'In our business, every time a seat goes empty, it is a perishable good.'
'We have lost the opportunity of earning revenue out of it.'
'It's impossible to recover what we have lost.'
Paperless tickets, seat distancing, staggered intervals and scrupulous sanitising are part of the safety protocol multiplexes will introduce if the government allows screenings in 'Unlock 3' next month, say the CEOs of leading multiplex chains.
A set of SOPs drawn up by the Multiplex Association of India in collaboration with its members was submitted to various central ministries as well as the prime ninister's office and the Niti Aayog earlier this month, said industry leaders INOX, PVR Pictures and Cinepolis India.
Algorithms for automatic seat distancing, regular cleaning and disinfecting of the cinemas, lobby area and touch points like railings and doors as well as basics like temperature scans also form part of the SOPs that conform to global standards.
"If you go back to the 'Unlock 1' notification that came from the government, it has clearly mentioned that cinemas would open in 'Unlock 3', which is likely to happen in August. So, in that context, we are very hopeful and keeping our fingers crossed," PVR Pictures CEO Kamal Gianchandani tells PTI.
Theatres have been closed since mid-March when COVID-19 began to spread in India.
After an extended nationwide lockdown, which began on March 25, the government gave the go ahead for businesses and other services to restart in a phased manner.
Cinemas account for the biggest chunk of earnings for movies and have taken a substantial hit during the pandemic and multiplexes are pulling out the stops to ensure audiences return after theatres open.
"No two screens in a multiplex will start shows at the same time. Also, we will schedule intervals in a manner that they don't clash with each other and there is a gap of at least 15 minutes to half-an-hour. There will be more gaps between shows, giving us enough time to clean and disinfect without hampering with the cinema viewing experience," says Gianchandani.
PVR operates a cinema circuit comprising 841 screens at 176 properties in 71 cities in India and Sri Lanka.
Masks and temperature check at the entrances will be mandatory for everyone entering the cinema complexes.
"We have already given our SOPs to various ministries and officers. We are waiting for their reply. The SOPs we have made are in line with global standards. And when we implement these SOPs, it will ensure the safety of all our customers. We have worked on creating a very safe and hygienic environment to gain their confidence," says INOX CEO Alok Tandon.
INOX has 626 screens across 147 properties in 68 cities.
The focus, he tells PTI, will be on a "digital way" of life.
The theatre chain, Tandon says, has developed a fully-loaded, all-in-one SMS system that will help customers scan their QR code at the entrance, find their seat location and their food and beverages menu to place an order.
"We have also developed an algorithm where there is an automatic distance between two different bookings. We have put up touch screen sanitiser machines installed all over the cinema halls besides doing extensive sanitization drive at different times of the day," he adds.
The dependence on manpower will be limited to avoid unnecessary human touch, explains Cinepolis India CEO Devang Sampat.
Cinepolis India has collaborated with Vista software to ensure that adjacent seats stay unavailable at the time of booking tickets.
Cinepolis, which operates 390 screens in India, has theatres in 18 countries and halls have reopened in many places.
The same model will be introduced in India.
"In terms of global learnings, the two best practices are paperless ticketing and how do we work more with technology and software in place instead of depending on people on-ground," Sampat tells PTI.
"In India, 80 per cent of the tickets are getting booked online in metros. In non-metros, it is still about 40 to 50 per cent. On an average, 50 per cent of people in India come to the box office to book tickets," he adds.
Elaborating, he says the box office will now be completely paperless.
Audiences will be given a barcode scanner link on their mobile phones and will just need to scan it and walk into the hall.
Introducing these security measures will necessarily lead to an increase in operational budgets, but the multiplex honchos are hoping they will also encourage people to get back to the halls.
Gianchandani says PVR has taken several cost reduction steps in day-to-day operations.
But it will take some time for people to be confident enough to be back and a lot of it depends on how soon brand new films start hitting the screens.
"Without doubt, location based entertainment will take some time to go back to pre-COVID levels. We have taken a lot of cost-reduction initiatives to ensure that even with reduced demands, we are able to protect our margins. Once brand new local films in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu start releasing, we believe people will be back," hopes Gianchandani.
Tandon is also pinning hopes on "big, massy movies" like Sooryavanshi, Radhe and '83.
"In our business, we say we are just a blockbuster away to see people inside theatres. There are some movies that have gone to OTT, but that's an aberration... These are tough times for everybody. I feel these five, six months will pass and people will storm back to cinema halls. Watching movies in theatres is in our DNA. It is a social experience," says Tandon.
Quoting industry estimates, Tandon says the cinema theatre business earns about Rs 12,000 crore (Rs 120 billion) per year.
About Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) is lost every month the theatres are shut, he added.
"Exhibition is the main cog in the movie industry. If a movie is not exhibited, everything comes to a standstill," Tandon adds.
Describing the pandemic as an unprecedented crisis, Sampat says it will be hard to recover the money already lost but they now want to get back on track.
"In our business, it's said every time a seat goes empty, it is a perishable good. We have lost the opportunity of earning revenue out of it. It's impossible to recover what we have lost," says Sampat.
"The idea is to now streamline business and get it back on track. Once we get the permission, 80 per cent of our screens will be operational," he adds.