29 January, 2023

The Popcorn Conundrum

Just realised that I have seen 3 movies over the last 3 weeks at theatres. Two were in top class cinema halls in a Tier 2 town and another was a Tier 2 theatre in Chennai. Meanwhile, I have also seen twice as many movies on OTT platforms during the same period. The reason to watch movies at theatres, for most of us Indians, is that it is a cherished family outing as well as to see our favourite matinee idols on the big screen on the opening week / weekend. 

As the movies that I watched were all of top heroes, the theatres had a full audience. Except that during the interval break, not even a third of them came to the F&B area to buy anything. 

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India passed an judgement on 3 Jan. ’23 that Multiplexes & Cinema Theatre Owners had the right to not allow outside food (and beverages) inside the screening areas and that the cinema goers had a choice whether to go or not, and cannot therefore demand to take their own food inside the theatres like how it was 2 decades back. From biryanis to biscuits, fruits to homemade snacks like channa dal & groundnuts, ardent cinema goers carried their own food inside the theatres. Once the show was over, it was a nightmare for the theatre owner to get the auditorium cleaned up before the next show began. 

Enter mid-2000s – the onset of posh Multiplexes across India led by PVR Cinemas and INOX as well as modernisation of screens by standalone theatre owners across India. Around the year 2,000, there were 18,000 screens in India when the country produced over 1,000+ movies pa across 15 languages including foreign-language dubbed movies. By 2019, there were a mere 11,000 screens in India, of which the Multiplex chains had a share of over 2,500. 

Cut to Dec. 2022, there are a mere 8,500 screens of which almost 3,000 are in Multiplexes. 

In 2019, India produced 2,000 movies, running an annual business of over Rs. 30,000 Cr. Hindi  language films accounted for almost 45% while Tamil and Telugu languages made about 300 movies each annually. Post-pandemic, film watching trends have changed tremendously across the world and India is no different. Acc to Q3 FY 22-23 Financials of PVR Cinemas, the occupancy rate has diminished to 29% compared to 36% in the same period in 2019. Tickets prices  have gone up 18% - perhaps keeping inflation in mind. But that’s not the real reason why admissions dropped by a whopping 20% during the said Quarter. 

The reason is the price of Popcorn at theatres! Yes.

For most Indians, watching a movie is a family outing. People plan in advance, get dressed to look their best and travel with glee to watch a movie. Assuming the avg. ticket price pan-India (except Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore) is around Rs. 200 for a decent theatre, the cost per family of 4 is Rs. 800. Add parking charges for 2W/4W and a meal before or after. That would work out to Rs. 1,500- Rs. 2,000 already. Now, if the popcorn at the theatre is going to cost Rs. 100/- per person (usually these are family packs & combos of Rs. 250 and above!), add a beverage or 2 and some more snacks, the food bill is already as much as the movie ticket cost if not more. Most Indians, who were avoiding this madness before the pandemic have completely moved off watching movies in the big screens since 2022 onwards. The numbers speak. 

So why do theatres charge so much for Popcorn and food? Coz, they can never make money & be profitable with such ticket prices, especially if the occupancy rates are so low! 

Ok, Shah Rukh’s Pathaan (2023) has already crossed Rs. 200 Cr in BO collections (in 5 days)  worldwide as I write this; So have 1 or 2 movies each across regional languages, but these are exceptions. Most films of 2022 bombed at the BO. The ones that made headlines were non-Hindi language movies and were (dubbed) releases. 

A theatre needs sustained footfall through the year. 30-40% occupancy during the weekdays and 70% or above over weekends is a theatre owner’s delight. It used to happen until 2015-16. Until Popcorn prices went up! 

Fizzy Coke and Pepsi (with 90% gas & water) and 10% essence have also gone rogue with their sizing & pricing. No one in India wants to drink so much of sugary liquids anyway and in such short duration. To get back audiences to the plexes, we need decent content (of movies). And cheaper F&B, perhaps. One way is to subsidise the food offering; another way is to use them as a bait to get more audience. Afterall, subsidising is a national mantra in India. Sigh. 

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