Will Audiences Go to the Cinemas to Watch Old Films?

The success of initiatives like the recent retrospective of Amitabh Bachchan films suggests repertory cinema could work in India
Will Audiences Go to the Cinemas to Watch Old Films?

In late 2020, when most movie theatres in America were running empty and Warner Bros controversially announced their entire 2021 slate would simultaneously release on HBO Max (their streaming service), director Steven Soderbergh made a suggestion that seemed almost radical at the time. “All these big theatre chains have the ability to turn themselves into repertory cinemas in which they screen films from any period of the last 120 years for audiences who’ve never seen them in a theatre,” he told The Daily Beast. Soderbergh was obviously speaking through his first-world lens, where the process of locating a film’s rights is relatively more transparent than in India, and where film archiving is a more elaborate and concerted effort. However, the recent success of the retrospective of Amitabh Bachchan films, curated by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) and PVR Cinemas, raises the question of whether this is an idea we can explore in India.

In videos circulating on Twitter last week, you can see audience members dancing along with the outsized man on the screen to the song “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” from Don (1978). “The benchmark occupancy for the exhibition industry hovers between 32-35%,” said Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director of PVR Ltd, “and the average occupancy numbers we’re seeing are 63% for Deewar, 58% for Don and 51% for Namak Halaal.” Across 22 cinemas and 19 cities, the numbers make a solid case for exhibiting older films more regularly.

Don's screening in a PVR cinema.
Don's screening in a PVR cinema.

Renowned film archivist and founder of FHF Shivendra Singh Dungarpur first thought of a Bachchan retrospective around June this year. At the time, he had just screened a restored version of G Aravindan’s Thampu (1978) at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. He saw “the success of Thampu where people abroad wanted to take out a Blu-ray for it and companies like Second Run or Criterion were interested” and thought of approaching Bachchan for his “permission”.

Bachchan, who is also the brand ambassador of FHF, had previously trusted Dungarpur with the 35 mm prints of many of his films, which the actor had preserved in an air-conditioned room at his residence. “I figured what better way to pay tribute to him than by putting him on the big screen,” said Dungarpur. He has been asked about how he chose the films, and his response is – “What was available, and what I could put up.” One of the films missing is Zanjeer (1973) and Dungarpur regrets he wasn’t able to include it.

Once he had his chosen films, three months of intense legwork followed, including meetings with producers, trying to convince them about the reason behind the initiative. “Many producers didn’t understand what I was going to do with [the prints],” says Dungarpur, “since most of these films were available on YouTube. They kept asking me why I was interested.”

The next part of this initiative was finding screens. Dungarpur had served with Ajay Bijli, Chairman of PVR Ltd, on the board of Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI). At first, Bijli’s response was he could definitely spare one of his multiplexes for the retrospective to take place. However, Dungarpur wanted to reach audiences in tier-two cities as well. “After all, Mr Bachchan was brought up by these people, he’s been a working class hero, always reflecting the common man,” he said. Ultimately, Dungarpur convinced Bijli to lend him screens in 19 cities, including Raipur, Kanpur and Hyderabad.

While Bachchan: Back to the Beginning might be getting the spotlight, previous re-releases by multiplex chains like PVR and INOX have seen a middling response. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Steve Spielberg’s E.T (1982) were screened earlier this year. The Cameron film had a solid 40-45% occupancy in IMAX screens, but the Spielberg film didn’t do as well, managing only 10-15% occupancy. Rajendra Singh Jyala, Chief Programming Officer at INOX Leisure Ltd, said multiplex chains have been experimenting with old content for a while. Only a couple of months ago, INOX held screenings of Pokiri (2006) around actor Mahesh Babu’s birthday, and got a great response. They did the same for Pawan Kalyan’s Jalsa (2008) and Thammudu (1999). “The first part of the week we had a full house, which is why we had to increase the number of shows. From just one show, we were doing about four-five shows by the end of it,” said Jyala. “Our average occupancy was definitely north of 50%.”

A still from Avatar.
A still from Avatar.

One of the issues that could make producers hesitate to restore prints and convert them into a digital cinema packet (DCP) to screen at multiplexes is the cost of this procedure. “Converting from analogue to digital can be a costly process. Depending on the length of the film, it could cost between Rs. 5-10 lakh,” said Jyala. Finding a print with the required resolution — multiplex screens require the print to be of at least 2k resolution — is another challenge.

Saurabh Devendra Singh, founder of the erstwhile 1018mb (an initiative to help distribution of relatively smaller, experimental films), tried screenings of classics like Pyaasa (1958) and Andaz Apna Apna (1994). Sourcing the rights of the film turned out to be one of the most challenging parts of the process. “Initially, the producers would be hesitant,” said Singh, “but after seeing the screenings we were filling up, some of them would renege the deal.” One of 1018mb’s achievements was giving a second life to Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Angamaly Diaries (2017) by screening it a few months after its underwhelming theatrical run, and bringing the film to audiences outside Kerala.

Around the same time as 1018mb, PVR started an initiative called Vkaao, where audience members could organise their own screenings from a selection of titles. Provided a screening sold enough tickets to meet a minimum cut-off (usually around 30%), the screening would take place. Otherwise it would be cancelled. Ranging from old classics to the latest foreign language films – Vkaao was an interesting initiative to market lesser-known films. For example, the documentary An Insignificant Man (2016) partnered with Vkaao. Unfortunately, the venture never really took off. “We tried with all our might to make it work,” said Bijli. “But I think the whole crowdsourcing effort of the audience to put a screening together was probably too much work on the part of the patrons.”

While Jyala is actively chasing the market of exhibiting old films in his multiplex chain, he isn’t bullish about the concept ever becoming fully mainstream. He said the number of screens in India is still significantly low compared to the number of films being produced every year. “Only in this week, we’re releasing 23 titles. And this doesn’t even include the titles carried over from last week, like Ponniyin Selvan-1, Vikram Vedha and Goodbye,” he pointed out, adding that India has about 10,000 screens (multiplex and single screens combined) which is not enough, considering the number of titles produced. “It’s hard to dedicate one screen to old films in a time like this especially when there is no dearth of new content,” said Jyala. Bijli said that while PVR hopes to look at screening old films, the multiplex chain has to be strategic about it.

Dungarpur is of the belief that repertory cinemas haven’t taken off in India simply because no one has done it yet. “We plan on starting something we’ll call the restored film festival. We’re already preparing to bring Dilip Kumar on screen for his 100th birth anniversary on Dec 11th,” he said. Dungarpur is confident that if presented in the right manner, it would attract younger audiences. He said actors Ananya Panday and Shanaya Kapoor reached out to him for tickets to Satte Pe Satta. “She [Panday] was so moved by the experience,” he says, “she also came for Amar Akbar Anthony, and stayed through all of it.”

“It’s so important to know our heritage, only after we know where we came from will we know where to go,” Dungarpur said, signing off.

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