With cinemas having been granted permission to reopen in Maharashtra from 4th November, negotiations between the Multiplex Association of India (MAI) and producers have gained momentum. First things, first. The MAI is engaged in separate negotiations with different producers. While talks have been initiated with Zee Studios on the one hand, the representatives of the multiplexes are also aware that talks with Reliance Entertainment and Yash Raj Films also need to be initiated, if they’ve not not already started. Reliance has Sooryavanshi and 83 to offer cinemas whereas YRF has Bunty Aur Babli 2, Jayesh Bhai Jordaar and Shamshera, to begin with. Zee, of course, is ready to be the first production house to bet and get its new film to the cinemas post-lockdown.

While the exact details of the negotiations are not known, it is common knowledge that producers (and distributors) are fighting for a higher revenue share from the first week onwards, non-payment of VPF and reduction of the theatrical window from eight weeks to, perhaps, two or four weeks. Before getting into the intricacies, it must be understood why producers are demanding what they are demanding. VPF has long been a bone of contention and so it does not need to be dwelt upon. The increase in revenue share is being demanded because these producers have shown solidarity with the cinema platform during the entire seven-month lockdown by not offering their films for premiere on streaming platforms, like many others, and now want their good deed rewarded. The reduction in the theatrical window is sought because there’s no clarity on how many people will show their inclination to come to the cinemas when these new films release. One is talking about inclination in terms of the willingness to risk it out at the cinemas, and not inclination which is connected with the reports of the film. On the other hand, if the MAI is not willing to accede to all or any of the demands, its logic is: a huge amount of money has been invested in digital projection equipment, and abolition of VPF will hit them badly; reducing the theatrical window will affect their business even more adversely; giving a higher share of the net collections to producers will further push multiplexes into the red zone because they have already suffered humongous losses during the lockdown closure.

If inside reports are to be believed, negotiations with Zee Studios are almost final. As a source from Zee, wishing to remain anonymous, remarked, “The entire elephant has come out but the tail is still stuck.” Here’s why the MAI needs to be more sympathetic and giving in its approach.

For one, Zee Studios is the first corporate to agree to release its film, Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari, in cinemas post-lockdown. No producer or corporate has come forward with a concrete release date of his/its film till now but Zee has done that. The MAI needs to laud the move of Zee. After all, Zee is playing a cent per cent blind game because nobody knows whether the audience will come to cinemas in large enough numbers or not. Secondly, if negotiations between Zee and the MAI fail, Zee will be going ahead with the film’s release on 15th November (Sunday) on ZeePlex and, perhaps, single-screen cinemas as well as the non-national multiplex chains. It must be explained here that single-screen cinemas and the smaller multiplex chains (read chains other than PVR, Inox, Cinepolis and Carnival) have shown far more enthusiasm to release Zee’s film starring Diljit Dosanjh and Fatima Sana Shaikh than multiplexes in the sense that they (single-screen cinemas and non-national multiplex chains) are okay with Zee releasing the film on OTT after four weeks of its theatrical release or even simultaneously with theatrical release. Single-screen cinemas have understood that if new content is not on offer, the public won’t come to the cinemas… and if they don’t come to the theatres, the only option left for the cinemas would be to down shutters over again. This fear must also be troubling the multiplex owners but they are putting up a braver front if only so that they don’t have to give the producers and distributors the concessions they are demanding. But the fact remains that if there are no new films to screen (which will happen if the negotiations of the MAI with the various producers do not yield concrete results), the audience won’t go to multiplexes too. Their attraction to cinemas — whether multiplexes or single-screen cinemas — is for the same reason: fresh content.

The same pattern is being observed the world over: cinemas have reopened only to shut down again due to low audience turnout and lack of playing programmes. It may not be any different in India. The MAI should at least learn from the examples of the USA, Europe etc.

Hope, better sense prevails and the industry gets its act together sooner than later. The bottomline is: the public needs to be brought to the cinemas. The carrot for that cannot be anything but new content. And the supply of new films can come from producers and only producers. Multiplexes and single-screen cinemas can offer the best sanitisation and hygiene protocols but what about content? They have to depend upon producers for that, right? So why antagonise them? Agreed, producers also need cinemas to screen their content. But the MAI should not forget that producers have the option of OTT platforms. So does the public. However, do multiplexes have any option? Not really!