Onam is just a fortnight away and the theaters are still shut down, making the audience nostalgically recall the festive season when the theaters were bustling with crowds. Even though other industries and businesses are slowly opening up after a pandemic induced lull, the cinema halls are unlikely to open anytime soon. The Malayalam cinema industry would be missing another Onam season when the latest movies would have made the cash registers ring at the box office. The theater business has nosedived to such levels that the owners are uncertain about when its doors would be opened again.
It is for the second consecutive year that the box office has witnessed zero releases during the Onam season. The state government too hasn’t taken any decision regarding the opening of the theaters. Meanwhile, theater owners vow to strictly follow the pandemic protocols if they are allowed to screen films. They have already requested the government to give the nod for at least four screenings a day.
It’s been ages since the audience has been eagerly waiting for the release of many mega movies including Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham which stars super star Mohanlal in the lead role. The list of the movies that are waiting to be released is pretty long. Besides, the filming of many movies has been stalled due to the restrictions and lockdown. Experts and analysts say that an investment of at least Rs 600 crore has been frozen as a result of this uncertainty. It is not just the producers who are dragged into financial trouble, but around 20,000 cinema workers including theater employees stare at loss of job and income.
The Film Exhibitors United Organization of Kerala demands a special financial package to aid them in the reopening of the theaters. They have requested the government to give the theater employees priority in Covid-19 vaccination and to completely waive the entertainment tax. Moreover, they want the fixed electricity charge to be avoided from March to December.
The sunny Onam season of 2019 September was a time of joy and festivities as Keralites were recovering from another fierce monsoon that had wreaked havoc. Theaters, shopping centers and market places were teeming with crowds who were just eager to breath in the spring air.
Mohanlal starrer Ittymani Made in China, Love Action Drama starring Nivin Pauly and Nayanthara in the lead roles, Prithviraj’s Brother’s Day and Finals in which Rajisha shined as a champion cyclist were the Onam releases of 2019. Even though the 2018 Onam season was washed away in the historic deluge, the next year proved to be lucky for the cinema industry. More than the failure or success at the box office, these movies brought together families and communities and they were treated to some amazing films. However, those jocund times were short lived as the entire world was jeopardized by an invisible virus.
Lights turned off
It is a fact that Covid-19 had inflicted greater loss on the cinema industry than the floods did. Not just Onam, the year 2020 hardly had any celebrations or festivities. The theaters in Kerala were shut down as the number of Covid-19 cases began showing an upward trend. However, many believed it to be a temporary phenomenon and hoped that the theaters would be reopened in a few months. The pandemic has since been playing the role of an unsavory villain who refuses to leave the stage. Even though the theaters were reopened for a brief period in January this year, audience was allowed to occupy only 50% of seating capacity. To the joy of both film workers and audience, the second show too was allowed by the government. However, the theaters were asked to shut down again as Kerala was battered by the second wave of infections. The theaters were opened for two and a half months in the last 15 months of lockdown and only a handful of movies were released during that time.
The theaters generate zero revenue as there aren’t any screenings. But, the owners say that there are expenses to be met. Around Rs 4.20 crore has been spent by the theater owners every month for maintenance works and as salaries. There are more than 280 theaters and around 850 screens in Kerala. Each theater requires about Rs 1.5 lakh per month for maintenance. The generator, air conditioner, motor and projector have to be operated at least on alternate days to maintain them properly.
On top of these, the owners are burdened with the electricity fixed charge too. Even though the theater owners have been appealing to avoid the fixed charges since ages, the government has given a waiver only for the month of May. Depending up on the size of the theater complex, the electricity fixed charge would range between Rs 25,000 and 70,000. This amount has to be strictly paid by the theater owners, even if the devices aren’t used at all.
The owners say that they are forced to pay the building tax even after readily agreeing to shut down the theaters following the government order. However, it looks like the government has abandoned the theater owners when it came to allowing waiver to the building tax. The government has announced a waiver; but the local governing bodies say that they can’t do anything unless the government issues an order. But more than the electricity bills and the building tax, what bothers the theater owners the most is the repayment of bank loans. Many of them had availed huge amounts as bank loans to renovate the theaters, before the pandemic destroyed their dreams.
The seats and the sound system were renovated so that the audience could enjoy an amazing cinematic experience. Meanwhile, some single screen owners had transformed their theaters into multi screen complexes. A theater in Kattakada has up to seven screens. Covid struck and the theaters were ordered to shut down even though many of them had undergone a modern and attractive makeover. Many owners are staring at attachment of property by the banks as they struggle to repay the loans.
Around 405 new titles have been registered between 2020 January and April this year. Meanwhile, 163 movies are ready to be released after completing the censoring. Among them 116 films were censored last year while the censoring of 47 movies was done this year. But, only less than 40 movies were released within a year. Among them only a handful of films were financially lucrative. The first phase of the lockdown that began in March last year had landed a severe blow on the cinema industry. Ten months later, the theaters were reopened on 13 January amid much fanfare and excitement. Only 29 films were released during this time. However, the deadly second wave of the pandemic had pulled down the shutters of the theaters once again.