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Kolkata's onscreen revolution

Sambit Saha & Ishita Ayan Dutt | July 10, 2004

When Inox Forum, the brand new city centre multiplex, opened late last year some sceptics predicted that it would be an instant flop. Sure, the location was terrific but would Kolkata's budget-conscious residents fork out Rs 130 or thereabouts (on some weekends even Rs 200) to watch a three-hour movie?

That question has now been answered in the affirmative. Eight months down the road Inox Forum is on the verge of breaking even. On an investment of Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million), it has already recovered around Rs 7.17 crore (Rs 71 million).

"Our experience in Kolkata has been extremely encouraging. We were always hopeful about Kolkata given the city's cosmopolitan nature and strong appreciation for cinema," says Shishir Baijal, CEO, Inox Leisure.

Inevitably, success breeds plenty of glass-and-concrete imitators. The city now has three multiplexes that are drawing in audiences every day and four more will be coming up in the not-to-distant future. Inox itself has just opened its second multiplex and its in talks to get its projectors rolling at a third location.

The fact is that developers and theatre owners are now moving swiftly and putting together their own scripts for the multiplex business. Two of the new complexes are being built by Mumbai-based film company Shringar, which is starting its own chain called Fame.

The first Fame multiplex will open in the Metropolis mall, which is coming up on the southern fringes of the city. Shringar owns two multiplexes in Mumbai in Kandivili and Malad and two others in Nashik and Surat.

Meanwhile, some of the older theatre owners aren't about to give up without a fight. Arijit Dutta of Priya Theatre upgraded his hall a long time ago. Now, he's looking further afield and has tied up with production company Sri Venkatesh Films -- which produced the Aishwariya Rai starrer Chokher Bali -- and looking at new acquisitions and opening digital-based theatres.

The Dutta-Sri Venkatesh joint venture has already taken over Metro in central Kolkata and Annapurna, a theatre in a southern suburb. His own company had also taken over management of the Gitanjali Cultural Complex in Shantiniketan from the government and another central Kolkata hall, Globe, from its owner.

At Globe, he has put in a new restaurant and bar and upgraded the existing bars. Also, the lobbies have been given a facelift. A similar renovation is underway at Annapurna.

Dutta isn't the only theatre owner who has figured out that he must expand to stay ahead. Debasish Ghoshal of 89 Cinema, in suburban Kolkata, is also scouting around the city for theatres that can be leased or even bought.

He is currently looking at locations in south Kolkata, Howrah and Diamond Harbour and is exploring all possible formats.

Even the owners who aren't looking at new properties say they've ensured reasonably full-houses for the foreseeable future. Paradise Cinema, one of the city's landmarks, has already has a top-to-bottom renovation so that movie-going is a 21st century experience.

Sunit Singh of Paradise says he isn't planning to break down the hall and turn it into two or three smaller ones.

Says Singh: "We are sprucing up the lobby. A food court has opened. The seats are being made comfortable. We have spent about Rs 35 lakh (Rs 3.5 million) on seats, lobby and sound. Another Rs 50 lakh (Rs 5 million) would be invested in improving the projection system, screen and further improvement of sound."

Everyone is confident about the future because they believe that Kolkatans are still avid moviegoers even if they are being tempted by the small screen and the other entertainments on offer in the hi-tech era. What's more, the new multiplexes are bringing the middle class back to watch movies.

"Inox at Forum, has brought a whole new breed of people to the movie halls," says Parvez Aziz of The Bengal Properties (which owns Paradise and Roxy cinema halls in central Kolkata).

However, everyone admits that Inox Forum has unique locational advantages so they won't be following its model entirely. For a start, the pricing is likely to be considerably cheaper in other city multiplexes and theatres.

Fame, for instance, is trying to dispel the impression that multiplexes are only for the affluent. Sumit Dabriwala, who is developing Metropolis Mall, which will house Fame says ticket prices won't be more than Rs 70.

"I do not foresee multiplexes in Kolkata holding on to high ticket pricing, excepting Forum which has unique locational advantage. So we are starting with a pricing which is affordable and value for money for the consumer," says Dabriwala.

Even if the tickets have to be slightly cheaper than in Delhi or Mumbai, Fame is confident about its prospects.

"From the research data that we have, Kolkata is the third largest city when related to per capita income and spending capabilities. Given the success of retail and the current multiplexes, we have a lot of expectations from the Kolkata market and see it as one of our core focus cities," says Shravan Shroff of Shringar. Shroff believes the property will breakeven in three or four years.

The fact is that Kolkata was always a cinema-loving city. But industry observers say that the hit show turned into a flop because many cinema halls suffered from bad or indifferent management.

Says one observer: "Local owners sold halls to outsiders who cannot pay enough attention to daily management which is critical. They also did not plough back the profit in the business."

Then, there's also the problem of government red tape, which has slowed growth in some cases. Dutta says that the government has announced that it will give subsidies for the older theatres, which want to upgrade.

However, some theatres have found that their applications for the subsidies announced in 2002 have not been cleared for around two years.

Says Dutta: "The bottlenecks in the finance department have been a dampener. Applications made by some theatres two years ago are yet to be cleared and the two or three that have been cleared are yet to receive any subsidy."

There are other problems that need to be tackled. The current laws, for instance, don't permit developers to take over an old hall and convert it into a multiplex with several screens.

Under existing law, according to Ghoshal of 89, the capacity of the old hall can't be changed. Ghoshal who is talking to several older theatres has found this a major problem that's stalling his expansion plans. Also, the seating arrangements inside the complexes have to be rearranged to make them more comfortable.

The multiplex boom could, as all the owners are aware, quickly turn into a dud. Aziz points to Ahmedabad which witnessed a spate of building that has now gone slightly sour. But in Kolkata both the older theatre owners and the multiplex barons are hoping that the audiences will keep flocking to their shows.

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Sub: openning a new inox in bhubaneshwar

Respected Sishir Jee... I am Ankit Agarwal from Cuttack , Orissa and am very fond of movies , i have never missed any chance to ...

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Good movies like Troy running at 10:15 am is bit odd. Where as DEV running at 16:15 hrs in an almost empty house is difficult ...

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