Sreesanth K. examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the single-screen theatres in Kerala, already struggling to survive technological shifts in film production and consumption.
For cinemagoers and cinema exhibitors, the lockdown owing to the pandemic has sped up recent changes in the cinema exhibition sector. From the time since lockdown was imposed, cinema exhibition houses in the state went into a state of standstill which is continuing till date. The people who are working in this sector and associated business activities are in a suspended state. The freezing of the cinema exhibition sector, which was a major revenue generator for the cinema industry, has impacted the industry as a whole. However, the film business is adapting by slowly moving onto other platforms like the OTT (over-the-top) platforms like Hotstar to reach out to its viewers. If we look at the history of cinema exhibition, cinema has always adapted to the changes in technology where it depended on technology to deliver its content.
Looking back to what was happening in the single-screen cinema exhibition sector in Kerala, one can easily find that single-screen cinemas in the state are now on the verge of extinction. Let’s take the case of a rural single screen cinema theatre in Kozhikode district. On 2019, April 11, a post on the theatre’s Facebook page, announced, ‘Curtains fell on the silver screen of Perambra Sangam Theatre. Thanks to all our beloved audience and well-wishers who cooperated and supported us for the past forty-two years – Theatre Management.’ Sangam Theatre in Perambra thus joined the long list of closed single-screen theatres in Kerala state. The aforementioned social media post on the demise of a movie exhibition space grabbed local attention. The post received inquiring comments and those expressing support for the theatre. Most of the commenters expressed nostalgia associated with the theatre and offered their suggestions to renovate the theatre. However, a week later, another post appeared on the same page announcing the management’s plan to renovate the theatre. The post explained that the management is expecting to renovate the theatre by joining hands with a popular south Indian multiplex group, converting the cinema hall to an air-conditioned dual-screen theatre.
Sangam Theatre in Perambra is only one among the many theatre closures in Kerala in recent times. News reports show that the number of single-screen theatres in the state declined from 1600 to 5151 in the past few years. Among these theatre closures, the shifting centres were drastically affected.2 The scenario of Sangam Theatre in Perambra, therefore, points towards the situation of shifting centres Sangam is one of the few surviving shifting theatres in the district. Despite all their efforts, shifting centres are evidently facing a decline in their daily audience.
Ongoing Shifts in Film Exhibition Practices: Adapting to Change
With the arrival of new personal digital devices for cinema viewing, it is now obvious that one of the major changes in media consumption among people is the decline in cinema-going. The accessibility and affordability of devices such as smartphones and tablets is a major reason for this trend. Consequently, exhibiting films in a large, spacious single-screen cinema theatre for a meagre audience has become economically impractical. Hence, to continue with cinema exhibition, single-screens cinemas have to look for other possibilities.
Therefore, the recent developments in Kerala’s cinema exhibition sector, namely, the arrival of multiplex cinemas and the conversion of single-screen cinemas, are positive signs enabling the continued survival of the sector in the face of declining demand. Most of the single-screen cinema theatres in the district are getting facelifts—the present trend is to split the single-screen theatre into multiple screens. Renovation is another common trend. Cinema theatre owners are installing digital projectors of higher resolution in their theatres. Upgrading projector technology entails the conversion from E-cinemas to D-cinemas, which is the minimum standard set by Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI)3. This kind of renovation helps theatre owners to compete with the digital transitions happening in the entertainment industry. To use film theorist Seymour Stern’s perspective, this shift can be seen as the attempt to differentiate the cinema theatre experience from other viewing modes, and to retain the cinema’s basic feature of imparting an emotional experience and a sense of liberation from reality (Stern 1998).
Even as urban single-screen cinemas in Kerala were being converted to multiplexes or renovated, most of the rural single-screen cinemas were still running in the same old pattern till the lockdown. News reports and other data related to the existing condition of single-screen cinemas in the state shows that most of these rural single-screen cinemas are operated and managed by one person— due to the lack of staff, most of these theatres are in a dilapidated state. A major share of such theatres are small family-owned business establishments that cannot afford to remain competitive through renovation or conversion like urban theatres.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Single-Screen Theatres
The standard operating procedures (SoP) for cinema theatres to reopen after October 15 stresses the importance of COVID-19 protocols for sanitisation and distancing. For single-screen cinema theatres, the enforcement of the SoP is the last nail in the coffin. Even before the pandemic, hygiene and maintenance were a major drawback for almost all the single-screen theatres in the state, most in rural areas. The lack of audience forced these theatres to cut back on staff and often, these rural theatres exhibited films for the sake of existence alone, catering to the low-income group of cinema-goers. Moreover, migrant workers going back to their native places due to COVID-19 is also a concern since they served as cheap labour for the management of rural single-screen cinemas. Looking at the new SoP, it is obvious that running a cinema theatre in the post-COVID-19 era would require more staff even as the attendance for each show needs to be cut down to 50%. This is going to be a crisis for multiplexes, and more so for all the single-screen cinema theatres. For rural single-screen shifting theatres, it would be better to go into complete lockdown rather than following the SoP as they are already facing a steep decrease in audience numbers and in labour to run the theatre. Single-screen theatres that were converted into multiplexes or were renovated by spending crores of rupees before the pandemic have no other option other than following the SoP and inviting people to watch films in their theatres.
Based on the data and the trends seen in the cinema exhibition sector over the years, it is likely that all the existing non-renovated rural single-screen theatres in the state would continue to be in lockdown in the post-COVID-19 era. Moreover, the Over the top (OTT) platforms which were gaining popularity among Indian viewers has become the new normal mode of cinema viewing after the COVID-19 lockdown. Reports show that the OTT sector in India saw a 30% rise in the number of paid subscribers, from 22.2 million to 29.0 million between March and July 2020. In spite of all these changes, when we look back at the history of cinema and cinema exhibition, it is a fact that cinemas have always reinvented themselves whenever they had to face competition. Hence, as cinema-going is a social experience, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccine is likely to resuscitate cinemas and cinema-going as a practice. However, since rural single-screen theatres were struggling to survive even before the pandemic, there are fewer chances of the COVID-19 vaccine making any difference to rural single-screen shifting cinemas.
- Stern, Seymour. 1998. ‘An Aesthetic of the Cinema House: A Statement of the Principles Which Constitute the Philosophy and the Format of the Ideal Film Theatre’. Spectator 18 (2): 26-32.
About the Author: Sreesanth K. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies, Kristu Jayanti College, Bengaluru. This article draws on his PhD research on the cinemas of Kozhikode. His research and teaching interests include cinema studies, reception studies, and photography. He can be contacted at email@example.com.