For the longest time, Bollywood has thrived on happy endings. There is always that hero who is immune to bullets, that soldier who is so empowered by his love for the country that he is able to dodge grenades and those lovers whom even a running train cannot stop. But today, amidst this carnage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bollywood stares at devastation. While almost every industry in the world has been hit by COVID-19, there are few who’ve lost the amount of money that the Hindi film industry has. While conservative estimates put the loss at Rs 850 – Rs 900 crores, the number could be as high as Rs 2000 crores. All the biggest films of the past two years have seen their release dates pushed indefinitely, be it Sooryavanshi, ’83, Thalaivi, Satyameva Jayate or Gangubai Kathiawadi. Then there is the ever-in-production Brahmastra. Takht doesn’t seem like it’s happening anytime soon and word around town is that The Immortal Ashwatthama starring Vicky Kaushal and Sara Ali Khan is put on hold. Take Sooryavanshi, for instance. It was made on a budget of around Rs 125 crores and the interest accrued on this every month would be decapitating. When theatres opened late last year, following the nationwide lockdowns, the Southern film industries rushed to release their movies which did make some solid bucks. The Hindi film industry was still testing waters and the only big movies that have released in theatres this year are Roohi and Mumbai Saga. Both have done minimal business which would not have been the case in normal times. In a panic, many studios decided to skip the theatrical window and head straight to OTT. While this may have worked well for small films, it has definitely led to a loss for big movies like Laxxmi and Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai. Cinema chains had even put out a call urging producers to refrain from taking that route.
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“The global Coronavirus pandemic has seen the cinema sector suffer massive financial losses, with thousands of screens countrywide forced to close down, and many employees, not just of cinemas, but even their supply chains and other stakeholders, facing personal hardship. The situation is truly unprecedented and unparalleled,” Kamal Gainchandani, CEO of PVR Cinemas had said in a statement. “To this end, we urge all studios, producers, artists and other content creators to kindly respect the exclusive theatrical window, which has been a time-tested industry practice, agreed to by all stakeholders, not just in India, but even globally, for several decades,” he had added. For now, Gianchandani can rest easy because it appears that the biggies have heeded his call. Makers of Sooryavanshi, Thalaivi, ’83, Gangubai Kathiawadi and others have refused to go the OTT way. There were rumours that Akshay Kumar’s Bell Bottom would head to OTT but in what has come as welcome news to the theatre owners, the film will release on the big screens on July 27 this year. However, it’s not just the accruing interest that has led to financial grief. The new COVID-19 protocols call for new measures to be set in place and the lockdowns have caused sets to be built, broken and rebuilt again. Boney Kapoor will be spending around Rs 7 crores to rebuild the Maidaan sets – it has already been built twice and broken both times. With the second wave of the virus in full swing, the lead actors of many projects have tested positive for COVID-19 leading to a shutdown. This causes further delays. The Hollywood Reporter quotes a study by Ernst and Young which projects a grim picture for the movie business in 2021. According to the consultants, the entertainment business (film, digital, TV, music, print, animation and gaming) saw a “loss of 24 percent in 2020 to $18.7 billion (1.38 trillion rupees) compared to $24.7 billion (1.82 trillion rupees) in 2019″. This means that all the revenue gained since 2017 has vanished. Livemint reports that the March quarter in 2021 saw box office earnings of barely Rs 50 crore – that is how much even the most dismal of Bollywood films used to make pre-COVID. Compare this to the March quarter last year when Bollywood made around Rs 1500 crore and the reality seems even darker. Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema told Livemint that the first lockdown led to a closure of 1,500 screens in India and the second wave would definitely lead to more closures. “Many other theatre owners are desperate to exit the business, and I don’t see the box office catching up anytime soon,” says Mohan.
However, despite all this sorrow, industry insiders are more optimistic than trade pundits. “It’s difficult to recuperate after the losses sustained in 2020. A loss is a loss and I don’t think we can make up for those losses. Our only hope is that we open as soon as possible and that there is no third wave of the coronavirus. There is, of course, talk of a third wave but I think that can be minimised if the nation-wide vaccination program really becomes aggressive. It’s not even at the brink of where it should be. We are vaccinating very few people. We’ve seen examples from the US, UK, Israel and many parts of Europe. It’s the only way to ensure that the impact of any other wave is minimised. I’d estimate that we will open now by the end of June because numbers are going down. I hope we’re able to get films and people start going back to the cinemas….. It’s going to be a slow burn but I think we’ll get there because the fundamentals of the business are very strong. The need to go out and watch cinemas is very strong,” Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director of PVR Limited told Filmfare and added that this pandemic was a “blip”.
“This is a 140-year-old industry and it has seen disruptions in technology coming from DVDs and television and OTT. It has seen disruptions coming from wars and past pandemics but it always bounces back because there is that social need for humans to go out with friends and family to watch a movie in a darkened theatre and share that experience with everyone else. It is still the cheapest form of entertainment in India. It’s a holistic form of family entertainment. This is a blip and this blip is only because of a pandemic nobody had foreseen,” he told the film magazine.
But with the entertainment industry facing a loss as high as Rs 4000 crores (by some estimates) and the exhibitors themselves facing a loss of Rs 1500 crores, is this pandemic really a blip? Will the release of these upcoming big films lead to a rush of money at the Box Office? Only time will tell.