In today’s Finshots, we talk about the plight of single screen cinemas and see if there are ways to breathe new life into them.

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The Story


That’s the number of people watching a show on a single screen cinema in Telangana on some days. The owners would rather have the theatre closed because they earn about ₹4,000 a day. So shutting shop makes more economic sense. Because when they're open they have to spend on electricity, maintenance and other operational costs; and they end up losing something like ₹7,000, according to an article in the Indian Express.

This also explains why many of these single screen cinemas have decided to completely shutter for the next 10 days.

And mind you, these are the same theatres that had crowds clapping, whistling, dancing and even flinging coins at the screen in joy and appreciation back in the day while watching their most awaited new releases. The first day first show atmosphere inside these single screen cinemas could convey if the movie would be a blockbuster or not. Sometimes even 1,000 seats would fall short of accommodating the peppy crowds waiting in queue to buy a ticket. The ticket counter would then hang a ‘Housefull’ board and shutter its mini glass window, only leaving you with the option of buying a ticket from shady folks who’d hoard extra tickets and sell them in black.

But what remains of these single screen cinemas now are dark and dusty aisles, lonely old chairs, torn posters and light beams seeping in from dilapidated ceilings. It’s pretty much the same all over the country.

So how did Indian single screen cinemas come to this?

Well, you’ll probably say that technology had a role to play.

Single screen cinemas have been in a race against time ever since the television became popular in Indian households. Satellite TV let people access movies and shows from all over the world. And they didn’t feel the need to head to their neighbourhood cinema house to be entertained.

But you could watch exciting new releases only in the theatres. So the cinema house was still king.

But then came the VCR (video cassette recorder). It was a light, black device, roughly the size of a 15-inch laptop. Video tapes that had the capacity to play at least half a film went into these VCRs. So you could watch an entire film with two of these.

It was a cheaper way to watch a new film because videotape businesses, even illegal ones, began mushrooming around cities like Bombay (now Mumbai). And they made sure that they rented out films for a fraction of the price of a movie ticket. They even delivered to people’s homes, who began watching new releases from their living rooms. And you could say that that’s precisely when they started abandoning cinema houses. It was like today’s OTT (Over-the-top) platform revolution.

That brings us to today where OTT platforms and multiplexes have truly killed single screen cinemas. In fact, around 150-odd single-screen cinemas shut down for every 200-odd new multiplexes that crop up every year. Sure, the pandemic may have equally kicked multiplexes in the gut, making way for the rise of OTT.

But that’s a bygone now. A recent BookMyShow survey found out that 90% Indians still prefer watching movies on the big screen. So theatres are making a comeback. But it’s mostly the multiplexes. Because why would anyone prefer watching a film in a poorly maintained single screen theatre with hardly any food and beverage choices and nowhere to go bowling or shopping before or after the movie, right?

Okay, now you obviously know all of this. And you’ll probably think that there was no need for Finshots to say it again.

But the reason we had to, is to ask ― Have you ever wondered why these single screen theatres aren’t so well kept?

They could simply upgrade their cinemas and their food menus, maybe cut down the size of their cinema halls and make space for stores or other entertainment options, no?

That’s simply because they can’t. Why, you ask?

For starters, let’s talk about policies in a city like Mumbai, the heart and soul of India’s film industry. Redeveloping a single screen cinema here is no easy feat. Thanks to a 1992 rule that doesn’t let cinemas in Maharashtra get a complete makeover. They can’t convert it into a commercial shopping complex or warehouse because a part of the redevelopment has to be reserved for a cinema hall with at least one third of the seating capacity of the existing cinema.

And while there’s no harm in doing that, owners aren’t really willing to take the risk. That’s because having a renovated single screen cinema with bundled entertainment options won’t address a basic business problem ― bagging films that will flood the cinema hall. Look, multiplexes can afford running popular films alongside not so popular ones on multiple screens. But with single screen cinemas, owners have to pick the ones that really bring in the business or in other words box office hits worth crores of Rupees. But you can’t have such movies all year round.

That’s also why producers and film distributors are more comfortable running their films in multiplexes. They get prime time shows even if the film doesn’t have a huge fan base, as opposed to single screens which reserve prime times only for big films that rake in the dough.

Another issue single screen owners can’t get rid of, at least in Mumbai, is screening regional language films. The state government wants to popularise these films so that their essence doesn’t fade away. And that means that theatres including single screen cinemas must show 44 Marathi movies annually. That number is even higher for other cities in Maharashtra. And that’s a losing proposition for single screen theatres, which have to incur crores of Rupees in air-conditioning costs, staff salaries, taxes and other overheads, while earning less than ₹5,00,000 a year.

That leaves them with one option. That of striking an acquisition deal with other multiplexes. But that again comes with a roadblock. See, multiplexes look for huge, planned areas where they can provide ample parking space, a supermarket or other shopping spaces. And single screen cinemas are mostly jointly shared old properties that may not have the provision to accommodate all of this. Even if they can, the construction plan for redevelopment may not be something that municipal authorities would approve of.

So yeah, that’s another side of why single screen cinemas aren’t able to survive. So even with significant investments in a makeover, they may still fail to make ends meet. And that’s exactly why just about 60% or less out of the 10,000 odd single screen cinemas in India operate today. While the ones that have closed down might even be struggling to sell off their properties.

But is there a way to turn their plight around?

Well, there could be, if states review these strict age-old regulations or at least make them flexible.

You could look at Uttar Pradesh as an example. In 2016, the state had planned to offer single screen cinemas incentives like tax rebates, subsidised power and even grants for redevelopment, so that they continue to run the show.

But that probably didn’t really work out as expected since the state too has a restriction on redevelopment similar to Maharashtra. Basically, a cinema can only be redeveloped into a property that includes a cinema hall.

And maybe the government realised that this law needed a revamp. So a few months ago, the government let single screen cinema owners demolish their existing buildings and convert them into a commercial or residential complex. They don’t even have to mandatorily rebuild a cinema house there.

So yeah, now you know what’s key to help dying single screen cinemas, right? It’s not necessarily financial support or incentives. Even flexible government policies will do.

That may not exactly revive these screens. But at least, you could let them die in peace, while the owners move on.

Until next time…

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