The Maharashtra government's announcement that 22 October shall mark the reopening of cinema halls, multiplexes, and auditoriums in the state had brought in a cheer in the industry. Big releases like Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi and Kabir Khan’s 83 have been announced, touted as the hope for the recovery for cinemas.
The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for theatres were announced the previous week as well. While the film fraternity and the audience seem to be merry, we must discuss an important part of the sphere of community movie watching—single-screen theatres.
Single screen theatres have been hit hard since the beginning of the pandemic the previous year. A total of 1200 theatres went down to a mere 450. Before the reopening announcement was made, several single-screen theatre owners were apprehensive to begin operations even if there was a nod by the government. While the situation has progressed slowly, there are several dynamics to be deliberated upon, especially regarding the SOPs.
The Quint spoke to Nitin Datar, the President of The Cinema Owners & Exhibitors Association (COEA), the body that controls single-screen theatres in the state.
Datar expressed his concern over the implementation of the SOPs. “I don’t think they are very viable for single-screen theatres," he said.
He also pointed out that there is a lack of inclusion of touring cinemas in the final SOPs. Touring cinemas are independent mobile theatres that are largely present in cities of pilgrimage; they travel for festivals or could be event-specific. The guidelines for the operation of these theatres are absent altogether.
The respiratory etiquette mentioned in the SOPs make double vaccination mandatory for staff, including ushers, cleaners and those employed at food courts within the premises of the halls, as well as artistes and actors engaging in live performances.
However, that is not the requirement for the audience members. Full vaccination for the audience is not necessary, the “safe status” on Aarogya Setu should be sufficient for entry, with the temperature check on arrival.
"The credibility of the safe status or double vaccination presented by moviegoers will be difficult to assess. Self-monitoring and reporting to the government will not be easy as it depends on the audience rather than on us. We cannot control things like sneezing and coughing of the audience."
“If the app is enough for the audience to visit the cinema, then it should be equally good for the staff too", he added.
Speaking about keeping half the seats vacant, Datar said that family members and couples, who constitute a major part of the movie-going audience, should be allowed to sit together as they have arrived together anyway.
The SOPs also forbid taking food inside the auditorium. “What will happen now is that everyone will have to come to the canteen to eat outside, instead of one person carrying the food. This will create more crowd and chaos," Datar told us.
Datar also explained that maintaining the contact number and body temperature of the patrons, while keeping social distance, is a time-consuming process right at the entry for the moviegoers.
"Public Service Announcements (PSAs) have been made compulsory, before and after screening and during the interval. But it is difficult to get PSA films unless the government provides them in advance. We are not producers," Datar said about the mandatory PSAs.
When asked if SOPs are formulated keeping in mind the single-screen theatres, Datar said, “Multiplexes can afford these. This is going to cost single-screen cinemas a fortune. Advanced booking is encouraged but many single screens don’t even have the advanced booking facility, as the tickets are sold day-wise and show-wise. It’s going to cost a lot.”
The exhibitors are afraid that in case of violation of rules, they will be the ones questioned. The landlords are apprehensive too. “The health department officials can then come and harass the exhibitors even if the public is not following the rules," he pointed out.
Speaking about their interactions with the government, Datar told us that the initial decision of not reopening was changed as the Association was given assurance that their demands and problems would be addressed at the earliest.
“We had actually decided on not reopening single-screen theatres as many exhibitors had told the Association that they are unable to function without the help from the government. Now that they are ready to address our problems, we are expecting outcomes and following up accordingly”, he said.
When asked about the recovery of the losses due to the pandemic, Datar explained, "It will take not less than five years. The margin of profit is meagre in single screens. Admission rate starts at as low as Rs 30, while the expenses like electricity bills for multiplexes and single screens are the same unit wise— about Rs 11 to 12 per unit.”
For the last two years, we have been paying several charges along with the minimum charge—these include property taxes, pending salaries, advances to the distributors. The distributors too are demanding more than 60% as advance for single screens which was previously about 50%. With limited occupancy, it is a big problem," Datar added.
Datar also suggested that at least 20% of them might not reopen at all. Some may reopen, try to survive with the new normal, and may succumb to cease permanently.
Single screen theatres are fighting to survive. The disappearance of a significant part of Maharashtra's cinema legacy is only a tragedy.
“Let’s hope for the best," Datar brightly concluded.