Why movie theatres in Kerala are facing an existential post-Covid crisis

Several factors like a lack of good films, emergence of OTT, choosy audiences, and piracy are taking a toll on the theatre revenues.

ByArjun Ramachandran

Published Mar 19, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdatedMar 20, 2023 | 10:33 AM

Kerala movie theatres face crisis closing down

Theatres in Kerala are facing an existential crisis, especially post-Covid, owing to various reasons.

While piracy played the villain in the early 2000s, high-speed internet, over-the-top platforms (OTT) and other factors are now responsible for lesser footfalls in cinema halls. Further, post-Covid, the movie-watching pattern and preferences of audiences have witnessed a tremendous change.

Once a hub of entertainment, theatres appear to have lost their charm and don’t witness festival-like scenes on Fridays anymore. Also, the grand 100-day celebrations of movies have become a thing of the past now.

Single screens upgraded

Many theatres in Kerala underwent a huge renovation before the pandemic. The owners upgraded their single-screen theatres to multiple screens to cater to the audience’s demands.

a posh screen in a multiplex theatre

A posh screen in a multiplex in Kochi. (Supplied)

Many cinema halls have been equipped with state-of-the-art sound and projection systems. For instance, Shenoys Theatre, an iconic movie hall in Kochi, has been converted into a five-screen complex in a time spanning four years.

Meanwhile, many B and C-class theatres in Kerala have downed their shutters amid increasing operational charges, particularly after Covid.

Interestingly, new standalone theatres under private management and multiplex chains like PVR Cinemas and Cinepolis have started operations in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode respectively.

Also Read: Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway movie review

However, the recent trends followed by the audience aren’t helping the exhibitors. In most movie halls, the shows are getting cancelled if less than 10 people turn up for the first day of release!

The emergence of OTT and its challenges

OTT has become the key platform for audiences to watch films. People are waiting for more than a month to watch a movie.

Vikram movie poster

A poster of ‘Vikram’ movie. (Supplied)

However, Anoop Naroor, the director of Aura Cinemas, which has two multiplexes in the Kannur district, says that the influence of OTT is becoming less. Major OTT platforms have decided not to go for direct digital premieres before theatrical business.

Well, there are exceptions if the content is really good. For example, Mohanlal’s Alone and Monster were initially made for OTT release but were screened in theatres.

“People are watching films every day, apart from weekends, if it has good reviews. But the theatres are witnessing low turnout if the movie fails to meet expectations,” Anoop Naroor pointed out.

Audiences prefer to wait for the OTT release if a film garners average reviews. These are some of the challenges being faced not just by the theatres but the Malayalam film industry as a whole, he added.

Interestingly, OTT platforms are not signing any deals with the production houses before theatrical releases.

Indeed, they’re fixing the digital rights of the projects based on the performance in theatres.

As many as 46 films released in cinema halls across Kerala this year. Of them, non-Malayalam films like Pathaan, Avatar 2 and Vikram did well. Earlier successes included KGF 2, Pushpa and RRR.

Meanwhile, movies like Romancham, Malikapuram and Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey turned out to be box office hits. Of these, Romancham has become a blockbuster hit through word-of-mouth publicity.

Clearly, there is a switch in the film-watching preferences of the audience.

Kavitha theatre in kerala

Kavitha theatre in Kerala. (Supplied)

“Some of our old-time audiences have decided to watch movies in home theatres since they can afford to subscribe to the OTTs,” said Vinod Iyer, one of the owners of the iconic Crown Theatre in Kozhikode.

Vinod said the exhibitors are unable to foot the bills as the occupancy rate in theatres has come down drastically.

Further, only a handful of good movies are releasing of late which, in turn, is affecting the audience turnout.

“Crown theatre witnesses a good collection for a week and nothing in the other three weeks. In such a case, how am I supposed to run the show,” he questioned.

Also Read: D3 Tamil movie review

The exorbitant prices of tickets are another major concern for the family audience visiting cinema halls.

Annu Mathew, a media professional, said her family awaits the OTT release of all movies.

“In a city like Kochi, watching a film in a theatre has become a costlier affair for family audiences. The ticket rates and food prices are so high that they burn a hole in our pockets. Hence, we prefer OTT releases,” she clarified.

Future is bleak or bright?

Having been in the show business for decades, Vinod Iyer explained that exhibitors are usually proactive in upgrading technology but this isn’t helping them make profits.

“For Avatar 2: The Way of Water, we upgraded the technology by spending around ₹7 lakh. But it takes us another two years to recover the cost since we are finding it difficult to keep the flow going,” he averred.

Kgf 2 poster

A poster of ‘KGF 2’. (Supplied)

Adding to this, recurring expenses like sky-rocketing electricity bills, the salaries of staff and other maintenance charges are discouraging the exhibitors from continuing in the film business. The future is bleak for theatres as the flow of good content is less.

The Crown Theatre is popular for screening English movies. “However, in the last four months, only Avatar 2 and Pathaan did well at the box office. In such a case, theatres like ours can’t sustain,” Vinod Iyer said.

Owing to these issues, a few theatres in Kerala have cut down the number of shows. Some prominent theatres in cities like Kochi are screening only two shows during the weekdays.

Some other theatres in small towns have taken a break, and others are screening non-Malayalam big-budget films like Kabzaa, hoping for a huge turnout.

Related: Kabzaa Kannada movie review

The piracy threats

Piracy has been a key issue faced by the Malayalam film industry. It’s a fact that movies that are released in OTT reach Telegram subsequently.

Malikapuram movie

A poster of ‘Malikapuram’ movie. (Supplied)

“Since not everyone has a subscription to all the major OTT platforms, people are downloading movies via the Telegram app. This, in turn, is affecting the producers, distributors, exhibitors and even the OTT platforms,” observed Anoop Naroor.

The emergence of OTT isn’t a big threat now as some of them are not even popular, he felt.
Of late, audiences are expecting high-quality 4K projection and Dolby Atmos sound for a good movie viewing experience.

“With the advent of multiplexes, we are forced to upgrade the technology. They also expect classy washrooms and excellent services inside the theatres which only means theatres have to recruit and maintain housekeeping staff like that in hotels,” Anoop added.

Movie promotions

Film promotions are imperative to reach out to mass audiences, thanks to the advent of high-speed internet and social media.

“After Covid-19, movies without extraordinary content are finding it difficult to survive as the audience is now exposed to the World cinema during lockdowns,” said Pratheesh Sekhar, a leading PRO in the Malayalam film industry.

Also Read: Phalana Abbayi Phalana Ammayi Telugu movie review

According to Pratheesh, promotions play an important role in the film business.

“We have to present the exact essence of a movie in the promotions. For example, the poster designs of Mammootty’s Rorschach grabbed the attention of one and all. Even Mammootty said it was not a typical mass film,” he elucidated.

In the case of Unni Mukundan’s Malikappuram, the makers stated that the movie has a devotional touch, which instantly connected with the audience.

Similarly, debutant director Jithu Madhavan’s Romancham can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.

“The Malayalam industry is not so huge that it witnesses the release of 9-10 movies every week. I believe there is a space for films in theatres,” Pratheesh added.

Pratheesh also pointed out the changing preferences of movie buffs. For example, Dulquer Salmaan’s King of Kotha, Mammootty’s, Agent and Mohanlal’s Malaikottai Vaaliban are on top of the priority list of film lovers.

“Apart from big (stars) names, a film needs to have an innovative storyline, engaging screenplay, and marketing to draw crowds to theatres,” he said.

Lack of government support

The Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC) owns theatres in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Thrissur, and Alappuzha. It is constructing new theatre complexes in Payyannur and other tier-2 cities.

a theatre in kerala wears deserted look crisis

Exhibitors are cancelling the shows if there’s poor audience turnout. (Supplied)

This did not go down well with many exhibitors. Vinod Iyer is critical of the government building new theatre complexes amid the uncertainty in the film business.

He found fault with the Kerala government for not supporting the exhibitors in these tough times and instead constructing new theatres under KSFDC, thus turning into a competitor for the existing theatre owners.

“They should utilise these funds to help theatre owners like us,” he asserted.

Well, gone are the times when theatres in major cities decided the fate of a movie. In this new era, a film is declared a superhit only if it records good collections in all centres.