Among all other film industries in India, the footfall in the Tamil Nadu theaters is quite encouraging. "To be honest, we never expected the family audiences to visit theaters on the very first day. Whether it's a pandemic or not, the box office fate of any film entirely depends on its content. But from the initial response, we are now super confident that audiences are ready to visit theaters. All they need is the right content," says Ruben of GK Cinemas, a two-screen complex in Chennai.
"We couldn't see people above 50 years in our theaters for this Diwali. But to our surprise, we noticed kids, including a one-year-old baby along with the mother. The audiences who have come during Diwali are not afraid of COVID-19 but that doesn't mean they did not follow any safety measures. They had their masks and sanitized their hands. But they did not have any inhibitions to buy the food and beverages. Our Diwali sales in the F&B section is just like any other day at the box office," explains Rakesh of Vetri Theaters in Chennai.
"Controlling the audiences in the Food and Beverages section wasn't difficult. They were very polite, and maintained social distancing," says Ruben.
"We couldn't see the elite crowd who are passionate about good content. Also, since the colleges are closed, we couldn't see many students. In normal days, students would bunk their classes but now, they don't have any such reason to visit theaters," adds Rakesh.
"I could see the festive mood of the people even during the Diwali purchases. They had stepped out to buy clothes and sweets so I did foresee that we would have a decent crowd in our theater. But the occupancy level was beyond my expectations," says Pathy, who owns Sri Sakthi Cinemas in Mettupalayam.
But the spokesperson of Ram Cinemas say that they could not see many family audiences in their theater, yet the footfall was decent.
All the theater owners say that there has been a drop during the weekdays mainly because the content of the two new films, Santhanam's Biskoth, a comedy entertainer, and Irandam Kuththu, an adult horror comedy, which was below par and panned by the critics. "The weekday collection was not below par. Things are decent so far but we need strong content from the Tamil film industry in the coming days," says Pathy.
The Diwali releases have boosted the confidence of the theater owners. "The future of theatrical business looks bright. We hear that the Central Government would soon increase the maximum allowed audience from 50 to 75 percent from December or January. If the maximum allowed occupancy level is 75 percent, medium and high budget films can release because only in the weekends, we had 100 percent attendance before the pandemic," says Rakesh.
The theater owners, Rubin and Rakesh, say that a few audience members had a valid query on the seating arrangement.
"In the SOPs mentioned, two persons can't sit together in a movie hall. But couples and family audiences have asked us that they came to the theaters in the same car, bike, and even live in the same house so why not sit together?
We explained to them about the guidelines and they were fine for the time being. But in future, we can at least allow two folks to sit together provided they come together. It's difficult to filter out such audiences but we have to figure out a plan."
The occupancy level in small towns and villages is better than the theaters located in cities. The theater owners also say that fans who have seen Suriya's Soorarai Pottru and RJ Balaji-Nayanthara's Mookuthi Amman on OTT platforms have been posting on Twitter that they missed out on the theatrical experience. "I watched Soorarai Pottru on my home theater setup. It was a fantastic film but the makers created it for theaters, and not for OTT, so we all missed the magic of watching it on the big screen with the packed audiences. We can watch films like Putham Pudhu Kaalai (a Tamil anthology on Amazon Prime Video India) on TV, but not films like Soorarai Pottru or Mookuthi Amman," says Rakesh.
"In future, we would have two kinds of films. A section of filmmakers would come up with a unique treatment and content for OTT. For example, films like Aaranya Kaandam would be received well on an OTT platform. Such films wouldn't run in theaters because not all audiences would digest the violence. On the other hand, we would continue to get the mainstream content for the theatrical viewing", adds the theater owner.
To conclude, the two Diwali releases did not yield big money for the theater owners, but they feel that both the films have helped them to understand the fact that audiences are still open to watch films in theaters. "All we need is a good content now," they sign off.