was built for scale. The cost of running a single screen is impossible to maintain without the hall filling up several times a year. The need for films that people will make the effort to come to the theatre for has been a challenge for every cinema since the advent of cable and satellite TV, then video and DVD. With streaming video in the play the watching of most edgy films and series has shifted online. Currently, what seems to be determining occupancy over a longish period of time is big stylised, event films like Pathaan. But just three-four tent-pole films a year is not enough to sustain these mammoth properties.

“Between Drishyam that will keep the theatres occupied,” says Akshay Rathi, director, Aashirward Theatres, a chain of 17 single-screen theatres across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
Film folks are still figuring out how to navigate the post-pandemic, OTT-satiated audience and get them back to the theatres. If they can do it consistently, there is hope. As things stand, for many single-screen owners, selling the prime land most of them sit on and putting it in a fixed deposit is more lucrative than running the theatre on a handful of hits.

“Most owners keep going because of passion,” says Madhivanan. Here’s hoping that they keep going till more Pathaans come to the rescue.

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First Published: Mar 07 2023 | 5:52 PM IST

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