The big picture for Bollywood 50 days after demonetisation: single-screen cinemas in smaller cities and towns have suffered the worst, while multiplexes have escaped the brunt of the government’s November 8 decision because of pre-existing online booking facilities.

The devil is in the details of this big picture. The larger truth, say distributors, is that Hindi films are not attracting the kind of footfalls they used to even before the Narendra Modi government decided to remove Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes out of circulation.

“Demonetisation had a definite effect on collections, but not to the extent that the industry is saying,” said Aditya Chowksey, domestic distribution head for Reliance Entertainment. “The problem was mainly at the single screens, but the fact also is that we have had the worst quality films in recent years. Even without demonetisation, the public would not have come to watch anyway.”

The massive success of the December 23 release Dangal, starring Aamir Khan, is being cited as proof that the worst effects of demonetisation have passed. Dangal saw over Rs 245 crore in gross collections in India until December 29. Other films that were released after November 8 had mixed results. Rock On 2, which was released on November 11, cratered; the November 25 release Dear Zindagi collected over Rs 64 crore, while Befikre, which opened on December 9, earned over Rs 54 crore.

Rock On 2 was a non-starter because of the tepid response to its trailer, soundtrack and subject; Dear Zindagi targetted metro viewers; Befikre declared itself to be a bold and uninhibited take on the romcom, thereby cutting out family audiences.

Single screens bear the brunt

The impact of demonetisation continues to be felt more at single screen cinemas, said Amit Sharma, Managing Director of the multiplex chain Miraj Entertainment. “We had online booking facilities available at multiplex chains in the major cities from April itself, so it wasn’t like we put these facilities in after demonetisation,” Sharma said. “While online booking has jumped from 25%-30% to 50% at my properties, at the tier-III cities, say Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh or Pathankot in Jammu, some people don’t have bank accounts, let alone credit cards.”

The situation has been improving, Sharma said, but the truth is that movies are not essential consumer goods. “Our business is content driven, and if you don’t make good content, even people with a chunk of money will not help the film grow,” he said.

There have been major beneficiaries of demonetisation, such as the leading booking portal BookMyShow. “While it would be tough to share the exact figures, there has been a definite increase in transactions on BookMyShow,” said Ashish Saksena, the company’s Chief Operating Officer. “Our MyWallet usage has seen a year-on-year increase of 400%, which is a strong indicator of how positively users are already accepting and taking to online transactions.”

For single screen cinemas and multiplex chains outside the metros, moving to online and cashless transactions now seems inevitable. BookMyShow acclaims to have contributed to over one-third of Dangal’s overall India collection.

“The top 10 cities, which include the metros and the mini-metros, are already digitally savvy and they continue to book their tickets online, unfazed by the demonetisation of currency,” Saksena said. “Their purchases are dependent on the content. However, outside of these cities, the next 30-40 cities have shown significant growth in online bookings. These cities are majorly in South India and in regions such as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.”

The real villain?

Demonetisation is a blip for Bollywood, which is battling far bigger challenges, said Chowkey and Sharma. Piracy remains a very real threat; there aren’t enough cinemas to generate further business; the nationwide slowdown in real estate means that the construction of the malls that usually house multiplexes isn’t taking place at the expected pace.

The biggest villain is the slow decline of the mass entertainer, whose appeal cuts across age and income groups. The one-size-fits-all movie, such as Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan and Dangal, is indeed becoming a rarity in Hindi cinema, which has embraced the midstream production that appeals more to urban and Westernised audiences than the residents of smaller cities and towns.

“In the last decade or so, we have begun to believe that masala films do not work, but how then do you explain the success of Heropanti, Baahubali and Baaghi?” Chowksey said. “It’s great that we have films like Neerja and Pink, but we need the writers to be also able to make mass entertainers like Baaghi.”

Single screen cinemas, which have lower ticket rates, are starved for such mass entertainers that can cater to the ordinary viewer who is less concerned with aesthetics and more with having a good time, added Chowksey, who is also a booking agent for over 150 cinemas in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. “Even this so-called multiplex audience is a myth – they exist in smaller cities too, and what runs in Jagdalpur will also do well in a multiplex in a suburb in Mumbai.”

Amit Sharma compared the movie-going habit to eating out at restaurants. “This is a consumption story – if you like to eat out, you will keep doing so,” he said. “The bigger threat to our business is piracy, and unless the government takes action, there is nothing we can do to stop a film from being pirated three days after its release. It’s all very well to run a no-smoking advisory, but how about running an anti-piracy message before the start of a film?”

In 2017, Hollywood and dubbed regional films are likely to register bigger numbers, while Bollywood will stagnate, Sharma predicted. “In 2017, English consumption will increase hugely – at the Miraj chain alone, 25-30% of the business comes from Hollywood, and I won’t be surprised if it becomes 30-40%,” he said.

Single screen cinemas will eventually shrug off the currency shortage and encourage cashless transactions – Saksena is seeing a move in this direction in tier-II and tier-III markets with a higher dependence on smartphones and improved bandwidth. The spirit will always be willing as far as movies are concerned, but what when the flesh is weak?