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Surviving the multiplex blast

ZIYA US SALAM

Single-screen cinema halls have multiple takers still. Despite the multiplex boom, don't write them off yet.

PHOTOS: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

THE OLD AND THE NEW Single-screen theatres attract bigger crowds despite the glamour of multiplexes

The multiplexes are here, move over single-screen theatres. Heard that line? Yes, often enough over the past half a decade or so. Hold it. Don't jump to any conclusion. Just yet. The multiplexes with their online bookings, home delivery of tickets and loyalty incentives are doing fine and some 500 more are lined up to hit various cities across the country over the next five years. But despite the Rs.900-crore invested in the multiplexes, it is still not time to say bye-bye to age-old halls. Not yet. Admits Manmohan Shetty of Adlabs, "Multiplexes provide a lifeline to serious cinema. But it would be wrong to believe that multiplexes will replace single-screen theatres entirely in the immediate future. They can co-exist for some time and those single-screen theatres that upgrade the facilities can definitely be around."

He hits the nail on the head. The biggest film of last year, Yashraj Films' "Dhoom-2" was released with 600 prints across the country. Out of them, 480 prints played at single-screen theatres. Only 90 multiplexes played the film in the first week.

Skewed ratio

Surprised? There is not much reason though. There are 12000-odd single screen theatres in the country as opposed to only 120-odd multiplexes. While 9000-odd single-screen halls are still a viable business proposition, each multiplex on an average offer three-four screens. According to an estimate, footfall in single-screen halls varies from 70 per cent ever the weekend to around 40 percent on weekdays. The percentage of occupancy for multiplexes is on the lower side. Incidentally, there is space for both. As an official for Spice cinema puts it, "In India per person-screen availability is among the lowest. For a million people we have only 12 screens. We need around 35." The corresponding figures in the U.S. stand at 117 screens per million people.


Shetty explains, "Upper classes go to the multiplexes. There is a big market of those with disposable income. Their cinema is often different from the single-screen halls. There is a different segmentation, product differentiation, so to say."

He should know. Shetty started his career with "Ardh Satya", "Hip Hip Hurray" and "Holi" and today backs mainstream fare starring the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt and Akshay Kumar. "Earlier, I backed films that were for the festival circuit. Now mostly mainstream cinema. Earlier filmmaking was a hobby, now a business. `Hip Hip... ' played to 40 per cent occupancy in halls then. Today, in multiplexes it could have notched up to 70-75 per cent. The attempt to cater to the cinema patronised by those with disposable income is just risk mitigation. One feels safe with tried and tested subject, some stories are timeless."

The point is reiterated by Mehrotra of Delite cinema in New Delhi. "Our occupancy on an average is around 65 per cent at Delite and 55 per cent at the smaller and Diamond. But when we played `Bhagambhag' at Diamond it rose to about 95 per cent and around 90 per cent for Guru earlier this year." This week's two new releases, "Life Mein Kabhie Kabhiee" and "Big Brother" have received a lukewarm initial but convey a lot. While Guddu Dhanoa's "Big Brother" has opened at the big screen hall with 50 per cent, "Life Mein... " opened to around 40 per cent at the multiplex audi.

Just a handful

Delite is among the handful of single-screen theatres in the Capital to take corrective measures in the face of the multiplex onslaught. Others like the old favourites Plaza and Rivoli still remain single-screen theatres but are run by the popular multiplex chain PVR. Incidentally, the PVR group has to its credit the first multiplex in the country. In mid-1997 South Delhi's Anupam cinema was converted to a multiplex. The technology was imported from Australia. Says Ajay Bijli of PVR, "We target states that offer tax holiday to add more screens." With significant presence in Maharashtra, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and now Tamil Nadu, PVR offers 80 screens to catch a film of cinemagoers' choice. It aims to increase its share to 130 screens by 2009. And is moving into the heartland of the country, into smaller towns like Latur, Surat, Allahabad and Aurangabad. There are plans to build 200 budget multi-screen halls in more than 70 cities in the next five years. More than 50 single screen halls have been earmarked for the purpose and ticket prices have been similarly made consumer friendly.

However, as Bijli puts it, "We have opened the limits of possibilities for all, including single-screen theatres."

Taking the hint single-screen halls have begun reinventing themselves - Delhi's Sapna, Golcha and Shiela have gone in for a makeover - others in Pune, Patna, Lucknow, even Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad have found newer ways of survival. Besides offering better facilities, they are busy playing film festivals of popular stars, some are playing re-runs of evergreen hits and special children's films. Animation movies like "Hanuman" and "Krishna" have pulled the kids back to the halls. Says the manager of a single-screen hall in Jaipur whose group runs another in New Delhi, "We often play children's films in the mornings. There are block bookings for schools. The response tells us that inventive business measures can restore good times in single-screen halls."

Also, regional films are coming in handy to restore business in single-screen halls. If Bhojpuri films have played to packed halls in Mumbai, Punjab and Delhi, dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu hits have found favour with single-screens across the country. Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Vikram are popular names in Hindi-speaking areas of the country, thanks to single-screen halls with admission rates as low as Rs.20 introducing the masses to South Indian icons.

So, all is not lost for traditional haunts of moviegoers. Want proof? Last week's new release, Sunny Deol's "Big Brother" opened with 63 prints in Delhi-UP. All of them at single-screen halls, none at a multiplex. A case of an emerging market differentiation, as Shetty put it?

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