Cinemas starved of big Bollywood releases in lockdown

Cinemas starved of big Bollywood releases in lockdown

Movie theatres in parts of India opened for the first time in eight months last week, but with no major Bollywood releases likely any time soon, beleaguered cinema owners worry about whether audiences can be lured back to the big screen.

The same scenario plays out the world over for diaspora audiences, who have had to make do with releases across over-the-top (OTT) platforms as cinema chains are starved of new Bollywood releases or simply remain shut down.

All of India's near-10,000 movie screens have remained shut since the country imposed a strict lockdown in March this year, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushes for a gradual easing of measures, some states have allowed theatres to reopen, though at 50 per cent capacity and with strict curbs in place. Cinema staff welcomed back with flowers and vermilion the first, relatively few visitors who wore masks.

"It feels good... Everyone was bored sitting at home and it feels nice to come here," said Ramesh Gupta, who came to watch a movie in the northern Indian city of Prayagraj.

Bollywood is not releasing any new films to cinemas for now despite the upcoming Diwali festival season, when ticket sales usually peak and audiences flock to theatres.

"It's a chicken and egg situation," said Shibasish Sarkar, CEO of Reliance Entertainment, which has two big-ticket movies waiting to be released.

"We won't know if audiences will come unless we release a film, but the big question is if those audiences are enough," he said.

For now, theatres are screening older films, including a biopic of Modi, which first released after his resounding election victory last year.

Instead of waiting for theatres to open, several Bollywood production houses have instead sold movies to streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney and Amazon's Prime Video, which have premiered several titles in the last few months.

"We are trying to test the waters, see if audiences will come back. Once they do, hopefully we will see new movies releasing," said Akshaye Rathi, a theatre owner who owns properties in the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

For India's coronavirus-battered theatre industry, deprived of Bollywood blockbusters, analysts say more bleak months await.

"Many single-screen theatres will probably never open, and we won't know the full impact until theatres actually do open," said Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax, an agency that tracks Bollywood releases.


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