Roman Polanski, the Oscar winning director of films like The Pianist (2002) had once said, “Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater”.

At at time when the entire pursuit of the theater owners is to override the experience of watching a film with the experience of being in a film theater, one struggles to determine whether Polanski’s statement makes the situation ironical or sad.

There can’t, obviously, be any complaints against film theaters getting swankier by the day; the projection and sound technologies improving by leaps and bounds and multiplexes becoming a picnic spot for entire families on weekends. But sadly enough, the phenomenon is forcibly packing the experience of watching films into a shopping bag!
One would think that we are digressing from the subject – of the fight for survival of single-screen theaters in Ahmedabad (as in the rest of the world), but it would require only a moment of lateral thinking to arrive at the conclusion that how unlike the present day corporate giants who are entering the business of film exhibition, the owners of single-screen theaters were basically cinema enthusiasts and the business of exhibition was their method of staying close to their passion even at work.

But today, cinema exhibition has become a part of the real estate business!

A theater / multiplex today is basically one, just one, of the many avenues for earning the maximum revenue from land and the construction thereon. What doesn’t hurt the cause of multiplex builders is the tax concession that such projects get from the government of Gujarat. As funny as it may sound, multiplexes were given a 5-year tax holiday as a part of boosting tourism in the state! So, the next time you see a multiplex being built around your place around SG Highway, be sure that it is being constructed for cine-goers of other states!

On the positive side, the new opportunities for builders and corporate houses that are interested in media has ensured that Ahmedabad and indeed the whole of country witnessing a wave of cinema expansion. More screens are being added today than ever before; and at an infinitely faster rate at that.

But the difference, as we had discussed earlier, the previous wave of cinema expansion (right from the early days of cinema in India to the 60s and 70s) and that of now is with regards ownership.

The first wave emerged very early in the history of theatrical film exhibition, before the industry had a chance to consolidate. Although small, loose chain-like groups had developed even then, the majority of cinemas established in this early period were independently owned and run.

But presently, the ownership sky is fast changing colours. Today the theater /  screen ownership is getting increasingly dominated by a handful of players like ADLABS, PVR, INOX, Fun Republic etc. No single-screen theater can ever hope to fight the might of the names mentioned here.

But why can’t both the formats co-exist?

To explain this, let’s first take an example of the corporate world. Suppose you have a product that competes with a similar product of a huge business conglomerate and you try to get it stocked at a small neighbourhood store. Though nothing would happen on paper or for the naked eye to see, chances are that strong arm tactics would be employed by the conglomerate to dissuade the store from keeping your product. The communication to the store from the big group would be simple:”If you keep that one product here, we would no longer be interested in supplying any of the 25 products that we stock at your store. Kindly decide and let us know”. No prizes for guessing which side the store would turn then.

Similarly, to maximise his profits and slowly force competition away, a multiplex can tell a distributor or producer of a film, “if you want to give this film to the single-screen theater across the road too, then we won’t be interested in showing your film in our multiplex. Please decide what suits your interests more, 4 shows daily there or 14 shows of your film daily in our multiplex. Moreover, if you give your films to him, we might not be interested in showing any films of your production house in the future. I hope you understand”.

What makes the odds stack higher against single-screens is the fact that most of the big names in the multiplex business are either already or fast getting into the production and distribution aspects of film-making.

So while earlier they were merely fighting an uphill task of getting good films from production houses (at prices that they can afford), with the advent of a three-in-one entity of producer-distributor-exhibitor, who runs a multiplex chain, single-screens now have virtually no chance of getting any good films on the first day – unless they pay through their nose. Something that they can’t do.

Moreover, single-screen theaters are generally aligned (or stuck) with a singular distributor. Hence the fortunes of the theater depend to a great extent on the fortunes of that distributor. On the other hand, because of excess number of screens, multiplex owners are able to invite and buy films with a range of distributors. In the process, they have also managed to get the right to negotiate on a case-by-case basis (”I want this film. I don’t want that film. I can’t pay so much for this film etc”), something that single-screen theaters don’t have the luxury of. They get the film that their regular distributor supplies.

It is a perfect case of being seized from all sides. Adding to the mountain is limited funds. And hence the present scenario. Where it is fast becoming a question of survival for single-screen theaters.

Roopalee theater, which has now downed its shutters, had reached a stage where it was not in a position to even pay its employees, pay electricity and other charges. And to think of it, Roopalee was one of Ahmedabad’s best theaters for a long, long time. Unfortunately for all, Roopalee would not be the last one to down shutters in Ahmedabad.

The exodus towards multiplexes is a worldwide phenomenon. In India alone, about 1000 new screens would be added in the next couple of years.

Time to turn a leaf:

Have a look at the pictures at the bottom of this and the adjoining pages. The photographs are of Metro theater in Mumbai. It is a single screen theater that was built before India’s independence and was once run directly by MGM (Metro Goldwyn Meyer) studios, Hollywood! Recently, the theater was taken over by ADLABS and re-christened Metro ADLABS. But, as the photographs on these two facing pages tell us, name wasn’t the only thing that the new buyer had changed. Everything from the lounge to the ticket window to the technology, every aspect of the theater was upgraded. No wonder that Metro ADLABS, lying in the middle of VT and Churchgate stations, in the Marine Lines area is still very popular with the audiences.

Admittedly, not every single-screen theater owner would have the money muscle of Reliance ADAG (new owners of ADLABS), but if someone had the gumption to get into a business as risky as film exhibition years ago and then run it all along, there is no reason why that person can’t do that all over again.

If money is a problem, do NOT aim to be a Kingfisher. Realise that SpiceJet too is a good airline and a lot of us like traveling by it. Make small but visible and effective changes first. Things like getting an educated person to man the box-office, provide uniforms to the ushers of the theater and teach them to be polite with the audience. Don’t have Russian Salad sandwiches and pastries but have a clean counter – at least for selling GENUINE mineral water bottles.
And the best method to go about the aforementioned would be to shut down the theater for at least a week, announce that you are going for an upgrade and come back all of the changes and slightly increased ticket rates! Yes, the new rates not only work psychologically in favour of you (”well, if they have changed a few things, so tickets are bound to be a little expensive”, audience would think) but also restrict that part of the audience that walks into a theater for want of a better thing to do and create nuisance inside the hall.

Stand out in the crowd:

Single screen owners should try and ‘take a stand’, which separates their place from others. They can make their theater as the “Ahmedabad’s only theater that plays ONLY English films”, “only theater that has a cell-phone jammer installed”, “only theater that projects digital movies every Sunday”, “only theater that has a complete day marked ONLY FOR WOMEN”, so on and so forth. The idea is to have a USP and then use it to firstly stand out in the crowd, and then to translate it into business revenue. For example, it can tie-up with Femina for the Women’s Only day.
Single screen theaters have lost the battle decisively in the west. But let’s hope it does not happen here; if only for the sake of experiencing the moment when a group of 1000 is  standing together and talking about the ONLY thing that it is there for – watch the film, go home and discuss.


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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