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Vol. XXX No. No. 12, October 16-31, 2020

How the film industry is coping with Covid

by Our Special Correspondent

In the second article in our series on the pandemic’s impact on Chennai’s economy, Madras Musings takes a look at Kollywood, our vibrant film industry.

With Covid-19 necessitating a non-negotiable curb on social gatherings, the film industry has understandably taken a blow. The sector has been affected in myriad ways – production, until recently, was at a standstill with no shoots taking place; theatres find themselves empty and film content itself is learning to adapt to changing tastes.

The pandemic has made things harder for an already struggling film industry. “Many movies take upfront advances and sometimes they don’t do well at the box office.

When these films fail, the consequences ripple down the line, affecting the finances of other stakeholders as well,” explains Jayendra Panchapakesan, co-founder of Qube Cinema. He went on to point out that the industry was also under strain from the challenge of keeping up with technological upgrades, ranging from sound systems to laser projections. Like other industries, daily wage and contract workers are the most severely affected by the pandemic.“Tamil Nadu has around 800-1000 cinema halls, comprising both multiplexes and single-screens, with the latter making up the majority.

Every one of these has a sizeable number of people working for them, from projectionists and ushers to ticket managers, parking lot managers, clearing agencies and concession stand managers.Almost everyone has had no employment for the past six months,” says Jayendra

Filmmaker Rajiv Menon echoes his concerns. “Cine professionals like lightmen, for instance, get paid around Rs. 1,000-Rs. 1,500 a day for their work. With no jobs available, they have nowhere to go.” While labour unions as well as the state government are trying to provide relief, even the fairly successful who enjoy a decent standard of living in normal times are struggling to make ends meet today. The situation has prompted a few to abandon the profession altogether and take up other jobs to keep afloat. “I heard that some have started selling vegetables to bring in income,” shares Jayendra. Rajiv estimates that if this trend continues, the impact of skill migration will be felt by the industry a couple of years down the line.

With matters more complex than they appear, the film industry is navigating uncharted waters with the pandemic. Films are not being produced, but audiences continue to consume content – perhaps more than ever. TV and over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Prime, Netflix and others are reportedly seeing their audiences grow, possibly due to the lack of access to theatres. OTT companies are ramping up production to release exclusive, quality content on their platforms – arguably, a key lifeline for the industry during these times. Rajiv too has worked on one such project, titled Putham Pudhu Kaalai, an anthology of short films slated for an October release on Amazon Prime. The filmmaking process had to be planned meticulously in conformance with safety guidelines. But ultimately, as Rajiv points out, creativity cannot be locked down. “When there are constraints, one pushes the envelope to find new ways of telling stories,” he says. With audiences welcoming content-driven stories, filmmakers are thinking out of the box to explore new narratives and content formats – the recent Malayalam hit CU Soon is a shining example.

However, Jayendra feels that the film industry will not be able to rely completely on TV and OTT platforms to thrive in the long run. “Consider a large film with a budget exceeding Rs. 100 crores. One typically collects 60-70 per cent of the business from theatre revenue and the balance from OTT and satellite TV. It’s not possible for the business side of cinema to depend entirely on OTT.”

Theatres are expecting to re-open soon, with the central government greenlighting the move with a 50 per cent occupancy cap. “Conventionally, theatres see an average occupancy of 35 per cent over the week, with numbers spiking on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If audiences spread out across the week, it may be possible for theatres to reach pre-covid revenues even with a 50 per cent occupancy cap,” estimates Jayendra. “Of course, this depends on how many people are willing to go to the cinema in these times.” With many missing the experience of watching a film at the theatre, it is possible that a significant number of people will be open to patronizing them when they reopen.

The film industry is also learning to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Rajiv feels that efficiency is one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic. “People will have to learn to work with smaller units, in a more efficient manner,” he said. For Jayendra, the possibilities of innovation around programming are immense. “Everything changes cinema in some way or the other,” he points out. “Post-pandemic cinema will evolve, too. Perhaps a 100 like-minded people will get to choose the movie they want to watch on the screen, rather than the theatre deciding the schedules. Or, perhaps families and friends will be able to book 10-seater theatres to watch a movie together safely.” They’re intriguing ideas. “Cinema has always innovated and it will continue to do so,” finishes Jayendra, on an optimistic note. “A pandemic can’t dull it’s magic.”

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