With Theatres Shut, Drive-Ins Across India See A Surge In Popularity

People are shelling out as much as Rs 1,200 to watch or rewatch old Bollywood and Hollywood films from the safety of their cars. But how viable is this business model?
With Theatres Shut, Drive-Ins Across India See A Surge In Popularity

Would you pay Rs 1,200 to watch Sean Penn's Into The Wild (2007) on the big screen? Last Friday, more than 50 people did just that at a drive-in event organized by the Sunset Cinema Club in Gurgaon. Audience members wore masks, underwent temperature checks at the entrance and then drove into specially allotted slots 10 feet from the car ahead of them and 6 feet from the car alongside. They brought their own snacks and, unlike screenings held in pre-Covid times, were not handed a pair of wireless earphones. Instead, they flipped to a designated radio station that played the film's audio.

Since August 1, the company has been screening a mix of older Bollywood and Hollywood movies like Jab We Met (2007), Hera Pheri (2000) and Pretty Woman (1990) thrice a week (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) in and around Delhi. Tickets are capped at Rs 1,200 per car, irrespective of whether it has one or four passengers. "The response has been fantastic. Everyone wants to go out and watch a movie over the weekend and now that theatres are shut, this is a completely safe and contactless alternative," says marketing manager Shivangini Bathla. "People aren't thinking twice about it." The initial few shows, which restricted entry to just 30 cars, sold out quickly, prompting organisers to increase the capacity to 70.

She estimates that of the 26 shows held so far, 90% have been completely sold out. Next month, the company, which began hosting drive-in screenings in 2018, plans to resume shows in Bangalore. (Jab We Met and A Star Is Born are scheduled for the first weekend). How do bookings compare to a non-pandemic year? "They're actually slightly better," she says.

Abhijit Shah, co-founder of Under The Stars, has a similar story. The company, which has been hosting drive-in screenings in and around Bangalore since 2017, has seen a 300% increase in queries regarding private shows since the lockdown started. It resumed operations after September 21, in accordance with the Ministry of Home Affair's Unlock 4 guidelines that permit the functioning of open-air theatres. Since then, it's held two private screenings of Bollywood classics like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and has three more booked. Its ground rules for functioning during a pandemic include telling audience members to bring their own food and asking them not to step outside their cars, spaced 8 feet apart, unless absolutely necessary.

"We're waiting till the end of October to resume public events because the Covid situation in Bangalore is getting worse by the day. Private and corporate events are such that everyone knows each other and while we still conduct temperature checks and take precautions, there's already that level of accountability," he says. In the meantime, he's been asked to consult on setting up drive-ins in cities such as Raipur.

A recent screening organised by Under The Stars in Bangalore.
A recent screening organised by Under The Stars in Bangalore.

Does the increasing popularity of drive-ins make them a viable alternative to theatres for the foreseeable future? According to recent reports, Carnival Cinemas plans to set up three in Bangalore, Mumbai and Kochi sometime in the next two months, while PVR plans to develop one in Mumbai. Not everyone views it as a financially viable model, however. Despite the increased interest, Under The Stars has had to slash its rates in half. The cost of a screening for a group that has its own property, like an apartment complex parking lot or amphitheatre, is now Rs 20,000, a sharp drop from its former price. "Earlier, we never used to do these kinds of events for less than Rs 40,000," says Shah. "But considering how things are, we decided to take a pay cut because we wanted to get back into the game."

Restrictions on the number of tickets sold now also means that a company must host multiple events in order to break even, explains Krtika Tater, senior account manager, SteppinOut. "There are venue costs, screening costs, the costs of sound and technology, movie licensing, marketing, food delivery, the ticketing technology, getting a whole contactless system in place. It adds up, especially when you're holding an event on such a sensitive scale." The company hosted five screenings of films such as Grease (1978), English Vinglish (2012) and Shrek (2001) in Bangalore this July before curfews were imposed in the city. It maintained its cap of 20 cars a show but gradually increased its ticket prices from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500 per car. Next month, the company plans to resume screenings in Bangalore and also expand to Delhi and Hyderabad.

Expansion is also on the cards for the Sunset Cinema Club, which will start screenings at Bangalore's Manpho Convention Center and Kochi's Le Meridien next month. The company is also in talks to set up a drive-in in Mumbai. "People are looking for a reason to get out and it's necessary for us to give them that," says Tater.

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