Future of Cinema Post Covid-19

The 1999 and 2008 crises were certainly high impact, but neither was as global as the 2020 correction that was felt in every nation due to the first simultaneous worldwide lockdown.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has led to large-scale anxieties about the future of the arts. Many livelihoods rely upon the performing and visual arts. It is just not the fraternity of artistes but their support staff, co-workers and an entire ecosystem that is sustained through their practice. We are the largest film-making nation in the world. The film industry offers jobs to several thousands.The lockdown will be eventually relaxed at some point as can be seen in different parts of the world but many are of the opinion that this pandemic will significantly impact our film-viewing behavior and other economic decisions around it. We might stay away from film theatres to avoid large gatherings. This could also indicate a shift towards viewing films on online platforms which have already made a dent during the lockdown.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., have witnessed a record surge in subscriptions during the lockdown. This doesn’t mean that everybody has suddenly turned a film lover, but that these platforms offer a plethora of entertainment options for people locked inside their homes. The content and range of programmes on these portals is also far superior to what is available on regular television. There are films and TV series which are especially commissioned by and released exclusively on these platforms.

For over two months now, cinemas across India—around 10,000 single-screen ones and 3,000 multiplexes—have remained shut as most of the country is under lockdown to curtail the spread of coronavirus. This shutdown is estimated to have cost the Indian film industry over $130 million (Rs984 crore) in box office revenue. Meanwhile, even as the government has started a partial withdrawal of the lockdown, reopening cinema halls isn’t high on its agenda. And even if the government allows theatres to reopen, experts believe, not many people will take the risk of going to the movies.

Wooing audiences again

The “movie theatre experience”—complete with surround sound, visual effects, flavoured popcorns and colas, and even recliners in some cases—has thrived in India despite the touch competition from OTT segment in recent years. But this time, the fight is harder as cinema owners need to deal with consumers’ psyche, which is hard to change, experts said.

To begin with, there’s a need to create an environment that feels hygienic and safe. For instance, cinema hall operators must try to remove all human contact by making it mandatory for customers to book tickets online. “Cine-goers could be encouraged to book their snacks online to avoid crowds at food stands,” suggested Neeraj Roy, founder and CEO of Mumbai-based Hungama Digital Media.In line with cinemas in the US, which are opening up with “social distancing seating,” Indian theatres are bracing for less than half the occupancy. On May 20, the Multiplex Association of India put out a plan detailing measures they were willing to take, including deep cleaning of halls at regular intervals, use of body temperature detectors, making masks compulsory while watching movies, and grilling health check-ups of staff.

These steps will need higher spending by cinema hall owners, who will eventually need to charge customers more. This might become a major roadblock to attracting crowds as thousands of Indians are faced with pay cuts and job losses, which leaves less scope for discretionary spending and instills caution against reckless expenditure. Cinema owners have also been struggling to convince producers to stall releases instead of taking the OTT route. “We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopen,” said Kamal Gianchandani, CEO of one of India’s leading multiplex chains, PVR. “That said, this is not the first time films are being premiered on streaming platforms. Cinema exhibition has regularly faced competition from new emerging distribution platforms.”

Bypassing the censors

Also, you could bypass many of the problems of censor certification if you release films on these platforms. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, many film festivals are moving online. Britain’s most famous socialist filmmaker, Ken Loach, has made some of his best films available for free on YouTube. Other film streaming platforms are making foreign and documentary cinema available at a nominal fee for a limited time span. With increased awareness about films, will we go back to theatres and settle for the same content that mainstream cinema peddles after the lockdown?

However, there is also a grave danger. Access to these platforms is largely limited to an urban demography that can afford an Internet connection, along with the subscription fees which also determines the class character of its potential viewers. If this were to become the norm, it would exclude a large majority of the film-viewing population. That will be a denial of cinema to those who have been its utmost supporters.