COVID erased 80% of Indian cinema revenue. Can Bollywood return to the big screen?

August 14, 2021, 3:00 AM UTC

For Bollywood—India’s $2.5 billion Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai—the success of a major studio film largely depends on in-theater audiences, which generate the bulk of a movie’s revenue. Bollywood fans say that the industry’s musical melodramas, usually three hours in duration, are best viewed communally—singing, laughing, clapping, and crying alongside others in the cinema.  

Suketu Mehta, author of novel Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, wrote about his love for the in-cinema Bollywood experience for the New York Times. “Why do I love Bollywood movies? To an Indian, that’s like asking why we love our mothers; we don’t have a choice. We were allowed to talk back to the screen, to clap and whistle and jeer, and to throw coins in praise when we were particularly pleased,” unlike moviegoing in other parts of the world, where audiences are largely expected to keep quiet.

But the COVID-19 pandemic’s shutdown of movie theaters and film productions across India has kept cinema-goers at home, shifting entertainment consumption online. Indian cinema revenue plunged to $377 million in 2020, down 80% from the $1.9 billion generated in 2019, according to Kamal Gianchandani, CEO at PVR Pictures, the owner of India’s largest multiplex chain.

The last 18 months have sparked a debate on whether India’s films and audiences will ever return to the big screen—or if Bollywood’s future will be relegated to personal devices. Most industry analysts are hopeful that theater-goers will return, since the traditional Bollywood cinema experience “isn’t possible on mobile or home TV screens,” says Kunal Srivastava, cofounder of the Diorama Film Festival and founder of India Shoots, a film and commercial production company. 

At the same time, the industry can’t put the new digital consumption trends back into the bottle. They are “here to stay and grow,” says Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer at Viacom18 Studios, meaning Bollywood will have to embrace both the big and small screen.

Bollywood against the pandemic 

2020 was a tough year for Bollywood. For most of the year, cinemas were closed. The first release of 2020—Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior—which debuted in theaters in January, raked in $52 million and became the year’s highest-grossing film because of the dearth of cinema releases. The top-grossing Bollywood film in 2019 was Yash Raj Films’ action flick War, starring heartthrob Hrithik Roshan, which made $67 million. In March 2020, the Indian government enforced a two-month national lockdown, but cinemas stayed closed for six months. The government eased restrictions for essential services first; theaters were a lower priority for reopening.

People watch a Bollywood movie as part of a special screening for COVID-19 frontline workers and their families on Oct. 15, 2020.
Amarjeet Kumar Singh—Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The pandemic shut down film production and hit profitability. Some of its most bankable stars including Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, and Katrina Kaif caught COVID-19 (and recovered). The industry’s daily-wage earners, such as its film technicians, makeup artists, background dancers, and junior actors, were among the hardest hit, leading companies like Netflix and superstars like Salman Khan to pledge monetary support amid a lack of government help. 

In all of 2020, Bollywood released only 441 films, compared with the 1,833 releases in 2019. The number of theater-goers, meanwhile, tumbled 73% last year to 39 million, compared to 1.46 billion the year prior. As many as 1,500 single-screen theaters—those that show only one movie at a time—went out of business permanently, leaving 8,000 big screens in the country, says EY’s India 2020 Media and Entertainment report. Multiplex cinemas were also hard hit, but they had an easier time pivoting to alternative ventures like hosting private screenings and live events and implementing new measures like QR-based food ordering.

“A lot of single-screen cinema halls, [which are smaller and] not funded by large corporations, have had to shut shop or sell to larger players. It’s a zero-sum game because you are either open or you are not,” said Siddharth Roy Kapur, founder of Roy Kapur Films and president of the Producers Guild of India. He said many of these single cinema halls folded, unable to pay rent, maintenance costs, and worker wages.

As the first wave of the pandemic receded, the government gave cinemas the green light to open last October, albeit at 50% capacity. Once the first lockdown ended, India saw a “surge of people back in cinemas,” says Srivastava. The rebound renewed the film industry’s faith that theater-goers would return.

Crew members work on a Bollywood film set after the government eased restrictions imposed due to COVID-19.
Sujit Jaiswal—AFP via Getty Images

Streaming shift 

But cinemas’ monthslong closures sent consumers flocking to online entertainment. The pandemic was a “black swan event,” for streaming services,” says Andhare of Viacom18 Studios. “They’ve seen a massive spike in business.”

Users that subscribe to one or more streaming platform in India now total around 40 million customers, a 40% growth since the pandemic began. (This doesn’t include consumers who get content bundled with their data plans, an enormous base of 250 million consumers.) Those figures compare to the 100 million people who watch films in theaters annually, says Ashish Pherwani, media and entertainment partner at consulting firm EY.

Film production houses that lost cinema sales were able to claw back some revenue by selling content to television and streaming platforms like Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon, and Netflix. Production houses doubled their digital rights revenue to $471.8 million last year, according to the same EY report. They “bypassed theatrical releases and [directly] sold around 30 to 40 films to streaming services in the last 18 months. This was the only way to liquidate their investments,” says Komal Nahta, film trade analyst and chief editor at Film Information, a Bollywood trade magazine. 

Sony Pictures India was one major studio that made the streaming jump; it released Gulabo Sitabo, a dramedy starring Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan as a miserly old landlord, on Amazon Prime Video last July. It gave the rights of Dial 100 to Indian streaming platform Zee 5 and plans to release Helmet on another platform in early September, says Sony Pictures India’s managing director, Vivek Krishnani.

Pre-pandemic, this route was unthinkable for most major studios. Before COVID, major studios released their films in cinemas first, then waited around eight to 10 weeks before selling the digital rights to online platforms. Even if studios revert to in-theater premieres as the pandemic eases, they are likely to speed up how quickly films land online, perhaps releasing them digitally as soon as six weeks after they hit the theaters, says Nahta.

Big studios recouped some losses by going digital, but it’s likely to be small-to-medium-size production houses that will benefit from the streaming boom in the long run, industry experts say. Many “small- and medium-budget films will find a stronger uptake on these channels,” says Andhare, since such content ordinarily gets lost among the mega-budgets and star power of larger productions on the big screen. Plus, digital platforms offer smaller studios the added advantage of spending less on marketing and advertising. 

And the demand for digital content is only set to ramp up. Netflix in March announced a roster of 41 titles that it will release in India this year, including films, series, documentaries, comedies, and reality shows. Around 80% of its Indian subscribers watch at least one film per week, a company spokesperson told Fortune.

No place like the cinema

Despite the digital streaming boom, major filmmakers and production houses are determined to revive theatrical releases, since revenue generated from cinema showings is substantial compared with digital releases. In 2019, revenue from cinema releases tallied $1.9 billion from both domestic and international films, whereby broadcast and digital rights accounted for $554 million. Plus, big-budget films are produced with the big-screen experience in mind, says Nahta.

Workers set up a banner of the Bollywood movie “Radhe,” released on May 13.
Noah Seelam—AFP via Getty Images

Even with cinemas open again, many studios are delaying releases, waiting for the government to allow theaters to operate at full capacity. Viacom18 Studios was set to release Laal Singh Chaddha with Aamir Khan—known for his roles in Dangal and 3 Idiots—last Christmas; the movie is now slated for release this December. 

The next major cinema release will be the highly anticipated spy thriller BellBottom starring veteran star Akshay Kumar. Set to hit theaters on Aug. 19, BellBottom will test moviegoers’ appetite for returning to in-person viewing. Producer Deepshikha Deshmukh says, “We hope [the movie’s] release will bring in optimism all around, not just for us, but for the industry as a whole.”

If BellBottom is successful at the box office, more film releases are likely to follow over the next month or two. “It’s a [huge] step to bring our audiences back to cinema halls,” says Deshmukh.

Industry executives are looking to Diwali, India’s festival of lights, which takes place in November, as a marker of a return to normal life. Diwali will be the “big confidence booster [for the Indian public] in terms of going out and having fun,” says Srivastava. “Everyone is sick of consuming content on tablets or phones,” says Andhare. Gianchandani is optimistic that cinema revenues will bounce back by November or December.

Pherwani agrees, but adds the caveat that much will depend on the pandemic’s potential third wave, its severity, and vaccination rates. Nearly 30% of India’s population had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine as of Aug. 12, making it unlikely India will meet its goal of vaccinating its whole adult population by the end of the year. Given the pace of vaccinations, a wholesale Bollywood revival isn’t likely until the spring. “The big production houses…are all working toward this timeline,” says Srivastava.

Given the pipeline of big-budget films waiting to be released, EY predicts that revenue generated from domestic cinema releases will rebound to $1.8 billion in 2023, up from the $1.5 billion recorded in pre-pandemic 2019. But any recovery for the domestic film industry will be driven by both cinemas and streaming services.

As Nahta said, “The show must go on…until another lockdown.”

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