Most of the cinema halls, multiplexes and single-screen theatres in West Bengal will be shutting down from Friday, due to the lack of “big-budget” films and the second wave of Covid-19.
“Hard times are awaiting us. We, theatre owners, will have to bear the brunt more this time, in the absence of any kind of help from the government. It is an independent decision of the exhibitors,” said Partha Sarathi Daw, vice president of the Eastern India Motion Picture Association (EIMPA).
He mentioned that two of his theatres will be closing from April 26.
Speaking with Silverscreen India, some owners of single-screens and multiplexes expressed their disappointment with producers, West Bengal government, and the film industry’s lack of initiative to release big films that could have revived the low audience turnout.
Theatre owners have decided to remain closed for Salman Khan‘s Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, as they do not want to run the risk of reopening just for one film. Khan’s films are known to run housefull, especially in single-screens in Kolkata, for days after it releases.
Lack of big-budget films
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, theatres across India were forced to shut since March 2020. After the Centre allowed theatres to reopen with 50% seating occupancy across the country in October 2020, 10 new Bengali film releases lined up for theatrical release in time for Durga Puja festivities, making theatre owners optimistic about reviving their business. However, some theatre owners and distributors stated that the number of movie goers were abysmally low.
Arijit Dutta, owner of Priya Cinema and Bioscope chain of cinemas, said that keeping theatres open from October 2020 has been an expensive affair.
“Forget about covering costs, we could not even cover the 20% additional cost which we had to bear, such as electricity, man power, security, etc,” he said.
He said he would reopen his theatres a few weeks before a significant number of Hindi films are due to release, and not for “small type” of films that his theatres had been screening so far.
“We are not taking the risk of opening theatres just for one film [Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai] and that too when we have to share it with an OTT platform [ZeePlex],” he said.
Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai will be releasing both in theatres and simultaneously on Zee5’s pay-per-view medium ZeePlex on May 13 on the occasion of Eid.
Even after the government allowed full seating occupancy in January, theatre owners claimed that there was hardly any audience because there was dearth of good content.
Disappointed with producers’ lack of support towards exhibitors, Dutta said: “We did everything from our side, as exhibitors. Producers have to give some tent pole films to encourage the public to come back to theatres. Cinema-going is a matter of habit that has been eaten into.”
According to him, it requires the “the joint effort” of the entire film industry to make people return to the cinemas. “While exhibitors manage and keep all the protocols in place, the producers refuse to release films in theatres,” he said.
Navin Chokhani, owner of Navina Cinemas, a popular single-screen in south Kolkata, said although the Central government allowed full seating capacity, the “content that was necessary to attract the crowd was missing, coupled with very few releases”.
According to Chokhani, producers were unwilling to take the risk of releasing big-budget Hindi films “especially because Maharashtra has its own Covid restrictions in place”. Maharashtra is one of the most significant markets for Hindi films.
“Producers felt that if they release films under these restrictions, then they will incur a loss. So maybe they were waiting for the situation to normalise. Unfortunately, the situations have deteriorated further,” he said.
He mentioned that since October 2020, “no big Hindi film has released”. “We were completely dependent on Bengali and Hollywood films.”
EIMPA’s Daw also mentioned that their decision was taken due to lack of new releases in the coming months.
Response from the West Bengal government
While Dutta said that the West Bengal government has failed to offer help either monetarily or in the form of relief measures, Chokhani felt differently.
“If we are facing losses, we need to utilise our profit instead of approaching the government for help every time. The government has other problems to tackle and they should prioritise that,” Chokhani said.
The second wave of Covid-19 that has been sweeping across the country has been setting new records daily. West Bengal recorded 11,948 new cases on Thursday, taking the total number of active cases to 68,798 and 7,00,904 confirmed cases, with 10,766 deaths according to the state government data.