The crumbling walls of Cinema Paradiso
Over the last decade, 1100 theatres have shut down in Tamil Nadu. In Andhra Pradesh, close to 639 theatres were shut down in the last two years alone. Single screen theatres are slowly but surely giving way to shopping malls and function halls. Hemanth Kumar goes trend spotting.
Long time ago, cinema halls across Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu used to turn into places of worship every Friday. In a region where cinema is nothing short of religion, lakhs of moviegoers thronged movie halls to watch their favourite demi-gods on screen. People would hoot, cry and whistle along with hundreds of others under one roof – cinema was more than just entertainment, it was a way of life. Theatres were packed and as long as the movie was good, everyone was happy. This, however, remains an image from the past. The present scenario has a different story to tell. In the last 10 years, close to 1100 theatres have been shut down in Tamil Nadu and a similar trend has been prevailing in Andhra Pradesh. More than 630 cinema halls have been shut down in the past two years alone. Many of these cinema halls have been turned into function halls or shopping malls in prime locations. While both the film industries accept that there's a problem, there are quite a few hurdles which have spawned into bigger issues than anticipated.
Before the golden era of films came into being, theatre and circus were big. They were the only means of entertainment till cinema filled the void left behind by a slow decline in theatre. The touring talkies, where films were screened in makeshift tent houses, paved way for constructing cinema halls across Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Since cinema was one of the primary sources of entertainment, bigger cinema halls with more than 1000 seating capacity were constructed and the trend prevailed for more than three decades. The beginning of the new millennium changed the entire scenario, though. While several cinema halls had begun losing sheen, the advent of cable television into our homes brought about a paradigm shift. The explosion in media sector in the past five years, succeeded in capturing the attention of both women and the Y2K generation. Some theatres in Andhra Pradesh even witnessed a drop of 40-60 per cent in occupancy due to the huge popularity of content on television. The situation is so alarming that people have stopped going to movies unless there's good word of mouth about a particular film. If the advent of TV took the audience away, the cinema halls also suffered another big blow due to video piracy. An owner of a theatre in a Chennai suburb says, "People get pirated DVDs within a week of release and prefer to watch them at home. Also, their mindset has changed as they know for sure that the movie would anyway be premiered on satellite channels within a couple of months of its release." Despite several efforts to curb video piracy, it shows no signs of going off the radar anytime soon.
The genesis of the entire problem lies in fluctuating occupancy in cinema halls. While actors with bigger fan bases get tremendous opening, the content determines the rest of the theatre collections. Nobody wants to make losses. For many, it's a serious business where the stakes are too high. R Ramanujam, a member of the Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners Association says, "Distribution prices for big-banner films are fixed based on occupancy in every theatre. But on an average, the theatres only have 35 per cent occupancy. It is high only during weekends. Every single theatre suffers huge losses because of this. Many don't even recover maintenance cost." In Andhra Pradesh, the situation is no different. Maintenance costs of single screen cinema halls go up to Rs 1-1.5 lakh per month in smaller cities and towns. However, the theatre revenue for 70-80 per cent of the films isn't even enough to recover the maintenance costs. To compensate for these losses, several theatre owners break government norms which state that a cinema hall should have at least 14 employees. Poor maintenance of theatres is another reason for lower occupancy. Many theatre owners also pay advances to producers before the release of a much anticipated film, which adds the pressure on them to recover their investment.
Ironically, despite the fall in a number of cinema halls, the market size and revenue generated of both film industries has grown to a large extent. This trend finds its roots in a systematic implementation of higher ticket prices across the region. Fifteen years ago, the admission rate for balcony was priced at Rs 8 and the lowest entry fee was Re 1 in Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, there were more number of seats in the Re 1 class and only a handful in the balcony section. However, in the past few years, this trend has changed. There are more seats in balcony which has an admission rate of Rs 50. In smaller towns, it is priced at Rs 25. M Vijandar Reddy, President of the Telangana Film Chamber of Commerce says, "The entire layout of cinema halls has changed. Higher ticket pricing resulted in better collections."