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When the silver screen went dark: Bollywood counts its losses in year of pandemic

OTT platforms, viewed on TV screens, computers and mobiles, have come as a godsend for filmmakers who were ready with their films but had nowhere to show them.

PTI PTI
New Delhi Published on: December 29, 2020 9:47 IST
When the silver screen went dark: Bollywood counts its losses in year of pandemic
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When the silver screen went dark: Bollywood counts its losses in year of pandemic

As productions halted, theatres shut their doors and audiences settled down in front of their screens, the Hindi film industry hit pause button in the year that was – resulting in revenue losses of maybe thousands of crores and many thousands of workers forced into unemployment. The coronavirus pandemic scripted a tale of unprecedented challenges for the flourishing industry that came to a screeching halt in 2020. While there are no exact figures, some insiders estimated the losses could be upwards of Rs 1,500 crore to “thousands of crores” and said single screen theatres would have lost anything between Rs 25 to Rs 75 lakh a month.

According to trade analyst Amul Mohan, for instance, about 200 Hindi films are made in a year and Bollywood’s yearly box office earnings stand at a little over Rs 3,000 crore.

"It has been a different and difficult year. Things have not gone as per plan,” Mohan told PTI.

It is a dual edged crisis, of creating content and also exhibiting it with many producers either postponing or moving to OTT platforms. Though theatres in several parts of the country have opened after nine months – they closed in March when India went into lockdown to ward off COVID-19 -- people are still fearful of watching a movie in an enclosed space. To compound the problem, there are no new films to lure them in.

It spells catastrophe for an industry that supports lakhs of people. About five lakh people, including actors, directors and producers, are registered with the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE). Of these, 2.5 lakh are ‘workers’, including junior artistes, makeup, set designers, carpenters and background dancers, said FWICE president B N Tiwari,

According to trade observer Himesh Mankad, the losses could carry over next year.

“On a yearly basis, total Hindi films earnings would have been about Rs 3,000 crore but they stand at Rs 500-600 crore only. So we have lost out on making at least Rs 1,700-2,000 crore. It is a notional loss since 2020 films will release in 2021.  

"(But) there will be interest costs, overhead costs, because of which each film’s budget could go up by Rs 5 crore-15 crore. This can be called added expenditure,” Mankad told PTI.

The ripple effect will be felt for a while, he said.

"Films will face competition week-by-week and their run will be cut short. Besides, the pandemic is still here so occupancy won’t reach 100 per cent in cinema halls. The fear psychosis will persist till we get a vaccine,” Mankad said.

Raj Bansal, senior distributor and exhibitor, echoed his pessimism.

The year 2020 was the worst ever, said Bansal, who has been in the distribution business for almost six decades and is director of Entertainment Paradise, a three-screen multiplex in Jaipur.

“In Rajasthan, theatres are still closed. They may reopen in January. The situation is likely to improve only when big films are released in theatres as they can bring the audiences in. It’s difficult to put a number to the losses that we have faced. The losses are in huge numbers,” Bansal told PTI.

Akshay Rathi, who has cinema houses in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, said 2020 has tested all the players in the entertainment industry.

Both Rathi and Bansal said it is the first time in the history of cinema that theatres remained shut for so many months.

“Losses go into thousands of crores as there have been overheads on cinemas, cost of interest on films, holding costs, and other things. Each single screen theatre would have lost anything between Rs 25-75 lakh per month because they have electricity and maintenance bills, salaries to pay and a lot of things to look after with no income,” Rathi told PTI.

Though theatres have reopened in most places, it is a slow walk to normalcy given the restrictions and lack of film releases.

“Things are looking better, vaccines have started in many parts of the world, the fear psychosis has reduced. We all need to ensure that we put mid-sized compelling movies for people to come to theatres. This will lay the ground for big films like ‘Radhe’, ‘Sooryavanshi’, ‘83’ and ‘Jayeshbhai Jordar’,” Rathi said.

Producer Bhushan Kumar of T-Series said they began the year on a good note with "Tanhaji" but the pandemic was a big blow.

"It resulted in pushing the release of the films for the foreseeable future and halting the shoots of several ongoing projects,” Kumar told PTI.

T-Series, he added, had 12 to 15 films slated for release in 2020 but most of them will now arrive at a later date.

With theatres closed, the company released some of its films, including Anurag Basu-directed black-comedy “Ludo” and the Bhumi Pednekar starrer “Durgamati”, on OTT platforms.

OTT platforms, viewed on TV screens, computers and mobiles, have come as a godsend for filmmakers who were ready with their films but had nowhere to show them.

 Shoojit Sircar, who was among the first to release his film "Gulabo Sitabo" on a streaming platform, said he is working on his next theatrical release "Sardar Udham Singh”.

“But as we all know everything moved on, everything got delayed. We are in the post production stage and I am sure next year we will be able to present the film. We haven’t yet decided about the release (date) yet,” he said.

There were also those biggies who held out, waiting for things to improve.

Describing 2020 as an extremely challenging year, Reliance Entertainment group CEP Shibasish Sarkar said Akshay Kumar starrer “Sooryavanshi” was supposed to have been released in March and “83”, with Ranveer Singh playing cricketer Kapil Dev, in April. The films were held back but could be released in March or April 2021.

"There was no business, theatres were closed in the entire lockdown period...Now 2021 is poised for multiple productions and releases for films, web shows, TV shows and animation," he added.

Things have started looking up with the opening of theatres but Sarkar said he is waiting for the overseas markets to get better.

"The entire US and Europe is in shut down mode. So we are waiting for the overseas market to return to normalcy," he said.

In the absence of major new content, cinemas have opened in different parts of the country with distributors offering a mix of old classics and new local releases to bring the audiences back to theatres while adhering to safety protocols.

A glimmer at the end of the tunnel is now visible.

Film productions halted have resumed with producers adhering to the strict safety guidelines to ensure the safety of the cast and crew. The guidelines include social distancing, masks, PPE kits, face shields and regular temperature checks.

T-Series’ Kumar hopes 2021 will be a better year and director Sircar is hopeful that people will get the confidence to return to theatres once there is a vaccine.

"Also, we are waiting for that one film that will change the course,” he said.

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