Bollywood Movies

Indian cinema’s conundrum: Why theatres are struggling to fill seats

July 10, 20244 Mins Read


Cinema-going in India isn’t quite the ingrained habit it once was. Today, the allure of the big screen is often reserved for major releases, festivals, and holidays when people have more leisure time and disposable income.

A recent report by media consulting firm Ormax reveals that 157 million Indians watched at least one film in a theatre in 2023, resulting in 943 million footfalls at the domestic box office. However, this translates to an average of just six films per theatre-goer annually, with Hindi films drawing particularly low numbers—only three per person. In contrast, Tamil and Telugu films see averages of 8.1 and 9.2, respectively.

High ticket prices, a dearth of mass-market cinema, and a plethora of free home entertainment options are driving Indians away from theatres, experts say.

The seasonal surge and habitual hurdles

“Major releases, festivals, and holidays serve as stronger external triggers, indicating that cinema-going could be more seasonal or event-based,” according to the Ormax report.

It added that while boredom, the need for entertainment, and the desire for social experiences are internal triggers for theatre visits, robust competition from other entertainment options—such as live events, experiential activities, and restaurants—makes cinema-going heavily reliant on these external triggers. The irregularity of theatre visits, coupled with the expense and effort involved compared to free or low-cost alternatives like television or OTT platforms, further diminishes its habitual nature.

“The biggest hindrance to cinema-going emerging as a definitive habit in India, is the sizeable variance in the quality of the movies being created. Uncertainty about the quality of films and the absence of a strong string of films as a given, prevents greater involvement in the activity,” Ormax said.

This uncertainty and lack of consistently strong films discourage regular engagement.

Consistently making films targeted at urban audiences that alienate the majority of the masses is a big reason for most viewers not finding enough reason to go to the movies,” pointed out Akshaye Rathi, a film distributor and exhibitor. “The grave has been dug deeper by making the experience financially inaccessible for many over the past two decades. There is no theatrical infrastructure for people who initially went to single screen cinemas, or content that caters to their sensibilities.”

Regional cinema’s appeal

The contrast in cinema-going habits across different languages remains pronounced in 2024.

Devang Sampat, managing director of Cinepolis India, highlighted the success of regional films in catering to local tastes and traditions, which drives higher engagement. “Apart from the stars and spectacle, it is also the substance which is driving footfalls for regional cinema,” he said, citing the reason for the success of films such as Manjummel Boys, Aavesham, Premalu, Hanu Man, Tillu Square, Aranmanai 4, Maharaja, Kalki, and others.

Historically, the cinema-going habit has been extremely strong in southern India compared to other parts of the country, and this has continued post-pandemic, Sampat said, noting that the unpredictable nature of movie content affects theatre attendance.

Not every release appeals to all audience segments, “Lack of blockbuster movies with A-list star cast also impacts footfalls and that’s evident from a low footfall period in the first half of this year,” he said.

The southern film industry’s higher investment in local stars and content tailored to regional tastes has kept its theatres bustling, while Bollywood grapples with connecting to its diverse audience.

As India’s cinema landscape evolves, the challenge remains for Bollywood to create compelling, mass-appeal content that draws audiences back to the theatres, while the success of regional cinema offers a blueprint for engaging a dedicated and enthusiastic viewer base.

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