Cinema Paradiso Lost: The Plight of the Movie Theatre

As a visual medium, cinema has always been evolving, telling different stories across different formats while remaining the single most captivating and popular form of public entertainment. Cinematography has come so far from those 40 seconds of “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” over a century ago to high definition James Cameron spectacles. Since the advent of the Information Age and high-speed internet, the cinematic experience has become democratized. They are moving out of popcorn dusted projector halls and onto the comfort of living room flat screens. OTTs (Such as Netflix and Amazon Prime) reign as heavyweights in this rift in how we consume our films, presenting a double-edged dilemma, one side sharpened at the expense of the other. While the rise of OTTs has allowed for a new wave of independent filmmakers and writers and burgeoning diversity of content by allowing the cinematographic underdog to dictate their direction, the format itself is detrimental to that preceded it. OTTs erode all but the largest corporate cinema halls as they grow. Historical theatres across the country, particularly the class single-screen, have shut down; this closure has only intensified with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing theatres to close as a precaution, cutting of the little revenue that was trickling in. It seems that Cinema Paradiso has been lost.


In March 2020, the entire world came to a standstill, with empty streets and Zoom meetings. With this, the cinema industry also came to a grinding halt, cutting off humanity’s entertainment source and leaving many anticipating projects in development hell. While some of these projects remain stuck, others have attempted to enforce social distancing and carry on work, with varied effectiveness, while production money dried up. Yet others adopted entirely new filming techniques, such as Malayalam film C U Soon, shot over video conferencing. While many have very much accepted this new normal of cinematic stagnancy, the face of the industry itself has been shifting. The lack of traditional cinematic releases in movie halls has caused the Movie City juggernaut to deteriorate, suffering an estimated 984 crore loss. At the same time, OTTs only continue to thrive as the only form of entertainment left. Caught in the middle between Netflix on one end and cash-starved producers on the other, it is the theatre owner who suffers. The most elegant nuance in this is the sheer diversity in size and type of theatre found across the country; the most nostalgic, eldest, and most vulnerable to recent cinematic financial developments are single-screen theatres. These experiences depend solely on their capacity to screen, with no mall outlet for revenue, as multiplex halls are usually positioned at the top of commercial complexes to loosen viewers’ pockets before a film, nor are they franchised like multiplexes with corporate backing. Malls charge exorbitant amounts hourly, making the most of the common man’s weekend and savings. Even a college date night would be spent pleasantly on these cineplexes, unlike malls where the food and beverages are on par with gold and silver or even a hosteller’s monthly expense from the upper-middle class.

These single screens are the well-known landmarks for the city’s old dwellers and auto annas/walls. With the onset of COVID 19 and OTT services, the dawn of Indian cinematic culture has declined. But the struggle of the theatre owner yet persists. One of the most extensive and most chaotic examples of a pan-Indian fight for preserving the popcorn and dimmed lights magic can be found in Kollywood, the regional cinema of Tamil Nadu.


OTTs have turned into the cancer of cinema during this pandemic, with theaters closed. The few who say that OTTs are a boon to the industry? Only the industry heavyweights. See, for example, Ponmaghal Vandal, the Jyotika starring, Suriya produced Tamil film. It was the first of its kind in the industry to have an Amazon Prime exclusive release. Hailed as “breaking conventions” by industry fat cats, it was quickly met with backlash. The head of the Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners Association (TNTOA) vowed to boycott all future films from Suriya’s production house, 2D Entertainment. This, in turn, became a disappointment for theater owners who were eyeing those stars images they created to pull the lost crowd to get the business on track. Soon a question of distribution rights arose, and an internal conflict arose in the industry. The more excellent guild of producers backed the prerogative to sell their films to OTT services, with voices such as Kalaipuli Thanu( producer for Kabali, Asuran) calling it a “trade freedom” and a necessity in the face of “crisis.” The industry itself unveiled the flawed projection of OTTs being a haven for smaller, low budget and indie cinema. N Ramaswamy of Mersal production fame badly admitted to OTTs primarily head hunting “big star films.” Laid bare, smaller films must pay a percentage fee operating on a pay-per-view basis; this is indistinguishable from the theatre model, which itself places relatively less of an emphasis on screening purely commercially driven films. This was the rebuttal of the TNTOA, claiming rights are not just a privilege of producers but extend to theatre owners’ desire to choose their screening selection(giving a platform to smaller budget films and breaking the production house death grip). In the grander scheme of things, one can see the flocking of Tamil film producers to the OTT platform as a ruthless maximization of profits with a blatant disregard for the cinematic experience at the sustenance of the TNTOA. This is evidenced in their {Tamil Film Producer’s Council} September 7th letter to the TNTOA association. Prominent amongst their demands was the refusal to pay the Virtual Print Fee, the cost of digital screening at theatres (a cake that theatre owners get a slice of), and pushing for an increased share of ad revenue. The TFPC also proposed more significant insurance for their movies while claiming theatre owners to be fickle by asking for revised “pull-over” fees, money paid to keep underperforming opening films at the box office. With the financial, quasi-pragmatism of film producers in the COVID Era, it seems that projectors in small, old, single-screen, and even multi-plexus will run out of celluloid.


In a post coronavirus world, will the OTT-producer alliance hold? Many viewers complain about the substandard content of Indian OTT exclusive content. It seems that the cracks are already showing in the star actor focused strategy. If the boasts of industry individuals such as actor-producer hold on OTTs being the Brave New World, it seems that a more significant pall has been cast on the progress of Indian cinema. Celluloid anemia may make its way straight from the fading romance of the recliner experience and straight into film scripts. In the meantime, the once glorious icons of Indian cinematic experiences turn to single screen dust. These demolished landmarks only stay in the working-class man’s memory, fading into prime real estate. Agastya Theatre in North Chennai is one of these. A 53-year-old, 26-foot screen hall with a capacity to seat over a thousand has since been carved up into land for expanding the Chennai Metro and real estate, closing on August 31st. Single screen theatres have become less profitable with time due to bureaucracy’s inception, which required theatre owners to obtain permission to remodel. With available screen owners marginalized by the authorities, their halls fell into disrepair and ignominy. Central Plaza in Mumbai’s Girgaun tells a similar story with its August 29th closing. With an 84-year history that stretches from the very start of cinema in India, it has fallen to a victim of bureaucracy. The owners claimed a lack of government subsidization (allegedly offered to theaters). It housed the first screening of Sant Tukaram, one of the defining movies of early Indian cinema, and to gain international recognition and set a box office record of 57 weeks. With the parallel stories of Agastya Theatre and Central Plaza and the survive-at-all-costs antics of film producers, Indian cinephiles can only hope that the curtains do not close on the nation’s theatres in favor of the streaming invasion of cinema.

Graphics by: Anjali Dinesh

Written by: Vijay and Arul

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