On November 5, film theatres in Maharashtra reopened. I’m deeply conflicted approximately going. As I struggle with the abject fear of contracting the virus, or even worse, bringing it home to my elderly parents, I contend also with the desperate desire to be sitting in a large, dark space with strangers. And I wonder, what’s the future of the big-screen experience?
Final month, Regal Cinemas, the second-largest exhibitor in the USA, temporarily shut all 536 locations in that country. The theatres had reopened only two months earlier. Moreover, Regal’s parent company Cineworld has temporarily shut 127 theatres in the United Kingdom. In India, it is expected that no less than a couple of hundred single-screen cinema halls will near permanently. They simply don’t have the reserves to ride this out.
Contrast this grim scenario with Japan’s where, according to The Hollywood Reporter, 100% of the nation’s theatres have reopened. THR reported that the anime movie Demon Slayer had a record opening of $43 million in mid-October and has since transform the fastest movie in Japanese film history to cross the $100 million mark.
Most of China’s 70,000 screens have been open since August. A historical action-drama called The Eight Hundred, also released in that month, has already grossed over $450 million in the community and is likely to be the biggest box office hit of 2020 worldwide (the first time a non-English movie will occupy that slot).
Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, delivering a keynote address at the Tokyo International Movie Festival’s TIFFCOM market final month, cited the movie as evidence that people do wish to return to cinema halls.
But by and large, in Hollywood, the temper has been somber. There was much hand-wringing over the truth that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a sci-fi spy thriller that was once supposed to resuscitate theatres, made only $55.1 million in the USA (partly because theatres were still closed in key markets such as Los Angeles and New York when it came out in August), and only $350 million globally. A spate of doomsday articles have added to the gloom, with dire predictions approximately the way forward for theatrical releases.
(Nolan, accidentally, has said he was once “thrilled” with the Tenet numbers, all things regarded as, and added in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times that the studios were “drawing the incorrect conclusions”.)
In India, theatres have reopened in most states. It’s difficult to gauge consumer appetite since capacities are reduced and the films are re-runs. The exception is Bengal, where nine films were released all over the Durga Puja festival. Mahendra Soni, co-founder of SVF, probably the most largest entertainment companies in the state, was once reluctant to share box-office figures with me but said their production, Dracula Sir, clocked nearly 60% occupancy in its first week, which gives him confidence that “the audience will surely start coming back to theatres in remarkable numbers”.
I think he’s correct. While the pandemic might alter theatre-going in remarkable ways in the West, my hunch is that Indians are too movie-crazy to be content with small screens. I bear in mind the pandemonium in May, when the liquor shops reopened after a 40-day lockdown. The internet was once flooded with images of long lines and large crowds. I suspect the same will happen with theatres as soon as probably the most big-ticket films slated for release — Sooryavanshi, 83 or Master, for example — in the end hits screens.
There will be euphoria, expectantly with masks and social distancing. And I for one can’t wait.