The global vaccine rollout is reason to finally believe there could be an end to this pandemic, but it’s evident the recovery process is going to be gradual and slow. Ahead of the curve, however, appears to be India.
Back in September, the country’s virus situation looked to be spiraling out of control, with nearly 100,000 cases being recorded daily, the highest rate in the world. Flash forward four months and the situation is a stark contrast – this week fewer than 10,000 cases were report on certain days, about half that of the UK and less than some U.S. states.
The reasons for this remarkable recovery are wide-reaching, and are being studied in detail by the global scientific community, but a degree of herd immunity and a wide presence of antibodies is being cited as key. In response, the government is re-opening the economy to pre-pandemic levels, including the beloved big screen business. Earlier this week, authorities made the remarkable announcement that cinemas would be allowed to return to 100% occupancy from February 1.
The response to the news has been understandably joyous. Mood was already fairly buoyant in India after the theatrical success of Tamil action thriller Master, which took $26M in the country – and that’s with only 50% capacity in theaters – before heading to Amazon Prime. Now, the country’s top producers tell Deadline that they are jumping at the chance to line up their films for theatrical bows in the coming months.
“I think good times could be here again soon,” forecasts Boney Kapoor, the prolific producer. “It’s definitely a very positive move [cinemas returning to full capacity] and has given us hope.”
“I hope the exhibitors keep all the safety factors in mind,” he cautions. While auditoriums can be full again, various other measures will remain in place such as distancing outside of screening rooms, where face covers will also be mandatory.
Kapoor is now lining up his Telegu thriller Vakeel Saab, the latest remake of the Hindi hit Pink starring Pawan Kalyan, for April 9. He also has the Tamil action pic Valimai, starring Ajith Kumar, nearing completion ahead of a potential release this summer, and he is heading back into production on his $25M Hindi epic sports movie Maidaan.
As Deadline reported last year, the movie was forced to dismantle its 16-acre set due to pandemic disruption. Kapoor has now had the site re-built and is readying to finish the movie, which will bring in professional soccer players from around the world to shoot convincing sports scenes (visas allowing). It is currently dated for October 15, 2021, but with Baahubali director S.S. Rajamouli having just dated his upcoming epic RRR for the same slot, there is likely to be some shifting.
Further high-profile titles now eyeing releases include Hindi action movie Sooryavanshi, which production company Reliance Entertainment reveals to us they are contemplating releasing in the last week of March, following the recent positive news. The company also has biographical sports drama ’83, about the country’s triumph in that year’s Cricket World Cup, on the slate and is looking at the first week of June.
“This is very positive news,” comments Reliance CEO Shibasish Sarkar. “Society has by and large opened up. Restaurants, malls, markets, offices – all are working under a normal situation now. We believe spectacular films such as Sooryavanshi and ’83 will bring audiences back to the cinema halls.”
Over at Hindi producer Yash Raj Films, the company has five buzzy titles on its 2021 slate: the thriller Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar with Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra; comedy Bunty aur Babli 2; action pic Shamshera; comedy Jayeshbhai Jordaar; and the historical movie Prithviraj. None of these movies are dated but the company says it is now exploring the calendar.
On the exhibition side, the mood is understandably buoyant.
“The government has done a tremendous job controlling the Covid cases in India. Particularly with the kind of population we have, it’s remarkable,” says Devang Sampat, CEO at the Indian wing of global exhibitor Cinepolis.
“Moviegoing is very safe,” he asserts. “We have worked with the government throughout this process to show them the precautions we are taking. Our number one priority is safety for people coming to the cinema and the staff we employ.”
He says the industry “has suffered a lot” throughout this period, with “huge losses” incurred over the last nine months.
“I cannot share the numbers but it has been a painful time. However, the local mall owners have given us tremendous support, and our employees stood with us. Everybody chipped in,” he adds. “With Master, our cinemas were sold out at 50% capacity, that gave exhibitors big confidence that people are really looking forward to going back to the cinema.”
“Now is a good time to go back to normal. Producers are thinking about releasing their films, most of them held onto their movies [during the closures],” he adds.
As we reported on throughout last year, the streaming boom in India hit fever pitch in 2020 when cinema closures left numerous big-ticket releases on the shelves gathering dust. Amazon and Netflix both made high-profile direct-to-VOD purchases that were headline-grabbing, but Sampat points out that these were only a small part of the overall picture.
“We release 1,100 titles every year, you’re talking about more than 20 new pieces of content every week,” says Sampat. He estimates that less than 10% of films destined for theatrical ended up going directly online last year, meaning the vast majority were held back for their big screen opportunity in 2021. “In an unprecedented situation, exceptions will happen. I don’t blame the producers [who sold films to streamers], everybody has to look at their own business model,” he adds.
Sampat says that the majority of films being held back evidences that “producers believe in cinema” and he is now optimistic for his business to recover this year. He believes that going forward, VOD and theatrical will co-exist harmoniously in India.
“After the introduction of OTT platforms, film admissions have actually gotten higher,” Sampat says. “People are understanding content has its own space. India is a hugely populated country and there is space for business for OTT platforms and cinemas.”
“I still believe cinema is made for cinema halls,” adds Kapoor. “Films are meant for the big screen. But you can’t stop new inventions. The business of OTT platforms is giving an opportunity to many, and gaining eyeballs. This is good, constructive. But it’s a joy to enjoy a film with a full audience, where everybody reacts to the situation. Laughing, clapping – that’s what you get in an auditorium. The thrill of enjoying it with other people is something you can only feel in a cinema hall.”